The Tropicália movement, according to Hélio Oiticica

Thesis shows that the person who coined the word tropicália used his writings as the basis for ideas that revolutionized the Brazilian culture in the 1960's

And this is art? A question like this one certainly crossed the minds of many of the people who went to see the exhibition of Rio de Janeiro’s artist Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) in 1965. Oiticica named his show Manifestações ambientais (Environmental manifestations), which included capes, tents and flags. In the following two years, he stepped-up the concept of what he referred to as “environmental program:” he set up a billiard room (1966) and the Tropicália art show (1967), which consisted of a garden with live birds and plants, as well as poem-objects. The word Tropicália was borrowed by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to name the musical movement they were leading. 1968 was the year of Apocalipopótese, which was a sum of the manifestations of other artists. These revolutionary experiences were shown together at a major exhibition held at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, in 1969.

One time, he summarized everything he and the other artists were doing as an “environmental experience (of the senses) at the limit,” or “anti-art par excellence,” which is how he described the parangolé (type of flowing cape). At the time, it seems people did not realize that all those ideas had been stated in detail in Oiticica’s writings. Oiticica supported his ideas while referring to their influences – philosophers, musicians, and other artists. Art historian Paula Priscila Braga has done the same in her doctoral thesis “A trama da terra que treme: multiplicidade em Hélio Oiticica,” (the texture of the earth that trembles: multiplicity in Hélio Oitica) for the doctoral program she attended at FFLCH, USP’s School of Philosophy, Letters and Humanities. She presented her thesis last October, under the guidance of Celso Fernando Favaretto.

Oiticica has what Paula refers to as the multiplicity of artists. The constructivism strategies in his work, she explains, are encompassed in the concept he defined as “the world building the world.” This meaning is identified in the ethical and aesthetic aspects of the propositions as well as in the way his own rationale is constructed. Without sidelining the importance of myth and of the Mangueira (samba school) to the creator of Tropicália, the researcher emphasizes that the “synthesis he creates does not allow itself to focus on a cultural stereotype, as it escapes from delimited spaces and establishes a virtual ‘shelter-world,” where Oiticica finds fragments of the productions of inventors from various places and eras to create his program which goes beyond art.

She draws attention to the importance of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, John Cage, Ezra Pound, the de Campos brothers – Haroldo and Augusto – and Yoko Ono, among others, in the thought structure of the artist. “Invention, a recurrent word in Oiticica’s texts, is precisely this mix of other inventions. In other words, we are leading here with a banal verification: there are countless references to other theoreticians and artists conducting the production and self-criticism of the art produced by Oiticica.” However, she adds, in his texts these references are more than just affinities. “They are a fundamental part of the program in progress, which reaches its peak with the concept of ‘inventor’, the one whose work generates consequences, meaning it allows for the continuity of the invention.”

Paula graduated in painting and got her master’s degree in art history from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the United States. She says that she knew very little about Brazilian art until she graduated, because there were no specific courses in this field at that university – indeed, there were no courses even related to Latin America. In 1999, when working on her master’s degree, she became acquainted with Hélio Oiticica by reading the texts of Guy Brett and Celso Favaretto. Soon thereafter, she read the work of Oiticica himself, and finally, she became personally acquainted with his art after she returned to Brazil. At a seminar on contemporary art coordinated by professors Jonathan Fineberg and Buzz Spector, the main topic of which was art and politics, she took the opportunity of studying what had been produced during Brazil’s military dictatorship. “The ethical aspects of Oiticica’s work, which include propositions focused on behavior to explain the possibility of each person being able to build up a creative existence, impressed me as a type of positive political activism.”

Her interest increased when she came across a reference to Nietzsche’s superman, while reading a book on German expressionist painting by Peter Selz. “The photographs of the parangolé capes that I had seen in the articles written by Brett and in the book written by professor Favaretto were in line with I had read in Nietzsche, but I felt it was not academically correct to chase after a first intuition or base myself on the work of an artist to justify a free association (parangolé cape/superman’s cape).” So she set aside her first intuition and spent some months reading the works of Nietzsche and other texts on Oiticica that were available in the United States. She finally came across a reference to Nietzsche in the book written by Waly Salomão: “Hélio Oiticica: Qual é o parangolé“. “There were Oticica’s words, telling Salomão he considered himself as being the ‘son of Nietzsche and the stepson of Artaud.'”

At that time, Paula was also reading texts on Latin American art written by British and American writers. The fact that these writers stated that Latin American art was guided by a search for identity, as if everything being done on the continent was destined to live an eternal adolescence in the search for a real identity in folklore, in popular manifestations and in the cultural heritage of the colonizers, bothered her. “Nietzsche and Artaud, coupled with the samba schools in a work full of constructivism strictness such as the work of Oiticica, undermined this thesis, and placed Brazilian art as part of universal thought. So I prepared a research proposal for my master’s degree thesis: to track the references to Nietzsche in the art and texts of Oiticica.”

The researcher found more material on Oiticica in Brazil, especially manuscripts that had not been published in the catalogs she was familiar with. “I realized then that, much like Nietzsche and Artaud, other thinkers were constantly being referred to by Oiticica. In fact, his manuscripts have the format of hypertext, way before the advent of the Internet.” He used capital letters to write the proper names of artists and thinkers that were important to him. “This became a common practice in the texts he wrote in the 1970’s. It is all there – Oiticica points to the doors, the paths that are to be followed in the labyrinth. You read the manuscript and you know that MALIÉVITCH is not only the name of the artist but also the suggestion of a pathway.”

According to Paula, it is important to point out that when the artist refers to a book or to a text of any of these inventors, he provides the full reference, including the edition and the page numbers. Thus, the researcher could read the same text in the same edition that had been read by Oiticica, and discover other passages that, although not directly referred to in a text written by the artist, have the same tone as that of another paragraph in the manuscript, the same word choice, or the same printing style of a page or in a neologism coined by Oiticica. “Reading the manuscripts, with the doodles, the italics and the bold letters, was fundamental for doctoral research.”

The manuscripts were put into digital format under the sponsorship of the HO project, which made her work much easier. Paula says that prior to this, she was allowed to keep the documents for a few days only; she would take notes while going through the boxes of the Hélio Oiticica files in Rio de Janeiro. Part of the manuscripts had already been printed and were available on the web when she began her doctorate. The printing of the manuscripts was a partnership between the HO project and Itaú Cultural. At the end of her research, she was able to avail herself of four CDs that contained 8 thousand pages indexed according to key words.

In view of this she believes that the research on the artist is entering a new phase. Researchers will now be able to start “from scratch again” on the basis of the work, because of the existence of a first generation of researchers who became acquainted with the work of Oiticica while it was being created, who met the artist or his friends and who were aware of the publications and the few exhibitions when they were being held. Later on, his legacy was ignored by researchers who dealt with primary sources. “Now the manuscripts have become easily accessible to us, and we have the possibility of preparing well-grounded studies.”

Paula recalls that some texts written by Hélio Oiticica had been published in the press in the 1960’s and 1970’s in newspapers and magazines such as “O Pasquim“, “Presença” and “GAM” and in the column written by Torquato Neto, “Geléia Geral“, published in the Última Hora newspaper. Oiticica’s texts include a number of interviews he had given to art publications and many letters written to friends. Some theoretical texts he had written were published posthumously in exhibition catalogues and in the compilation “Aspiro ao grande labirinto“. But most of the texts are still unpublished and are found on fac-similes. “It is worthwhile to use the fac-similes of the manuscripts even in the case of the texts that have already been published, not only because of the small changes that change the meaning of a paragraph to a great extent, and which I tried to emphasize in the footnotes of my paper (for example, mythical/mystical) but also because the italics and the doodles are significant.”

The researcher states that Oiticica was more concerned about developing thought structures than “works of art.” Therefore, he preferred to talk about anti-art, because “art” was already too close to the work of art-event, the production of works of art for the consumption of the art market. In the text “Experimentar o experimental,” written in 1972, she exemplifies, Oiticica mentions Décio Pignatari to make this very clear: “The view of the structure leads to anti-art and to life; the view of the events leads to art and to a distancing from life.” The event is fleeting, it becomes diluted. The structure impacts life. “Instead of viewing works of art to tell a linear story about the artist’s life, I looked for these thought structures, testing my own conclusions by confronting them to the propositions-works of art,” she explains.

The researcher says that the idea of architecture helps one understand this issue. “I did not attempt to describe the style of a house or a chronological list of the architect’s works. I wanted to describe the kind of life style that house proposes, the reasons for the choice of building materials, the structure that supports the house, the construction techniques, the environmental intelligence of the project. This is extremely important to be able to understand Oiticica.”

Another part of her research which attempted to come closer to the structures so dear to Oiticica was to establish a woven quilt of interlocutors. “I maintained contact with several researchers on Oiticica and each researcher has his or her own specific line of research, but there is a flow of ideas and enthusiasm that flows through the knots of this fabric that was crucial for my research.” These include Celso Favaretto, Beatriz Scigliano Carneiro, Michael Asbury, Suzana Vaz and Gonzalo Aguilar, all of whom Paula brought together in the book “Fios soltos: a arte de Hélio Oiticica” (Loose ends: the art of Hélio Oiticica), to be launched in the first half of the year by the Editora Perspectiva publishing company.