In 1970 Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, encouraged by the receipt of a Guggenheim fellowship and his inclusion in the landmark survey of Conceptual art, 'Information' at MoMA, relocated to New York. It was a move which provoked a shift in his thought and work. Though long fascinated with cinema and antagonistic towards 'spectacular' culture, in New York Oiticica, collaborating with his friend, the filmmaker Neville D'Almeida, began to formulate a complex plan for a series of environmental happenings collectively called 'Cosmococas'. Designed to provide real-life experiences that demanded an imaginative and critical consideration on the part of the participant, these works were 'supra-sensorial', emphasized the body's primacy and sought to defy cultural mechanisms of mediation by activating all of the senses with a disorienting barrage of sound, light, colour, textures, scents, images, and activities. In CC3: Maileryn (1973), for example, the floor is covered by a thick layer of sand sealed with clear vinyl. Yellow and orange balloons are scattered about while electric fans blow from various corners, a soundtrack of Latin music blares and a number of slide projectors toss images of Marilyn Monroe, her features outlined with cocaine, across the walls, ceiling and floors.
Furthering Oiticica's aim of 'pure simultaneity', 'Cosmococas' combined aspects of the Burroughs cut-up (Oiticica's own writings from this time echo Burroughs' in both style and concerns), experimental film a la Warhol and Jack Smith; the leisure-based architecture of Constant's New Babylon; Situationist theory; Beuysian social sculpture; the 'revolutionary power of Rock'; and a Symbolist yearning for escape. Playfully promoting passive rebellion ('Artaud's poetry without blood', wrote Oiticica), CC1: Trashiscapes (1973) provided emery boards so participants could file their fingernails while lying on mattresses leisurely contemplating images of Luis Buñuel. Yet the aggressive, fun-house nature of the installations ultimately belied the dandyish, meditative indolence they seemed to offer. In fact, the loud music, flashing projections and claustrophobic enclosures wrestle the spectator into a senseless submission. Cocooned in a hammock, the subject is no more liberated than the chair-bound spectator at the local multiplex. Have we, in the end, simply swapped brands of mediation: mainstream for marginal, cultural for counter-cultural, cinema for quasi-cinema?
But perhaps this question is unfair. The limitations of art, after all, favour effect over real experience. Oiticica himself viewed 'Cosmococas' as 'propositions', suggestions for changes in thinking and doing that people would hopefully carry further in the outside world. As such, the works were undeniably interesting and the installation at the Wexner seemed a real crowd-pleaser something the artist, who died in 1980, would have enjoyed.
One of the enigmas of Oiticica's New York projects is their introspective nature. His earlier work in Brazil had been directly inspired by his interaction with the people and the environment of the favelas. His 'Penetrables' and 'Parangoles' depended upon the active participation of individuals from all walks of life. They were interventionist in nature and, significantly, took place in public realms: on the street or in the museums. By contrast, 'Cosmococas' are all interior environments, hermetic and removed from the life of the city. Had New York proven to be impenetrable? One wonders why Oiticica stayed. By all accounts his life there was a struggle and at times he existed in dire poverty. After the high point of 'Information' his CV lists no other shows in New York. Granted, Oiticica seemed little interested in perceiving art as a career, but his life would have been easier and more productive back in Brazil, where his reputation was established and he had supporters.
The concern of 'Cosmococas' with alienation was informed, in part, by Oiticica's own alienated state while in New York. Yet he seems to have revelled in his position as an outsider; one of the things that makes 'Cosmococas' compelling is the hint of darkness at their heart. On a certain level they feel like opium dens or sex clubs. While drug use and sex acts are never explicitly outlined in Oiticica's instructions for 'Cosmococas' (Carlos Basualdo refers to 'Idea 8' in one of Oiticica's notebooks, a description for an early, unrealized, project involving 'acts with strong sexual content'), there is evidence that, in life, Oiticica frequently engaged in such behaviour. I question the prevalent hesitancy to investigate these aspects of Oiticica's existence, especially given how he himself saw his life and work as being so inseparable. More than 20 years after his death a bit more disclosure is in order. One need only look at Wayne Koestenbaum's recent book on Andy Warhol to see how enlightening a sensitive and informed reading of an artist's personal life can prove to be.
First published in Issue 64