INTERVIEW WITH GUY BRETT – LONDON – JUNE 1997
By Luiz Camillo Osorio – Published in O Estado de São Paulo newspaper
Translated by Rebecca Atkinson
This interview was given in June 1997 at the former Tate Gallery in London. It was originally published in O Estado de São Paulo newspaper (1997), and was reproduced later in my book Olhar à Margem (2016). This meeting was the first of several, both there and here, which were always very amicable. In 2006, Guy invited me to write about Lygia Pape for the English journal Third Text. I have nothing but thanks for his generosity and especially for his texts, which had such an impact on me and are an eternal model for writing about artworks and the making of art.
Guy Brett kept abreast of developments in Brazilian art from the 1960s on. Through the gallery Signals, he took exhibitions of Sérgio Camargo, Mira Schendel, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica to London. With the precipitated closure of the gallery, the last of these ended up being shown in a bigger space, the Whitechapel Gallery (1969). What is most striking in his texts is how familiar he is with Brazilian art, and his internalized, incarnated understanding of our poetics. Despite living far from our milieu, not living under our sky, his rapport, his elective affinity with our artists and artworks, is remarkable.
What seemed to interest him in Hélio Oiticica’s and Lygia Clark’s work was the way they both strove to integrate art and life, without oversimplifying or reducing them, incorporating the expressiveness of the world and its things into their work. The initial option for kinetic art back in the early 1960s, followed by public art, shows his willingness to think about the new strategies of contemporary art. Realizing that institutional insulation and traditional forms of artistic expression were stultifying modern creativity, he set great store in experimentalism, but without disregarding the autonomy of the form bequeathed by modernism. I hope that from now on, with his passing, a whole new reading of his work as a critic, and later as a sometime curator, can start to be developed with all the rigor and attention that it deserves.
Anyway, let us now turn to the interview, which I offer here as a tribute and a thank you.
Luiz Camillo – Guy Brett, do you think you could tell us about your contact with Brazilian artists in the sixties? How did it come about?
Guy Brett (1)*– Yes, of course. Back then, I was in my early twenties, beginning to write about art. I was friends with the Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, who founded a gallery called Signals. On a trip we made to Paris, we met Sérgio Camargo through a French friend. We went to his studio and we immediately liked his work very much, and him too. We saw his white reliefs in wood, which impressed me greatly; at the time, I was interested in kinetic art, which seemed to be the most modern and bold thing going on in the art scene. Straight away, Sérgio started talking about other Brazilian artists, especially Helio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and Mira Schendel. So the following year, 1965, I went to the São Paulo Biennial as a critic for The Times. There, I met these three artists.
L.C. – It’s curious that Sérgio Camargo, an artist from Rio, knew and liked Mira so much, who was there in São Paulo, unconnected to the Concretists, and with little visibility. What did he say about Mira’s work?
G.B. – In fact back then Mira wasn’t very well known, but Sérgio not only admired her works greatly, but owned some, I think those early paintings. It was at that time that she began to do her graphic pieces and monotypes. Sérgio also spoke of other artists. He was very generous, wasn’t jealous at all, and always spoke very knowledgeably about other works. He was very articulate about the reasons that made him like a work. Another artist I remember he commented about was Milton da Costa.
L.C. – Recently, seeing Mira Schendel’s exhibitions in Rio and São Paulo – the SESI Gallery and Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica – I began to realize that her works evolve in an opposite direction to Lygia Clark’s. Her work sets out from a personal, temporalized experience, then grows out into space, extends outward (like in the Sarrafos [Bars]); but Lygia begins with painting that is spatial, architectural, and ends up with relational objects that are incredibly intimate, therapeutic, temporalized. Perhaps the point of contact between the two is when Mira is doing her Droguinhas and Lygia is doing her Caminhando [Walking]. What do you think about that, and how do you see the relationship between their work?
G.B. – Well, I think there are points at which they converge, but the fundamental basis of Lygia’s work is different, developing from a philosophical position that redefines the notion of expressiveness. Traditionally, expression belongs to the artist and is received and thought about by the viewer. This relationship is transformed in her work, which operates like an “impulse” for the viewer to achieve and gain an awareness of their own expressiveness, their own creativity, their own artistry. That doesn’t happen through any kind of selflessness, any kind of ego-effacement, but I think, paradoxically, it’s the actual strength of her ego that allows her to hand it all over to the viewer. That kind of posture, of philosophical position, doesn’t exist in Mira. Her work doesn’t have that kind of inspiration. But there are points of convergence between the two works. There’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time and I’ve actually written about before(2)*, and that has to do with the presence of the void in both their output, which is an important notion, and one that they also share with other Brazilian artists, like Hélio Oiticica himself. It’s a difficult question to deal with, but I think interest in the void has to do with a desire to go beyond the image, which is seen as conditioning people’s behavior and even their thinking. The idea was to get people away from a stereotypical form of reception, and the void, understood as an open space where people could project their own desires and dreams, allowed for a kind of deconditioning. In fact, what was behind those poetics was a quest for freedom.
L.C. – I’d like to talk now about Hélio Oiticica, more specifically about the relationship between his work and that of some minimalists and post-minimalists, like [Donald] Judd, Robert Smithson, and [Richard] Serra. It seems to me they have the same poetic references – Russian constructivism and Mondrian – and there are some convergences between Hélio’s first phase, his Relêvos Espaciais [Spatial Reliefs] and Bilaterais [Bilaterals], and some minimalist works. But the development of the works is less similar, Hélio’s becoming more intimate, offering a less actual experience than the Americans, who seem to give their works more physicality and presence. What do you think?
G.B. – It’s all going to depend on what you understand by the notion of artwork. I think Hélio’s work is not situated in the realm of the physical object, it’s not limited to that, which is just an invitation to a viewer. It doesn’t matter what the object is, but the way it’s experienced by people: that’s what defines Oiticica’s work. So, you can’t talk of the work, of its making, without including the viewer, without their participation. And that is a feat, a very important achievement of Brazilian art, and it wasn’t so important to American art, it wasn’t so present in the debates about land art. They weren’t concerned about the participant’s relationship, but maintained the traditional meaning of the relationship between viewer and sculpture. I think Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark were going in a different direction, even while admitting that Hélio’s Bólides can be compared with Smithson’s Boxes (Non-Sites); but the orientation is different, the principles are different.
L.C. – Isn’t it that the type of participation is different? For both the minimalists and for Hélio, the presence of the body in the experience of art is central, but in different ways, and thinking about that distinction means thinking about different kinds of participation, doesn’t it?
G.B. – I think the body is important in these works. The perception of the body is pivotal for Hélio, for Lygia, and also for the Americans. What differentiates them, it seems to me, is the type of interest in architecture, in the way the work is built architecturally. For these Brazilian artists, it’s seen as a space where the body lives; they have a more organic understanding of architecture. Lygia, for instance, has a work called a casa é o corpo [The Body is the House]. Now, Hélio’s interests are more to do with light and color, but in the way he deals with the body, there’s an analogy with a kind of envelope, treating it not as a moving pair of eyes, but as a physical-cum-mental unit where all the senses and sensations are important and necessary: smell, sound, weight, color, light. The notion of inhabiting was important, for sure.
L.C. – Thinking about Hélio Oiticica’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1969, which was surely the most talked-about exhibition by a Brazilian artist at the time, what do you, as a European critic and one of the people responsible for that exhibition, have to say today about it today?
G.B. – That exhibition by Hélio was extremely important. It was one of the most radical and thought-provoking exhibitions of the sixties. By then, Whitechapel was basically putting on big exhibitions of young English sculptors – important exhibitions, without doubt, but very different from Hélio’s, far more traditional. So much so that it was very controversial and shocked a lot of people. But even today I meet people who were young artists back then and they talk about the power and impact Hélio’s work had on them. It’s curious how that happens, because despite how radical and interesting the exhibition was, it didn’t make much of a critical impact, it wasn’t absorbed by English artistic circles. It was something completely alien. It called on the participation of the public, and that wasn’t very common. Actually, someone else who did an “interactive” exhibition at that time was the American minimalist artist Robert Morris. That exhibition was held in the Tate Gallery in 1971. He certainly didn’t see and didn’t know about Hélio’s exhibition, but the comparison of the two is relevant. He put together an environment with minimalist forms that people could climb onto and jump from. But after a few days, it was completely wrecked. People’s participation was really violent. And my analysis of this, comparing it with the kind of participation invited by Hélio Oiticica’s exhibition, is that Morris encouraged a type of participation that didn’t envisage any kind of sharing. People interacted with the pieces as isolated individuals. Each individual had their own way of relating to those structures, creating situations of conflict between these individuals, all of them wanting to do the same thing at the same time, without fostering any kind of communion. That contrasts sharply with the exhibition by Hélio, who thought very carefully about these things, about the differences in the individual when it comes to what’s just theirs and what’s everybody’s, about solitary spaces and community ones. For example, the environment Eden was a combination of both, with solitary spaces where you were invited to experience yourself, live your own dreams, and spaces where you lived with others, having to develop interactive, community ties. These are very interesting aspects for establishing terms of comparison between these exhibitions that nobody did at the time. Some time later, an art historian who works at the Tate called Sandy Nairne wrote an essay about these two exhibitions. He writes a bit about these points and it’s very interesting.
L.C. – Turning now to Hélio Oiticica’s and Lygia Clark’s relationship with more recent art, how influential are they? The potential of these works vis-a-vis new horizons of creation seems to me immense, don’t you think?
G.B. – The potential of these works is an interesting point. I think you have two trends in relation to them. One has to do with interest in institutionalizing them, academicizing them, and the other sets about exploring the motivations and possibilities of the works. I think Mondrian can be analyzed the same way. You can either take him back to the romantic tradition, to nineteenth century painting, or you can take him forward, a bit like Hélio wanted to do, interested in the dissemination of his artistic view. In a way, this points to the relationship between art and life, something that so interested Lygia, too. And this relationship is certainly central to contemporary art, and can be addressed in different ways through very different strategies. For example, staying within Brazilian art, we could take the work of Waltércio Caldas, who has always interested me, especially because he seems to me to be developing an opposite poetic, refractory to physical, bodily interaction. But that’s just on the surface; there’s ambiguity there. His work poses a perennial question about the relationship between seeing and living. They are different strategies, but they point to similar questions.
L.C. – To finish, could you talk a bit about contemporary English art?
G.B. – Sociologically speaking, London has become a city that’s more and more complex, more and more cosmopolitan. It’s a very old city and it’s always renewing itself through clashes and blends of different cultures and manifold historical memories. Many things coexist at the same time. And this heterogeneous reality is given very little institutional space; museums like the Tate still have a restricted view of what English art is, and don’t realize the wealth and mobility of this new state of affairs. And this inadequacy of big institutions isn’t just restricted to social aspects; if we walk around the Tate and look at the works from the sixties and seventies, we won’t have access to a good deal of what was done, because there have been lots of fleeting works whose memory and making haven’t received museological treatment. Not that they haven’t been recorded, and not that recording them is pointless. But there’s a failure to attend to the transformations in art and what they demand from a museum.
(1)* – The interview was conducted in English, but the original transcript has been lost, so the words of Guy Brett presented here are a translation back into English of the Portuguese translation of the interview published in Brazil.
(2)* – Guy Brett writes about this, for example, in the text ativando o vazio (activating the void) from the catalogue “No vazio do mundo – Mira Schendel” [In the Void of the World – Mira Schendel], organized by Sonia Salzstein, SESI Art Gallery, São Paulo, 1996, p. 49-61.
Luiz Camillo Osorio