Cildo Meireles, Cruzeiro do Sul, 1969-70
Courtesy of the artist
February 11 – April 26, 2009
The MACBA presents the largest exhibition in Spain of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. On the floor, a sea of broken glass, which crackles and crunches underfoot time and time again. Before your eyes, a maze in which there are no walls, only prison bars, fences, curtains, aquariums with translucent fish swimming around, their bones easily visible to the naked eye, mosquito nets, metal stakes and chicken wire… In the middle, a giant ball of crumpled cellophane paper. It is uncommon for the spectator to be able to penetrate Através (Through, 1983-1989), a work that is also a puzzle and which, due to its enormous size, is almost never exhibited. But the public can now stroll through it in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), as a result of the largest international exhibition ever dedicated to the work of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles (Río de Janeiro, 1948), awarded last year with the Velazquez Prize for Visual Arts. This is possible not only because the display presents the biggest collection of “large-scale” works by this pioneer of the installation ever assembled in one setting, but also because it enables the public to review his entire artistic career, from 1967 to the present day, by means of some eighty pieces both large and small: from a “ring bomb” which houses a capsule of compressed gunpowder in its interior, is fitted with a lens and explodes when exposed to sunlight, to the immense 175m2 room that is Através (Through). The exhibition, which was inaugurated last October at the Tate Modern (London) and may be seen in the United States and Canada following its stay in Barcelona, occupies the Museum’s entire second floor as well as the interior of the MACBA Capella.
In the works of Cildo Meireles, space acquires “physical, geometrical, historical, psychological, topological and anthropological” connotations. There is no hierarchy of sizes or scales; or of materials. A minute object can become monumental, while an immense work can turn out to be oppressively limited. Like Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross, 1969-1970), a diminutive wooden cube that encompasses an entire cosmogony, and Através (Through, 1969-1970) which, despite the enormity of its dimensions and the disparity of objects employed in its production, recreates an oppressive enclosure.
“I like to think of art in terms that are not limited to the visual” says the artist, whose works require more than a simple glance. You have to bring touch, hearing and smell into play. As in the 201 balls that form Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975), all seemingly identical but with a difference of 5 grams between every one of them, or more than 700 radios that make up the sculpture Babel (2001), each tuned in to a different station, or the fake smell of gas in Volatile (1980-1994). The huge amount of one particular element in many of his works is also noteworthy, as in the 2,000 bones, the 800,000 coins and the 800 communion wafers in Missão/Missões – Cómo construir catedrales (Mission/Missions – (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987). Another of his relevant features is the way in which many of his works are dated, often over several years.
Meireles once stated: “For me, the artistic object must above all be instantaneously seductive”, and his work is an essential piece in understanding post-war Brazilian artistic avant-garde. Worthy of note among the artists he takes as references are the Neo-concretists Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape who, in the late 1950s rejected the extreme rationalism of abstraction to create more sensorial, participatory work which appealed not only to the mind but also to the body. But the utopian optimism of these artists was shattered following the 1964 coup d’état in Brazil, which paved the way for an iron-fisted military dictatorship. Meireles’ generation came to light towards the end of the 1960s through more politically engaged works, the extremity of their actions mirroring the extreme political situation. “In a certain way you become political when you don’t have the chance to be poetic. I think human beings would much prefer to be poetic”, he says.
Meireles is frequently characterised as being a conceptual artist; a label which completely fails to convince him. “I don’t like to call myself a conceptual artist, though I have a lot of works which border tangentially on conceptual issues and I have formed part of exhibitions of that movement. One of the reasons why this art proves difficult for many is its excessive verbal rhetoric. People don’t like to go to galleries and read explanations”, explains the artist for whom fun plays an important part in his works. As in Volatile (1980-1994) which, though reeking of a danger that hits spectators on entering this darkened, U-shaped room smelling of fake gas, still fails to stop them from enjoying the experience and attempting to move around in that huge mass of talcum powder.