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Magic Square No 5 – de Luxe, Hélio Oiticica, 2000, plaster, Perspex, metal

Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica has had a remarkable career outside Brazil. In 2000 he was much in evidence in the inaugural show at Tate Modern, Century City, where he was represented by elegant, neo-minimalist work of the late 1950s. In 2002 his retrospective at the Whitechapel was based around giant, participatory installations made in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2003, his work was prominent at Beyond Geometry, LACMA’s major survey of minimalist tendencies from the 1940s to the 1970s. In Rio de Janeiro, the city where he was born, and lived all of his life, an arts centre devoted to his work opened a few years ago.

All very impressive for an artist who died in 1980. But in each of these cases, there is a sense that Oiticica’s work had some use beyond any intrinsic value. At the Tate, his neo-concretist work helped shore up an exhibition concept about the globalisation of artistic experiment. At the Whitechapel his installations offered a nostalgic experience, redolent of the un-ironic, excessive and libidinal environments provided by late 1960’s nightclubs. In LA, along with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Matthias Goeritz, Oiticica provided a Latin American dimension to the presentation of minimalist art, a curatorial decision which had, no doubt, as much to do with the demography of southern Californian as any historical connections between him and his contemporaries in New York.

I had seen all of these things, and been intrigued, but not entirely convinced. The neo-concretist sculpture, small scale, tentative and faded by comparison with Judd or Morris, seemed of mainly academic interest. The Whitechapel show went off at half-cock too. I was alone in the galleries and the installations needed to be activated by a noisy crowd, who would take the artist’s category bashing at face value and freak out to the Hendrix soundtrack, swing in the hammocks, play beach football. Unused, empty, these installations were simply eerie and mournful, like the debris-strewn finale of a rock festival. This didn’t seem intentional. It certainly wasn’t Brazil as tropical paradise, more as hangover, comedown, or STD clinic.

But I did want to see more. In Rio this year, I tried the Centro Hélio Oiticica, but it had unexpectedly closed. I went instead to the Museo do Açude, where there is a big, very posthumous (2000) outdoor installation ‘Magic Square No. 5 – de Luxe’. It is one of two museums in Rio occupying houses owned by the Castro Maya family, perhaps the greatest patrons of modern art in Brazil. The better known of the two is the Chácara do Ceu, in the picturesque barrio of Santa Teresa (where until recently you would also have found the equally picturesque Ronnie Biggs). The Museu do Acude is less well publicised, and much harder to get to. Not in Rio proper, it involves a drive up to Alto do Boa Vista, at 1,500ft in the middle of the exceptionally thick and luscious tropical forest, the Mata Atlantica.

Magic Square No 5 de Luxe, Hlio Oiticica, 2000, plaster, Perspex, metal 
Magic Square No 5 – de Luxe, Hélio Oiticica, 2000, plaster, Perspex, metal

The museum is one of a number of spectacular summerhouses built by Rio’s elite at the beginning of the last century. This one is modest, a colonial Portuguese pastiche, preserving the oriental parts of Castro Maya collection.

The Oiticica piece is one of a small collection of outdoor installations at the museum begun in 1999 with Lole de Freitas, Anna Maria Maiolino and Lygia Pape. Finding any of them is a bit of a challenge. They are located on woodland trails around the museum, but the thick vegetation and humidity do a good job of hiding them. The Pape, a sketch of a ruined modern house made of standard building components, seemed already half-consumed by the forest, its panels thick with moss, half buried in dead leaves. But it is from this intriguingly wrecked sculpture that you get a first glimpse of the Oiticica. The colour strikes you first—extremely bright, in tones of yellow, pink, orange and blue more appropriate to Miami Beach than the rainforest—ten big panels of paint, plaster, Perspex, and metal. It’s big—the size of a decent apartment. Each panel is tall, easily twice a man’s height and so arranged that you can’t perceive the whole at once, except from a distance; as an image it keeps changing as you shift position; here a French blue metal grille predominates, there a yellow square cut with holes, over there a bright pink Perspex plane. So completely different is it to the surrounding forest that the piece seems to hover. It is here, in the heat and humidity and abundant nature, that I might abandon my postmodern scepticism and believe in the ability of art to transcend observable reality. Gullar’s 1959 manifesto of neo-concretism makes precisely this demand. If art, he declares, adopts quasi-scientific preoccupations with what can be verified, then the range of expressive possibilities is cut down. What is needed, in other words, is an anti-rational art, freed from practical preoccupations, in which anything is possible. Here, in front of this shimmering, illusory, unlikely piece, I think he might have a point.

This transcendent art is immensely seductive. Much more so, at first glance than the work of Oiticica’s minimalist contemporaries in the USA, with whom he has recently been juxtaposed and compared. Oiticica’s work is baroque, rather than puritan. His surfaces and colours, his sites, at least in this case, speak of pleasures more or less completely denied by the Americans. Minimalism is dryly impressive, but not fun. Visitors appreciate, rather than enjoy it. Here by contrast is an art of extraordinary surfaces that has us—just—believing the impossible.

Nevertheless, I felt vaguely depressed on the way back to the car. Oiticica’s piece seemed already to be so threatened by its surroundings. Already covered in fungus, in five years it will be a dull and slimy ruin. A really otherworldly object, I felt, would resist its surroundings better. Here the growth of algae reminds you of the simple, old-fashioned materials out of which it is made—brick, plaster, paint. With the exception of the Perspex, it is not much different to the 18th-century churches of Ouro Preto or, for that matter, the superficially futuristic, but actually primitive, buildings of Brasília. In Brazil, they do the look of modernity better than anywhere else—but it is rarely more than that, a look.

My unease was heightened by the drive downhill back to the city. Along the way we passed a great favela. The favela, no question, is the future. I reflected on the fact that what we had seen in ‘Magic Square’ might be not much more than a late, futile act of aesthetic resistance on the part of an old elite. The wealthy and powerful of Rio had not much time left up here. The great architect Oscar Niemeyer once built a house, the Casa das Canoas, up in the mountains nearby, but abandoned it after repeated robberies and threats. You can still visit the house, but like the ‘Magic Square’, it’s a monument to a different time when man and nature could be seen to be in some kind of harmony, and when to build a beautiful object in a landscape was to meditate on natural and unchanging values. Rio’s contemporary elite doesn’t want that any longer. They just want to be safe. So what you see in ‘Magic Square’ is a ruin, both physical and ideological—but what a ruin.

Richard J Williams is an art historian at Edinburgh University