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Rubens Gerchman, detail of album cover Tropicalia or Panis et Cirencis, 1968

In this survey of late-1960s Brazil, the most striking things are the least expected. In a small room are a collection of film fragments focusing on the musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. In one, Veloso is shown in a 1967 television performance. He could scarcely look more nervous, and delivers the stiffest imaginable performance. He can barely hear the band, and sings sharp throughout. His audience are enraptured, but sit in rows, politely applauding.

A second television performance, a year later, is documented through a series of stills and an audio track. This time, Veloso sings ‘E Prohibido Prohibir’ (‘It is Forbidden to Forbid’), commenting sharply on a military regime that was then entering its most repressive phase. He’s greeted by slow handclaps, and the show ends in uproar. Veloso cries: ‘If your politics are as bad as your aesthetics, then we’re done for.’

Two other fragments are worth mentioning: Veloso and Dedé Gadelha on their wedding day in Salvador da Bahia in 1967, at the church, and then the beach, striding arm in arm into the sea, the most improbably good-looking couple; and Gilberto Gil (now Brazil’s minister of culture) in exile in London in 1969, in a few grainy Super 8 images. These fragments are by turns charming, terrifying and impossibly sad. Veloso and Gil are highly charismatic public figures, and their espousal of an idealised democracy is part of their charm. But the context of violence, poverty and racism exposes it as myth.

These documentary fragments are the best things here. Nothing else in this rambling, incoherent and often silly show comes close. The centrepiece is an environment by Hélio Oiticica, whose reputation has grown rapidly since his early death in 1980. It is easy to see why: it’s gonzo art, party-time art, stoned beach-bum art. Not a trace of irony or intellect for the most part, and hence wonderfully saleable. And some of it is pretty good. But some of his early installations are rambling affairs that belong to another time. In ‘Eden’, you take off your shoes and socks and wander around a fake beach, dotted with tents in which you can have various different experiences. It’s like a free festival: you half expect Hawkwind to show up, handing round the acid tabs. The problem is they don’t, and you are returned to the chilly, unforgiving Barbican.

Another participatory work is ‘Roda de Prazer’ (‘Wheel of Pleasure’) by Lygia Pape, a series of ceramic bowls containing brightly coloured fluids, which the visitor is invited to taste by means of droppers. Every one I tried tasted unpleasantly of bubble gum. Lygia Clark is represented by some very nasty wearable art, the nadir of which is a rubber pregnancy suit for men. Unzip the midriff and a fat, pink foetus flops out.

The show’s lack of coherence is partly due to the historical work, varied in both form and quality. But it is also to do with the way it has been curated. It falls between historical survey and themed show; in the end it is neither. There’s not enough order or precision about the history, and the curators rarely achieve a visual spectacle.

Richard Williams is a writer and a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh