Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium at The Whitney Museum
I went to the Hélio Oiticica exhibit at the Whitney three times this summer, once with a friend, then with a different group of friends, and once again by myself. After the Lygia Pape exhibit at the Met Breuer and gaining more exposure to Latin American modern/political art while studying abroad in Argentina, to say that I was excited about a fellow Brazilian’s artwork exhibit is an understatement. But even that could not have prepared me for Oiticica’s work.
Through his work, I saw Brazil in both a familiar and new light. I saw pieces of myself and my experience thrown in with what was entirely his experience, and I wasn’t expecting just how interactive much of the exhibit was. Several pieces stuck out to me in particular. In one, I was able to listen to someone reading one of the his written pieces in which he mixed Portuguese and English words together in a mostly nonsensical manner. But that flow of the two languages reminded me so much of my mother’s own cut and sewn up language of Mandarin, Portuguese, and English. To hear it from someone else’s mouth was more jarring than from my mother’s mouth, but to hear another speak in broken in Portuguese hit me. I don’t speak Portuguese but most of my family members do and so do most of the Brazilians I know. To think about the way my own brain works when surrounded by Portuguese and then thinking about my mom and then hearing the words Oiticica wrote was just something else.
The other part that particularly struck me were the interactive portions that had sand, rock, water, and metal/wooden structures with cloth draped around it. I was able to make connections to the buildings in favelas in a way my non-Brazilian friends couldn’t. I saw the colors of the cloth as the Brazilian colors. I noticed the contrast between the water, the rocky path, and the sandy exterior. And then I was able to learn about how Oiticica wanted to portray the contradictions which encapsulate Brazil. Foreigners see it as either impoverished, see its warm beaches, or think of the green rainforest/Amazon. So many see the sand and the fun and the exciting, but they don’t see the poverty that underlies it, and they don’t see the massive divide in Brazilian society. But the truth is that they’re right next to one another, they feed into on another. You cannot separate the different pieces of Brazil; you can only pretend, or allow yourself, to be oblivious.
To see how different friends responded to the interactive art pieces was almost even more fascinating. Some wanted to learn more and asked me about the implications and my thoughts. Others just played around in the materials. And I think that adds to Oiticica’s commentary. It’s all part of it. Some people come to see Brazil’s complexity. Others continue to move around the gritty reality. Then, to walk around and experience it by myself and to think about my own perceptions and prejudices and beliefs was enlightening to say the least. The exhibition allowed me to connect more to being Brazilian, but it also made me deal with all of the implications of that identity. It’s an honor, but it’s also a burden. We have to deal with our role in perpetuating inequality, poverty, racism, all of it. We have to grapple with it, as outsiders but more importantly, as insiders. The history and pain and contradictions of Brazil was presented in a way that I had never experienced before. It allowed me a space to talk to my friends about Brazil and being Brazilian, and it helped them to see my second home in a different light (I hope). It was the kind of experience that I hope everyone has experienced or can experience.