In “Memória do Corpo (Memory of the Body)”, a film taken in 1985, a plump and ageing – yet still stunningly sensual – Lygia Clark sits cross-legged on the floor of a Paris living room and fondles plastic bags. Some are filled with air, others with water, yet others with beans. There are also pantyhose stuffed with potatoes that she carefully drapes around her neck, a flashlight she shines over honey-smeared lips and a tube through which she hums.
The Brazilian sculptor Lygia Clark, one of the original Neoconcretists represented in the “Desire for Form: Neoconcretismo and contemporary art from Brazil” on exhibit at the Akademie der Künste, had paused her art career in her 50s and 60s while in Paris to explore the resonances between sculpture and psychotherapy. The objects she presented in the film were to be applied to the human body – more often than not to the bodies of schizophrenics and psychotics – to effect healing through form.
Her idea, along with other signers of the 1959 Neo-Concretist manifesto, was to re-warm the modernist “geometrical art” aesthetic. Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism, Suprematism, all originating from Europe, took a rationalist approach that saw the human as machine. But the Neo-Concretists, rather, saw the work of art as a “’quasi-corpus’, i.e., a being whose reality is not limited to the exterior relations of its elements; a being decomposable for analysis, that only reveals itself upon phenomenological approach.”
The group wanted to diverge from the cold European concept of the ideal of geometric forms and pure design. With this new movement, “so-called geometric forms totally lose the objective character of geometry to turn into vehicles for the imagination.” Participation was key to distinguishing the movement from the earlier European Concretists, and was especially evident in the work of Clark and Hélio Oticica. In the work of Lygia Pape, who had forms “dancing”, and Glauber Rocha, who experimented with film, the sensual side of shape was palpable. And in his re-design of the newspaper Jornal do Brasil, Amilcar de Castro brought the beauty of simplicity of form to “the people”.
But of course the largest participatory work of Neo-Concretist art in Brazilian history was the behemoth architectural project of Brasilia. The 1956-1960 construction of a completely new capital for the country in a central but tragically inconvenient location was headed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa with lofty goals of social integration through aesthetic.
The streamlined concrete forms of the city are indeed breathtaking in scale models and black and white photographs barren of humans. A series of films, however, such as the 1967 “Brasilia, Contradictions of a New City”, shows how the utopian project fell short of its aspirations. Instead of assuaging inequalities, the project rather brought them into stark relief as under-paid blue-collar workers crowded into Cidades Satélites (Satellite Cities) and attested broken promises, iniquity and poverty.
The story of Brasilia, as well as the work of the early Neo-Concretists, is fascinating in the context of Brazilian history. The exhilaration, newness and beauty of the utopian project in the years before the 1964 coup is bittersweet, as the forms are grown-over, co-opted and perhaps misunderstood in the years after. The Neo-Concretist aesthetic was, in fact, not abandoned in those years of dictatorship and unprecedented technological and economical modernization, but it is safe to say that some of the original spirit was lost.
The last part of the AdK exhibit, showing contemporary Brazilian Neo-Concretist art from the 21st century, reads rather cold. Except for the more sensual work of Carla Guagliardi, the contemporary sculptures of spheres, bars, tubes and glass are static and chilly in contrast to their predecessors. Without the warmth of historical context, it seems, they lose the sense of human touch and revert to frozen, inhospitable form.
~Mara Goldwyn, a writer from Berlin.
(Images: Hélio Oiticica, Relevo-espacial, 1959, oil on wood, 120 x 157 x 22.5 cm; Courtesy of Akademie der Künste - Hanseatenweg; Lygia Clark , Bicho, 1960-1963, Aluminium, 25 x 30 cm, Sammlung Márcia & Luiz Chrysostomo, Rio de Janeiro /Foto: Jaime Acioli; Courtesy Associação Cultural "O Mundo de Lygia Clark", Rio de Janeiro; Lygia Pape, Balé Neoconcreto I, 1958 Graphische Darstellung Foto: Paula Pape (1995); Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape; Amilcar de Castro, Ohne Titel, 1964 Stahl, 33 x 45 x 26 cm, Sammlung Márcia & Luiz Chrysostomo, Rio de Janeiro / Foto: Jaime Acioli ; Courtesy Amílcar de Castro/ Licensed by inarts.com; Carla Guagliardi, Verso, 2007 Holz, Ballons, Luft und Zeit, Installationsmass ca. 800 x 800 cm, Foto: Vicente de Mello; Courtesy Carla Guagliardi)