Coked-up caped crusader: how Hélio Oiticica liberated the art world with drugs, nests and hammocks | Art

In the early hours of 13 March 1973, the artist Hélio Oiticica was at his downtown New York loft, excessive on cocaine, along with his good friend, the film-maker and fellow Brazilian Neville D’Almeida. He reached for the closest factor at hand on which to chop one other line – Weasels Ripped My Flesh, an LP by Frank Zappa & the Moms of Invention – and as he snorted, the artist observed how the specks of powder sprayed out throughout the illustration of a person having his face lacerated. This transgressive interruption to what was already a violent picture appealed to the pair of them, and so they hit on the concept of utilizing the drug as “paint” to deface the photographs of a collection of equally boundary-pushing icons of popular culture.

“We determined to rework it from cocaine to ‘white color’. It was now not cocaine, it was only a color, it was like transubstantiation,” says D’Almeida, now 82, sitting within the backyard of his Rio de Janeiro house.

Oiticica – who died of a stroke, aged 42, in 1980 – and D’Almeida added piles of the drug to the quilt of a Marilyn Monroe biography that includes a portrait of the actor; to a newspaper profile of film-maker Luis Buñuel; and to Yoko Ono’s e-book Grapefruit. These had been in flip photographed and projected on an enormous scale in rooms stuffed with props and loud music. The fiftieth anniversary of what turned the Cosmococa collection – immersive installations, earlier than that fashion of artwork was widespread – is now being celebrated on the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Pictures of Jimi Hendrix adorned with a masks of cocaine will fill the modernist pavilion, and guests will be capable of hearken to the guitarist’s riffs from hammocks. (Whereas 90% of Oiticica’s work was destroyed in a fireplace in 2009, the artist left detailed directions for its staging.)

Hendrix-War, one of Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s Cosmococa installations, at Pinacoteca de São Paulo, 1973.
‘An experimental train of freedom’ … Hendrix-Struggle, considered one of Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s Cosmococa installations, at Pinacoteca de São Paulo, 1973. {Photograph}: Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica.

The establishment’s head of exhibitions Joseph Constable recognises the work may very well be controversial. “I’ve been pondering lots about how individuals are going to reply in the present day, when cocaine has turn into synonymous with hypercapitalist extra,” he says. “However for Oiticica it had a transgressive countercultural high quality, and their use of it within the work was a resistance to the ties of capitalism, to patriarchy, whiteness, heteronormativity.” That Oiticica and D’Almeida had been in search of mind-altering escape is comprehensible given the political hell that Brazil had descended into by the late Sixties – the darkest period of the army dictatorship – when Oiticica was successfully in exile in America.

On the Brazilian sculpture park Inhotim, the place the Cosmococa collection is on everlasting show, the Monroe photographs flicker on and off in a gallery stuffed with a tarpaulin-covered sandy seashore on which dozens of balloons relaxation. Including to this surreal surroundings, the music of Peruvian singer Yma Sumac performs at ear-splitting quantity. To view the Ono photographs, one navigates a gallery of moveable fabric-covered foam, balls, cubes and cones whereas her music performs. Wandering this psychedelic maze is an odd expertise. It’s lo-fi in contrast with the sort of immersive artwork experiences audiences at the moment are used to, however nonetheless disorientating and infrequently claustrophobic. “We had been two skinny, ravenous Brazilians however we needed to do one thing that had by no means been executed earlier than,” D’Almeida says.

Initially they solely dared exhibit the work in Oiticica’s house to invited buddies, together with homeless folks and younger males that Oiticica would decide up on the road. It was an “experimental train of freedom”, the critic Mario Pedrosa, a up to date of Oiticica wrote. “The response was horrible,” D’Almedia says. “Everyone hated it, everyone was pointing their fingers at us as a result of we used cocaine at work, there was a lot false morality round. It took 20 years for it to be proven in a gallery.”

Penetrável Filtro (1972), a mixed media installation in Galerie Lelong, New York.
Penetrável Filtro (1972), a combined media set up in Galerie Lelong, New York. {Photograph}: Michael Bodycomb/Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica.

Oiticica was born to a middle-class bohemian household in Rio de Janeiro in 1937. His father was a photographer; his grandfather had been a dedicated anarchist. At artwork school he joined Grupo Frente, an artist motion based by his trainer Ivan Serpa, alongside Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, who would equally turn into icons of Brazilian artwork. Oiticica’s geometric summary work had been robust in major colors, however he quickly discovered the medium limiting and by the Sixties he and Clark had been experimenting with efficiency and interactive sculpture. “The target is to present the general public the prospect to cease being a spectator, from the skin, and turn into a participant within the artistic exercise,” the artist wrote.

To this finish, Parangolés was a collection of advanced multifaceted capes, impressed by carnival, which the general public may put on as a part of happenings he staged in Rio’s favelas and on the samba college he joined. The venture, he mentioned, served “an important want for de-intellectualization, mental disinhibition, the necessity without spending a dime expression” in artwork. Later, artist Carlos Zilio put it extra succinctly: “The samba conquers the sacrosanct ‘museum’, and the ‘museum’ goes all the way down to the samba courtroom”. He took the capes to New York too, persuading passengers on the subway to strive them on. At Bexhill, recreated variations of the originals might be on present, a transfer Constable feels is more true to the unique ethos of the work. “He was by no means comfy with the white dice, he all the time set about remodeling it, resisting the white partitions. Museums are intrinsically about preservation. If we confirmed the originals they must be secured behind glass and nobody may contact them. It could destroy the performativity of their intention.” As an alternative, guests will be capable of strive them on.

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Oiticica in his studio in Rio de Janeiro in 1965.
Oiticica in his studio in Rio de Janeiro in 1965. Photograph: Claudio Oiticica/Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica

The artist’s stay in the US was enabled by a fellowship he received in 1970, but the timing was fortuitous as Brazil was becoming too dangerous for him. Two years prior, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, with whom Oiticica had spearheaded the Tropicália movement, had been arrested for performing with a flag hung by the artist on their stage. Revolutionary red, it featured the slain body of Manuel Moreira, a favelado known as Horse Face – the first victim of a clandestine group of police officers acting extrajudicially to eliminate criminals, trans people and homeless people. Underneath, Oiticica had printed “be an outlaw, be a hero”. After their release nine months later, both musicians fled to London.

“I have always liked what is forbidden, the life of trickery, which represents the adventure of people who live intensely and immediately because they take risks. These people are so smart. Much of my life has been spent visiting my friends in prison,” Oiticica wrote, but he knew that he didn’t want to join them.

It was the law, though, that forced his eventual return to Brazil in 1978. The New York loft had become an overwhelming art project in itself, Oiticica having built a series of “nests”, as he called them: fabric and wood structures in which he could hide with and from the constant parade of people passing through. While initially working as a translator, with his visa long maxed out and with an aversion to New York’s commercial art world, he turned to drug dealing. One day the doorbell rang and Oiticica, leaning out the window two storeys up, looked down to see a couple of FBI agents staring up at him. A friend of his – a model for Pierre Cardin – had been caught smuggling drugs through John F Kennedy Airport. Did Oiticicia know anything about it? As the cops climbed the stairs, he managed to hide his drugs amid the maze of art installations that now consumed the space. It was a close call but one, with the repression back home lessening, that spurred his return to Brazil, and to get clean.

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