This documentary by award-winning director Gerald Fox, presents an intimate portrait of the artist’s life and work, a story largely told by the artist himself (2008) A pioneer of installation art in the 1960s, Brazilian Cildo Meireles (b.1948) has influenced generations of international artists, yet, surprisingly, his work is little known in Britain. His dramatic and politically charged environments have included maze-like structures built upon shards of broken glass that the visitor must walk across, and rooms filled with ashes and the smell of gas.
Meireles’s generation, emerging in the late 1960s and 1970s, were known for more politically engaged works, the extremity of their actions mirroring the extreme political situation. Meireles himself, however, links these two strands of Brazilian art. ‘In some way you become political when you don’t have a chance to be poetic. I think human beings would much prefer to be poetic’, he explains. As Guy Brett, co-curator of this exhibition, has said, ‘A work by Meireles often starts in a commonplace, usually domestic object, or a childhood memory, which becomes transmuted into a perceptual, philosophical, even a cosmological speculation, without, however, losing its grit, its roots in social reality – a reality often harsh but marked by human resilience and inventiveness.’ Cildo Meireles once named Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds the 20th century’s best artwork. In fact, the groundbreaking Brazilian artist came to the fore in the 1960s with projects that employed the basic tenets of that radical radio broadcast—chiefly, works that were light on material (Meireles liked the term nonobject) and heavy on audience activation and political pathos. Projects such as Insertions into Ideological Circuits (1970), for which he stamped political slogans on money and soda bottles and put them back into general circulation, were pioneering in their clever conceptual heft. Since then, however, his works and installations have become more formally elaborate: Fontes (Fountains) (1992–2008) features a dense forest of 6,000 rulers hanging from the ceiling, all with incorrect markings, alongside thousands of clocks with the wrong numbers on their beguiling faces. A new version of this mysterious work will be installed at Tate Modern this month for the 60-year-old artist’s first UK retrospective. Here, Meireles talks to Modern Painters about using fear as an artistic tool, being politically engaged, and the ineffable influence of Borges on his life and work. You once stated, “Fear is the material of many of my works.” Is this still the case? Like what you see? Sign up for ARTINFO’s weekly newsletter to get the latest on the market, emerging artists, auctions, galleries, museums, and more. I would say that some of my works use fear as a material: fear to look, to see. One’s senses multiply with fear. However, that is not the first goal of my works; it is only one of the materials that I use. The work itself is always changing and evolving. The influence of Borges on your work has often been commented on—for example, in the labyrinthine environment of Através [Through; 1983–89] and in works that are direct responses to his stories. Do his literary works remain a touchstone for you? He’s someone I met when I was almost a teenager, so he has been a part of who I am—part of my constitution— for a long time. I’m not obsessive about his work, but I think he is quite important. His work is very open, and yet he somehow belongs to a country that is very closed. Not geographically—I don’t even think I believe in geography or geopolitics anymore— but closed nonetheless. The accumulation of objects in your works often plays a predominant role, as in the thousands of rulers, clocks, and numbers of 1992’s Fontes, which will be included in your survey at the Tate, and in the enormous stack of matchboxes in your Sermon on the Mount installation from 1979. How did you begin using objects in this way? I think this way of working may have begun with the matchboxes I used in O Sermao da Montanha: Fiat Lux [Sermon on the Mount: Fiat Lux; 1978–79]. At the time, I was staying in a backwoods place in Brazil where there was a very small grocery. In this grocery, there were only matchboxes, hundreds of matchboxes, and in the backroom there was just kerosene, lots of kerosene. So the structure for the piece and my later works was there. In fact, I faced this situation in real life: I only had matchboxes and fear to work with. The exhibition of Sermon on the Mount was canceled for political reasons by Brazil’s military dictatorship several times before it was finally shown in 1979. That work and famous pieces of yours like Insertions into Ideological Circuits directly responded to the political environment. What do you think of political art today? I’ve always had a problem with political art when it becomes proselytizing. Even my political works, I think, are open—their structure is open. They make you deal with artistic, formal positions and questions as much as politics. In terms of making political art, it’s just a matter of getting politically involved or not. Southern Cross 1969–70 ‘Southern Cross was initially conceived as a way of drawing attention, through the issue of scale, to a very important problem, the oversimplification imposed by the proselytising missionaries – essentially the Jesuits – on the cosmogony of the Tupí Indians’, Meireles has explained. ‘The white culture reduced an indigenous divinity to the god of thunder when in reality their system of belief was a much more complex, poetic and concrete matter, emerging through their mediation of their sacred trees, oak and pine. Through the [rubbing together of] these two timbers the divinity would manifest its presence.’ Made from oak and pine, this wooden cube typifies Meireles’s economy of means. He not only evokes a palpable tension in scale between the small work and the potentially vast space of the gallery, but also hints at this tiny cube’s ability to engulf the gallery in flames. Questions of scale are also invoked by the title of the work: the Southern Cross or Crux is the smallest of the constellations. Used in celestial navigation to mark the South, its five brightest stars also appear on the modern Brazilian flag. Meireles has said that he wanted to keep the work ‘as hidden, as condensed as possible, to keep it moving towards physical near-disappearance. . . Initially I wanted it to be much smaller than this; but when I sanded it down to my nails, I lost patience and stopped at 9mm.’ Southern Cross belongs to a body of works which Meireles describes as being characterised by ‘Humiliminimalism’. He explains ‘that is, a small object, an almost nothing, really, a minimalism, that endorsed a character of humility.’ With its 6,000 rulers, 1,000 clocks and 500,000 vinyl numbers, Fontes demonstrates the aesthetic of accumulation which is a feature of many of Meireles’s installations. However, the rulers and clocks undermine their very purpose: the order of their numbers and the spacing of their measurements are illogical, so that the ability of these almost-Readymade objects to measure either time or space is subverted. The structure of Fontes follows the spiral formation of the Milky Way, with the centre of the work most closely hung with rulers, decreasing in density towards the edges. Like the giant cellophane ball in Through, the spiral embodies the infinite, the phenomena of time and space that mankind attempts to limit or measure using the very systems that Meireles subverts in Fontes. In addition to the physical elements in this galaxy of numbers, there is also a soundtrack of different clocks ticking in different rhythms. Just as there are four different clocks, four different systems of numbering the rulers and marking their measurements, so too there are four channels to the soundtrack. Depending on where in the spiral you stand, each of these sounds will be more or less dominant. By introducing sound as an element, Meireles underlines the interrelation of space and time, questioning the different ways in which these can be figured.