Arte ≠ Vida expands standard descriptions of “performance art,” revealing how work created by Caribbean, Latino and Latin American artists
CULTURE & MORE: Living the vida arte
BY LOUIS TEMPLADO, STAFF WRITER
The view from below Ernesto Neto's "Leviathan Thot"(LOUIS TEMPLADO)
Most art shows will ask you to ponder deep things: The measure between form and metaphor, say, and their relationship to history, culture and the artistic self. Neo Tropicalia asks you to samba.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT), where it's currently on show, has even provided capes to prance around in and music on headphones to get visitors in the mood. But on a recent visit there was nary a dancing art savant in sight. This is a shame, since the show, organized in-house by chief curator Yuko Hasegawa, is very much worth the shlepp.
The MOT is out of the way in more than one sense (Tokyo Governer Shintaro Ishihara has called it a public financial albatross), but there's a reason for bringing a touch of Brazil to Tokyo's Koto Ward. This is the Japan-Brazil Year of Exchange, and also the centennial year of Japanese immigration to Brazil.
Yet the show is no empty diplomatic exercise. "When Lives Become Form--Contemporary Brazilian Art: 1960-Present," as the show is officially called, runs the gamut from fashion, design and architecture to found art and graffiti, surveyed through the works of 27 artists working in the southern hemisphere's liveliest melting pot. Instead of marking an anniversary, it asks implicitly why Japan, with its material wealth, is in a funk, while Brazil--often working and living with less and until the mid-1980s a military dictatorship--can party.
The answer, according to Hasegawa, has something to do with digestion.
"Antropofagia, that is, cannibalism, was the first declaration of a culture unique to Brazil and continues to be a major influence on present generations," Hasegawa explains, referring to a concept put forward by Oswald de Andrade back in the 1920s. Receive those words in the symbolic sense. For Brazilian artists and musicians in particular, she says. "The aim was not to emulate the strengths of others so much as ingest, digest and otherwise absorb them to make themselves stronger."
Compared to Japan, which tried to inhale postwar American culture whole, Brazilians chewed hard and spit out something new: the Tropicalia movement that this exhibition uses as its springboard.
The dance capes and headphones are actually a recreation of an early 1968 project by Helio Oiticica, who coined the name of the movement and who together with musician Caetano Veloso became its center.
Tropicalia was originally the title of another 1968 installation in Rio de Janeiro. In that piece, visitors walked down a trail of sand through a habitat of tropical trees and parrots, and then through a pair of grass huts to end jarringly at a blaring television set. It was all meant to wake up the visitor's inner barbarian.
That piece has not made it to Tokyo, but there is an angular equivalent: a maze that swallows up visitors, leading them through a succession translucent colored curtains and sound sources until they emerge, dazed, at the exit. There, a museum staffer waits, offering a cup of mango juice. The idea is that art is not a stand-still experience--you slither through it. It rubs against you, fills your ears and in the end, your insides get a shot of color, too. "Being alive is art itself," Hasegawa says, this time borrowing Oiticica's credo.
There is, however, economics to think about. Another thread running through Neo Tropicalia, from the smallest to largest pieces, is the prevalence--or necessity--of everyday objects and found junk on show.
"Acoustic Head," by the Bahia-based artist Marepe, for example, is a "whisper chamber" made from two large wash basins that have been hinged together, with a hole for the head of a listener at one end and a funnel for a speaker at the other. His glass jellyfish, for which an entire aquatically themed room has been created, also come from the marketplace: They're actually cheap vases that have been epoxied together at their bases.
Likewise Beatriz Milhazes' Pop-Art "Mega Box" painting, which isn't a painting on closer inspection, but actually a collage made from dozens of colorful candy wrappers. Could the rest of the artwork be hanging on the artist's body?
The piece-de-resistance is also put together from ready-mades. Hanging down more than 20 meters from the museum's rafters, Ernesto Neto's "Leviathan Thot" looks like immense white stockings, balled at the feet with a stuffing of Styrofoam beads and sand. Beneath them are amoeba-shaped cushions filled with soba husks where visitors can lie down, look and nod off into tropical dreams.
"Brazil is all about hybrids," Hasegawa says. "These artists are working with everyday things, but they're always able to make something new from them and there's always sense of refinement."
This is a show that you'll leave feeling full--and with more than just a gulp of mango juice.
* * *
"When Lives Become Form--Contemporary Brazilian Art: 1960-Present" is on view through Jan. 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo near Kiyosumi-Shirakawa subway station.
Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Mondays (except Nov. 24 and Jan. 12), Nov. 25 and Dec. 28-Jan. 1.
Visit <> or call 03-5245-4111.(IHT/Asahi: November 14,2008)