The survival of Oiticica
"Subterrânea", texto escrito em estilo de manifesto por Hélio Oiticica, em 1969
Acervo Hélio Oiticica/Reprodução
Curator of the 27th Bienal describes how she helped to organize the artist’s collection, in Project HO, which preserves in the internet part of the work destroyed by fire
We still don’t know what is left of the fire that devastated the house of Hélio Oiticica’s brother, in the Jardim Botânico district, in Rio de Janeiro, where a collection of more than one thousand pieces was kept, among works and archive, as well as the negatives of his father and photographer José Oiticica Filho. What I do know is that I received the news on the morning of October 17th as if it were the news of a death. That is how I realized that, until then, I had related to an artist who was alive.
When Leonilson died in 1993 and a group of friends decided to open, as a matter of urgency, a place that could receive people interested in his work, the Project HO (Hélio Oiticica) was the national reference for an action model to take care of the memory of a Brazilian artist.
With no support from institutions, all of us, intellectuals or artists, would watch the practical victory of the “mutirão ”, one of the most extraordinary characteristics of the Brazilian social organization, this kind of solidarity based on the union of a moral obligation with a minimum of funds, which Antonio Candido immortalized in the lines of "Os Parceiros do Rio Bonito".
Thanks to the sentiment of fighting for a cultural patrimony, Lygia Pape, Waly Salomão and Luciano Figueiredo had managed to take to the world a collection to be deciphered. In fact, when I asked for Pepe’s help, the large retrospective “Hélio Oiticica” had already been presented at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam), the Galerie Nationale do Jeu de Paume (Paris), the Fundació Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona), the Centro de Arte Moderna da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (Lisbon) and was still to be presented at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, in 1994, before landing at the Center which carries the artist’s name in Rio de Janeiro, in 1996.
Therefore, Oiticica had already been internationally acclaimed when Ricardo Ribenboim, executive director of the Instituto Itaú Cultural, thanks to a suggestion of Professor Celso Fernando Favaretto, called me with a research and work proposal that would change my life. Aware of the importance of Oiticica, not only as an artist but also a theorist, his brother Cesar, exactly ten years ago, in September 1999, signed a partnership between the family and the Itaú, in order to preserve the written work of the artist and progressively make it available in a website.
As coordinator of this collection, I was entitled to read and re-read boxes of notebooks and archives, which were taken to Avenida Paulista and stored in the bookcase of small room which became my “nest” until June, 2002.
There, with the help of four young researchers, I prepared the catalogue files that would serve as a source to register the content of each handwritten document, most of them with several versions typed and corrected by the author. The name “Programa Hélio Oiticica” was chosen to create an analogy between the manner in which the artist systematically catalogued the concepts of his “Environmental Program” and the internet browsing, which permitted a labyrinthine, non-linear exploration.
Having received the material out of chronological order, the systematic cataloguing would demand countless time if it were to be entirely read before deciding which categories would be created in the technical filing cards. The method I created for the inventory emerged exactly from this initial chaos. It helped me to be freed from the classification in periods which marks all and any historical narrative.
Working with a file which was still in a raw state, it was possible to immediately dive into the simultaneity of his inventions, in the vital sense of a written work whose originality was due to the motivation of a line of thought which was always in progress. Nevertheless, it was impossible to avoid the requests of national and international exhibitions, which interrupted the work routine, demanding that documents which had not yet been inventoried left the collection.
On the week Ribenboim left, he who lent all of his diplomatic abilities to the services of this project and let me work with maximum freedom to conceive specific software, I received a visit from the curator Mari Carmen Ramírez, to whom I showed what had been done in digital files.
Responsible for Latin American art in the Museum of Fine Arts de Houston (MFAH) – the same which bought great part of the Brazilian constructive and neo-concrete art of the collector Adolpho Leirner, not without giving rise to screams of “loss” at a national level -, Ramírez was surprised by the extent of the initiative.
In December 2006, after five years of researches for the catalogue raisonné of the artist, the MFAH presented the exhibition “Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color”, which would move on to the Tate Modern (London), as the first phase of an effort to systematically catalogue the work of the artist, in a partnership with the Projeto Hélio Oiticica, but already without Lygia Pape and Waly Salomão.
In the symposium of June 2nd, 2007, in London, Mari Carmen Ramirez, also curator and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (EUA), was not present at the opening. Her justification for not opening her own symposium was published in Trópico (read below in Link-se – in Portuguese).
The scenery has changed, if we understand that the archives were also destroyed by the flames. Which shall be the reorganization of a legacy which transcends the manufacture of artistic objects? I have never liked to re-read myself. In the site of the Itaú Cultural, I found a sentence I wrote without a prior notice from destiny: “These documents have been brought to São Paulo to be catalogued, digitalized and treated so that their deterioration is delayed”.
Once the contract ended, as well as the floppy disks which contained far more detailed and complex information than the cataloguing visible on the internet, we delivered hundreds of new boxes, specially manufactured to hold each cleaned document. One by one, the pages of all the "NTBK" (notebooks), left under custody of the Itaú Cultural, were separated by neutral pH pages and recommendations for future restoration. If the material conditions for who loves and studies art were already precarious, the fire opened the doors of fiction for a legion of admirers of the “beyond art” of Oiticica, who, wandering like “savage detectives” of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), shall write texts haunted by a catastrophe.
During my brief trajectory as a Brazilian art researcher, I saw myself stimulating young people to think their own production and take notes, not only of the creative process, but also of the meaning of its insertion in a historical conjuncture. How could I explain the importance of resisting the devouring of the market and the necessity to dedicate, in an occupation that has changed so much from 1960 to date, a time of cultural construction for a distinctive reflection?
I have witnessed very different situations when I studied Iberê Camargo, Mira Schendel, Arthur Bispo do Rosario, Raimundo Colares and, more recently, Flávio de Carvalho, Lina Bo Bardi and Sergio Bernardes. From this minute list, maybe only one of them is resting in peace.