by Sue Hubbard
‘All truths,’ the philosopher Alain Badiou writes, as quoted by the psychoanalyst, Adam Philips in his Five Short Talks on Excess, ‘are woven from extreme consequences’ . Philips then goes on to quote the dramatist Mark Ravenhill: “art that isn’t driven by this basic impulse to create an unbalanced view of the world is probably bad or weak.”.‘Extreme consequences’ then, in an artistic context, might be considered to be both a drive and a passion; the very qualities that stimulate artists to make new and iconoclastic work.
Breaking moulds, disturbing structures of thought and established relationships between North and South, the New World and the Old in order to create an ‘unbalanced view of the world’ and discover who we are and what we think are the hallmarks that were brought to the burgeoning Brazilian art scene in the nineteen-fifties and sixties by the Brazilian artist, Lygia Pape (1927-2004). Through their re-reading of, and reaction to European abstraction, a group of young Brazilian artists pushed aside the boundaries of the Old World and colonial art to create an indigenous, pluralistic and democratic body of work. Neo- Concretism (as it was dubbed) is often seen as the beginning of contemporary art in Brazil and Lygia Pape’s oeuvre, with its rich mix of aesthetic, ethical and political ideas helped to form Brazil’s nascent artistic identity. This expansion from Old to New World was not only geographical. The territories that were now being explored and exploited were no longer simply the exotic terrains and lands described by the great nineteenth century travellers and writers but also those closer to home, as the relatively new ‘art’of psychoanalysis was showing. The area of exploration had become not only a physical terrain but the geography of our own psyches and internal worlds. Art was mapping a new relationship between body and mind.
Writing of the Latin American avant-garde novel, the scholar, Vicky Unruh, has suggested that a frequent characteristic has been “the artist’s lament, calling to mind once again the stresses between cosmic aspirations and the pulls of a contingent world.” This dichotomy, this switching between states is also a characteristic of Lygia Pape’s practice and “is linked with her insistence on the freedom to experiment, driven by her rebellious spirit.” 
Pape’s was a utopian project and the truths she wove ‘from extreme consequences’ were a refusal to classify fine art according to its forms of drawing, painting, performance or sculpture. The Neo-Concrete revolution, in tune with the zeitgeist and spirit of the revolutionary mid-20th century, overturned categories and taxonomies. Art stepped from the rarefied gallery to become inclusive, democratic and, by implication, political. Borders between disciplines, between intellect and intuition, between body and mind, male and female, were traversed. Popular culture, political life, film, street theatre; all became ripe for inclusion. For decades Latin America had been synonymous in the European psyche with the chthonic and the primitive, a continent of exotic magical realism. But Latin American artists were not isolated from events in Europe and the US, and geometric abstraction was to provide them with an alternative, vibrant language with which to explore new social and political freedoms. The Brazilian Neo-Concrete movement was not the result of: “deforming anything gleaned from the real world. Our objective was to create from three basic forms: the circle, the square and the triangle.”  These archetypal shapes acted as signifiers for the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, which are the subject of Pape’s Livro da criação (1959), and of time, in her Livro do tempo (1961-63).
Now The Serpentine Gallery has mounted the first major exhibition of Pape’s work to be shown in the UK, Magnetized Space, that brings together an array of known and previously unseen works, including sculpture, performance, paintings, films, poems, engraving and collages, and includes early drawings and poems such as her Neo-Concrete Livros (Books), and performances like Divisor (Divider) and O ovo (The Egg).
The nature of Pape’s trajectory has somewhat defied categorisation. She has talked of her work as being circular rather than having stages. There is an almost Japanese economy of form about the Desenhos (Drawings) which she produced in the nineteen-fifties. Between 1953 and 1959 she created a series of remarkably beautiful woodcuts, Tecelares that invoked Stephane Mallarmé’s connection between whiteness and silence. (According to Mallarmé, meaning is always the effect of a play between words. The white of the page is thus charged with meaning; and the white silence is a precondition of any meaning that might emerge.) A tender, almost anthropomorphic relationship exists between the shapes in these works that speak of both absence and presence, male and female, inside and outside. These were followed by the creation of various books: Livro do Tempoand Livro da criação that expanded the idea of a book, opening it up to architecture and the silent spaces and possibilities suggested by Mallarmé.
Painting, poetry, the sculptural object and film sit in a non-hierarchical relationship within Pape’s work to create (in her words) a “magnetized space” between artist and viewer, that is open ended, fragmentary and in a state of perpetual flux. Her work is not didactic but a fluid exploration. By removing the status of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and of artist and viewer, she claims a new democracy for art, which fitted exactly with the mood of those iconoclastic times The aim among those in her circle in the 1940s and 50s was to break with severely cerebral categories such as geometric abstraction, which reduced colour and line to elements of science, and to make paintings and works of art that were barometers of the actual modern world. Pape had studied philosophy and favoured Heraclitus’s notions of movement and flux over Platonic perfection.
By the 1960s as the Neo-Concrete group began to break up Pape turned her attention to film. What was important was that these should communicate ideas “through the skin, in an essentially sensorial way.. and not by formal discourse.” . The Serpentine exhibition begins with a series of performances filmed on Super 8 and more recently transferred to DVD. The video has become such a ubiquitous tool within contemporary art that it comes as a shock to realise that some of these date back to 1967/8. Here the formal exercises of the drawings have given way to excess and transgression. The heavily moustachioed female mouth in Eat Me, mimics the desire and movement of female genitalia, whilst also playing with notions of patriarchy, while the body bursting from the white cube in O ovo (The Egg) 1967 implies, not only a personal and political rebirth, but a movement away from restrictive geometric forms to something more participatory, anarchic and felt. In Divisor,1968 a 30 x 30 metres white sheet yolks together a crowd of people whose heads poke through evenly spaced holes in the fabric. Reminiscent of the wrapped buildings of Christo that negate irregularities to create a unified whole, the metaphors created here are ambivalent. They might refer to collective endeavour where individuals strive towards a common, collective goal, or they might imply the loss of autonomy felt under the blanket of political repression. Blood is also a recurring symbol both in Roda dos prazeres (Wheel of Pleasures) 1968 and Wampirou (Vampire) 1974 where it seems to imply not only female desire (and menstrual blood) but also to be a transgressive form of secular transubstantiation. “To be a devourer or to devour is the process of mutual incorporation,” Pape wrote in her notes Sobre o canibalismo (On Cannibalism), adding that “the womb is the poetic shelter of all matter involving fetus and form.” 
The pièce de résistance at The Serpentine show is a version of Ttéia 1, C (Web) first made in 1976. Created from copper wires, wood and nails, and shown in a blacked-out room lit to magical effect, nowadays it would almost certainly be achieved with the aid of a computer.
Pape’s oeuvre is remarkably diverse and hard to categorise and can best understood through her abiding passions. In her life time she was concerned with both pure abstraction and the pressing problems of the politics of contemporary Brazil. The military coup of 1964 had been a major setback for twentieth-century Brazilian society and its project of modernity. Her work mirrors the utopian aspirations of the times in which she lived; the loosening of established frameworks and the desire to establish a de-centred world free of nationalistic domination. Art for her involved a multiplicity of ideas – that was its strength. It allowed for a dialogue between the cerebral, the sensual and the world of objects. Anything and everything could be art. Art was a process rather than an achieved state. It was simply a question of being open and prepared to look. “ As you can see, all is connected. The artwork does not exist as a finished and resolved object, but as something that is always present, permanent within people.”  Her passionate ‘unbalanced view of the world’ rejected the notion that art was something that simply belonged to the academy or to professionals. As for Joseph Beuys, who famously declared that ‘Everyone is an artist’, it was about inclusion. The artist Hélio Oiticica described Pape as a “permanently open seed,” whose work did not abandon the sensual, the chthonic and the tactile for the rarefied and the cerebral.
Not widely known in the UK but she was part of a generation of artists who helped to change the way that we both see and interact with art. Her work is political, extreme, and iconoclastic and belongs to a period when art was far less about making an object of desire for exchange or consumption than creating a form of visual thinking. Her participatory works such as Divisor and O ovo are ephemeral. They exist in the moment. At the height of the military regime in Brazil, she commented: “I note that the problem today is ethical.” . It is a phrase that one is unlikely to hear on the lips of many artists today.
1. Five Short Talks on Excess. On Balance. Adam Phillips. Penguin 2010
3. Vicky Unruth,Latin American Vanguards: the Art of Contentious Encounters, Berkeley: University of California Press, referenced in Guy Brett’s catalogue essay, A Permanently Open Seed. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Serpentine Gallery, London and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2011.
4. Lygia Pape, interview with Angélica de Moraes, O Estado de São Paulo, April 22, 1995, quoted by Guy Brett.
5. Quoted in Denise Mattar, Lygia Pape: Instinsecamente Anarquiesta, Rio de Janeiro, 2003. From Guy Brett’s essay.
6. Lygia Clark, On Cannibalism, São Paulo: São Paula International Biennial, volume 1, p.46
7. Lygia Pape, Ascanio MMM, Rio de Janeriro: Galeria do Grup, B, 1972, n.p.
8. Lygia Pape, Ascanio, MMM, Rio de Janerio: Quoted by Paula Herkenhoff in The Art of Passage. Serpentine catalogue. 2011.
Her Adventures in Art is available from www.othercriteria.com