Between Body and Object
This essay will explore works of art by Lygia Clark and how the experience she offered to the public evolved, or simply changed, throughout her life as an artist. It would be fair to say all works of art are perceived by the senses, hence experienced by the body. However, not every artwork requires the presence of the viewer or participant to exist as they do for many of her works of art. This premise seems to have guided a path to what would later call the “The Abandonment of Art”, a decision to redirect the transformative potential of her pieces and dynamic exercises towards psychotherapy. From the “Bichos” Series, to her later works what can be learned from Lygia Clark’s manipulations of relationships and roles within Art? And, specially, how can the incorporation of the participant’s body expand the experience of an artwork?
As a starting point, the historical context from which her practice emerged will bring to light what it meant to be part of that generation of Brazilian artists and how her practice developed in European territory between 1968 and 1975. Then, I will enter the realm of Lygia Clark’s creations and make a selection of pieces or series to be analyzed according to their relationship with the public. The artist experimented a wide variety of configurations concerning the roles of the “artist”, “spectator” and “object” and the relationships she created between participants and objects gained new meanings in every phase of her career.
This is not a timeline of her career as an artist, despite the use of temporal order to expose the artworks produced by the artist; It is an inevitable form of structuring this argument, since each of her phases led to the next in harmony, constructing a solid, coherent path. Although the works produced in the beginning of her career are not less important, given that they were essential for her development, paintings will not be analyzed. This decision is only sustained to maintain focus on the experiences involving the public in non-traditional roles from 1959 to 1970.
Among the deep changes seen in art in the last century some of the most radical changes happened in the 60’s. The appearance of conceptual art or idea art, described in “Six years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972” disrupted traditions regarding the importance of the material and, in many cases, triggered a non commoditised approach to the work of art. Conceptual artists like Sol Lewitt chose to prioritize the concept, rather than the visual results of an artworks, while other artists had materials, rather then systems, to determine the form of their work. (Lippard, 1973 p. 5-7) Although many artists, such as Clark, were not mentioned in that compilation, thoughts and practices may have influenced her or the opposite.
In the previous decade in Brazil, artists found themselves among an enthusiastic intellectual middle class witnessing the construction of Brasilia, the modernization of the country. They were willing to develop art according to what they had seen in European and North American artists such as Malevich, Mondrian and Klee, Russian Constructivists, among others. (Brett 1994, p.58) In 1959 Lygia Pape, Amilcar de Castro, Reinaldo Jardim, Franz Weissman, Theon Spandinus, Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark founded the Neo-Concrete group and wrote a manifesto. It considered Mondrian’s work as a first step into art’s total integration while rejecting the mechanicist notion of construction.
By reinterpreting the Neoplasticist, Constructivists and analogue movements, not based on their theoretical background, but on the expressiveness achieved by their work, this group of artists found new ground on to which explore a more intuitive approach to art and transcend the rational in order to “express the complex reality of modern man”. Again, the manifesto speaks of work that “offers itself to the eye in the form of an instrument and not as a human way of grasping the world and giving oneself to it. It addresses itself to the eye-machine and not to the eye-body”. One of the main ideas of this manifesto to be looked upon in order to later analyse Lygia’s work is its unique concept of spatialization of an artwork. For them it meant that the work is “always in the present, always in the process of beginning over”, an idea that will sustains Lygia’s view of the work as a live organism. Bois defends the manifesto represents her view of “geometric abstraction through the lens of the phenomenology of perception”. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical theories dissolves the Cartesian subject while presenting a coexisting self, in which the existence of the self the other are reciprocal.
The roles of “artist”, “spectator” and mediating “object” would all change. Since the Object would no longer be a representation, it would have no meaning or structure outside the participants’ manipulation of it in the here and now. (Brett, 1994 p.58)
Bichos or Beasts, [image 1], is a series of metal sculptures created by Lygia for the participant to interact with it. Hinges join geometrical planes and the resulting articulated object can be rearranged in an unlimited number of positions as it gets activated and manipulated by the public. This series introduced an aspect of Art that was certainly rare until that time. They escaped the traditional hierarchical relationship between the artist, the object and the viewer, in which the Artist presents the viewer a certain reality or statement for the viewer to virtually relate to it. Instead, they were conceived as an object carrying open possibilities and required active participants to establish a dialogue with the beast, as Clark used to say, they have a life of their own. Her trajectory later consolidates this tendency of having the object as a “vehicle for bodily experience”.
Trailings, a proposition presented in 1964, consists of instructions for the participant to cut a piece of paper with scissors continuously, forming a strip. The work, again, relies on the action of the participant and its result was as unique as any given participant at a specific moment. The artist believed it was necessary to go beyond simple manipulation and participation in order for contemporary art to provoke a real change and find new meanings in gesture. She insisted the work should be experienced with awareness of the “process of bringing the participant’s freedom of action to light”. (Clark, 1964 p.101)
The traditional role of the artist was to simply present a work of art for the viewer to digest them through their previous conceptions and try to find meaning in it. In ‘Trailings’, the traditional role is replaced by one of a “proposing artist”. The artist does not present finished work. Instead, the work begins with the activity of the participant and ends with it. The “spectator” becomes author, and as they embrace the proposal of the artist, they form and give meaning to the object simultaneously. The object, in the other hand, becomes a gesture. In other word, this could be interpreted as a proposal in which the participant in given a moment, an opportunity to experience it consciously.
“The I and the you: Clothing/Body/Clothing” (1967) [image 2] introduces the “other” in the process of discovering oneself. It consist of an activity held by a man and a woman in which both wear boiler suits that cover them from head to feet, blocking vision as well. One’s suits have pockets containing materials that refer to the sex of the other and a tube that links their bodies like an umbilical cord. Both individuals are invited to explore the pockets on the other to get in touch with their own sexual identity. The sense of touch, instead of vision, plays a fundamental part in this piece. While the participant touches the other participant’s suit, it comes as a tool to enhance this mutual exploration and redirects the view towards oneself in the process.
“The house is the body: penetration, ovulation, germination and expulsion” (1968) was presented in the Venice Biennale as an installation piece formed by three compartments, separated by a plastic bubble. The participant enters the structure by “penetrating” it into a dark room covered with a soft material, followed by a room with balloons and other soft spherical objects symbolizing ovulation; then proceeds to a transparent room that represents germination and finally goes through expulsion, which is marked by passing a tight passage with threads leading to a deforming mirror.
Being Clark’s only environmental work, this proposal is conceived as a re-enactment of birth. Despite the change of scale, the experience of the work is still dependant on the body, not in the act of manipulating, as in “Bichos”, nor the act of making, as in “Trailings”. It relies in being inhabited by the body and at the same time it is an amplified body in which the body expands itself incorporating the architectural installation that surrounds it. The participant’s journey through this architectural space reinforces Merleau-Ponty’s idea that we are both subject and object simultaneously and out “flesh” merges with the flesh that is the world.
The body gains a different dimension in Lygia’s proposals in the 1970’s a she enters a phase called Collective bodies. The importance of the material is reduced even further as she develops dynamic exercises on groups of people. Her public had also changed. From working with the “gallery-going” people, she decided to test her proposals in smaller groups integrated by het students at Sorbonne, in Paris.
Clark would sometimes find ways to physically express her dreams in works of art. That was the case of Anthropophagic Slobber (Baba Antropofágica, 1973) and, along with Anthropophagy, was a reference to the works of a Brazilian writer, Oswald de Andrade. A group of participants would surround another participant laying on the floor and dispose cotton threads they pulled from their mouths. Saliva and coloured threads would form a mesh until covering the entire body. Described by Clark as an “exchange between people of their intimate psychology”, the work gives a space and time to a phenomenon she believed could not be expressed by verbal communication and carried a “connotation of letting go, of incoherence, of babyhood” (Brett, 1994 p. 62).
An example of the paradox between material simplicity and the complexity of the issues presented by Clark can be seen in her Elastic Net (1974) experiments. A group of people assembles a grid of lines with elastic bands, which allows the participant’s bodies to connect and creates of a collective that moves together and plays with the possibilities of this net. In this exploration, the participant is merged with the world as part of a collective body, perceiving the influence of his movement in the whole and becoming one with it.
Among the several surprising aspects of Lygia Clark’s legacy, the manipulation of the roles of “artist”, “object” and “spectator” remains relevant after three decades. By refusing the spectator’s passive contemplation of art, and positioning herself as a proposer, she opened an entirely new field of possibilities for the art public. As participants make their body, energy and time available to her, they are rewarded with the possibility of self-discovery and even transformation. A kind of Art that can manifest itself as an experience for both body and mind could be an interesting response for society’s concerns today. Lygia’s “We Refuse…” criticizes the artists who, while stating that modern art doesn’t communicate, turn either to popular art or the denial of art (and the inevitable production of works of art as a response). She claims to be part of a third group, one that invites the public to participate. I believe her writings are very contemporary. The idea of offering space for the participant to interact and co-creat still has an enormous potential either inside the museum/gallery-going or other comunities. Although Lygia spent many of her last years as a therapist and having said to “abandon art” I believe this separation is an illusion. It is possible for art and life to be one. Besides, if immersive, sensorial and experiential have the potential to heal, why not invest more attention on that?
Lippard, L. (1997) Six Years: The Dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley: University of California Press.
CLARK, L. and BOIS, Y., 1994. Nostalgia of the body. October, (69), pp. 85-109.
Brett, G. (1994) 'Lygia Clark: In Search of the Body', Art in America, July, pp. 57 – 63/ 108.
Jones, A. (1998) Body Art: Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press.
Sayre, H (1989) The American Avant Garde since 1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Searle, A. (2014) 'Lygia Clark at MoMA review – playing cat's cradle at the edge of art’, The Guardian, May 29, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/29/lygia-clark-review-art-moma-new-york (Accessed: 29 April 2015)
MoMA Multimedia (2015) Audio: Lygia Clark. A casa é o corpo: penetração, ovulação, germinação, expulsão (The House is the Body). Available at: http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/388/6742?language=en (Accessed: 29 April 2014).
MoMA Multimedia (2015) Audio: Lygia Clark. A casa é o corpo: penetração, ovulação, germinação, expulsão (The House is the Body). Available at: http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/388/6740 (Accessed: 29 April 2014).
Carvalho, D. (2010) Oxford Art Online: Clark, Lygia. Available at: http://www.oxfordartonline.com.arts.idm.oclc.org/subscriber/article/grove/art/T017960?q=lygia+AND+clark&article_section=all&search=article&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed: 27 April 2014)
Clark, L. (1967) The I and the you: Clothing/Body/Clothing
This essay was an assignment of my first year as student at the Chelsea College of Arts, London. You are very welcome to contribute with your point of view.