Hélio Oiticica Exhibition at the Art Institute Activated by Spontaneity of Visitors


Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s first U.S. retrospective is now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. The survey includes a number of well-known works alongside material that has never been exhibited. Spanning his short but impactful career, To Organize Delirium maps out his early modernist works while recreating a number of large-scale, interactive environments.

Oiticica strongly believed that art was a social and ethical pursuit that must be embedded into daily life, and he often argued that art simply could not function outside of society. The title of the exhibition comes from Oiticica’s friend, the Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos who noted that the artist’s philosophy “combined extreme diligence for organization with strong need for freedom” which culminates in “chaos and order coexist[ing] and in this way, he managed to organize delirium.”

Oiticica’s interactive works require the direct participation of viewers. At first, it feels jarring to play and explore in the galleries at the Art Institute, because the museum and others like it have such strong, performative social codes of respect and reserve. However, these rules must be broken in order fully experience Oiticica’s environments.

Early in his career, Oiticica realized the significance of removing art from its canvas and pedestal. He disagreed with the belief that art should be positioned behind the ropes of a museum or hidden from the populous. Instead, he advocated for human interaction with art in order to promote activism and fight corrupt political agendas.

The exhibition demonstrates Oiticica's political involvement with the inclusions of Seja Marginal, Seja Herói (Be an Outlaw, Be a Hero), made in 1968 for the Festival of Flags. At this time, Brazil’s dictatorship became increasingly oppressive and opposing ideas were stifled through torture and imprisonment. However, a resistance was able to form, and Oiticica helped fuel that movement through his work. At the Festival of Flags, the bossa nova musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil held up Oiticica’s banner Se Marginal, Se Herói. They were subsequently jailed and deported for their actions but their message was clear.  They would break the law and become "outlaws" to further their fight against the censorship and the oppression of the Brazilian people.

Oiticica came from a privileged background yet felt a connection to the favelas or shantytowns of Rio and visited them often. His visits inspired his most inventive and participatory art, Parangolés.

Parangolés are objects intended to be carried or worn, often realized in the form of fabric wrappings. They are considered unfinished objects until they are “activated” on a human body, especially through dance. This embodies the idea of a work that is “collaborative, constantly developing, and open to change,”[1] which is a guiding philosophy for Oiticica.

At the Art Institute visitors are allowed to become active participants by wearing reproductions of Parangolés and dancing in them, if they so choose. Many were skeptical and only wore them for moments, unsure whether or not they could actually touch and wear objects in a museum.

After the Parangolés station, visitors can enter the sandboxes of Eden and Tropicália. Both environments are open-ended “instruments for reflection” meant to “proposition for behavior.”[2]  The installations include places for rest, contemplation, reading, and listening to music. Oiticica called these areas penetrables, a term he used throughout this career.

Museum-goers seem to hesitate before entering this space as if security will arrive the second they cross into the sandbox and touch the objects. In this controlled setting, the penetrables become a sort of social experiment, everyone looking to each other to see what they should do because of the now ambiguous social codes. A note of caution to the enthusiastic adventurer: be careful when exploring the penetrables, because there are hidden areas full of water ready to soak your socks.

Tropicália became a decisive work in Oiticica’s career and eventually became the name of a movement that transcended the defined contours of music, literature, theater and film.  The work rejects the influence of North American and European culture and embraces the local Brazilian lifestyle, while addressing stereotypes of tropical cultures through the inclusion of palm trees and live birds.

CC Coke Head’s Soup also challenges expected museum etiquette. The work appropriates the Rolling Stone’s album Goat’s Head Soup. Images of the album covered in cocaine flash on the walls of a room with a padded floor, immersing the viewer and moving them into another realm, aided by John Cage-like chance sounds and Rolling Stones song, Sister Morphine. 

The unsettling sounds and images of drug use contrast with the lighthearted feel of the floor that just begs to be jumped on. Viewers walk in, look around nervously, and then jump a few times before getting embarrassed. Many seem to hold back their desire to break loose in the room, possibly due to the subject matter but most likely due to its location in a museum. In general, adults do not expect to bounce around in a museum, yet the exhibition demands that kind of spontaneity.

To Organize Delirium asks visitors to rethink the social constraints and etiquette expected in museum settings. Oitcica intended his work to combat social and political issues within communities, instead of hanging behind a rope in a museum. As a participant, letting go of culturally proscribed notions of the museum space will, in turn, help you better understand the work of this important artist.   

Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 6, 2017. Click here for more information.

Top image: Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, installation view, 2017. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

[1] Wall text, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, Art Institute of Chicago, February 18-May 6, 2017. 

[2] Wall text, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, Art Institute of Chicago, February 18-May 6, 2017.