- Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of ArtOur PickEdited by Cornelia H. Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas, with essays by Antonio Sergio Bessa and others / New York: The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014) / 1948-1988
- The Experimental Exercise of Freedom: Lygia Clark, Gego, Mathias Goeritz, Helio Oiticica, And Mira SchendelEdited by Susan Martin and Alama Ruiz, with essays by Rina Carvajal and others / Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art / 1999
- Visualising Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-GardeBy Susan Best / London: I.B. Tauris / 2011 / Chapter three "Participation, Affect and the Body: Lygia Clark" focusses on Clark's work
Progression of Art
Composition: Staircase is one of Clark's earliest works, completed while she was studying with the painter-turned-landscape-architect Roberto Burle Marx. It is part of a series of staircases painted around the same time; Clark believed that they were the only memorable works she produced while she was still a student. Its subject matter recalls two key works of European Modernism: Férnand Leger's drawing The Staircase (1913) - Clark would later study with Leger, and Marcel Duchamp's celebrated painting, Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 (1912), which translates the moving human body into a set of linear picture planes. This second association in particular suggests Clark's early interest in the relationship between body and space.
The composition is effectively set in motion by the downwards movement of the eye, the spirals creating a whirling energy that suggests an opening up of time and space within the picture, as well as hinting at the potential of this gyratory force to spin free from its axis and rupture the surface of the painting. As curator and scholar Paulo Herkenhoff notes, "Clark's staircases are passageways, the ambivalent flux of going up and down. They shape the genesis of the dualities that will concern the artist in the future." The relationship between interior and exterior, recto and verso, were central to Clark's practice; more than a decade after painting these staircases, Clark would acknowledge that throughout her entire career she had been constantly searching for what she described as the 'empty-full' (vazio pleno), a term which suggests the metaphysical significance of the abyss-like interior space.
Oil on canvas - At MoMA
Discovery of the Organic Line (Descoberta da Linha Organica)
Discovery of the Organic Line recalls the work of Dutch abstract art pioneer Piet Mondrian, as well as that of Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky and Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. Mondrian co-founded the De Stijl movement, which in turn had a profound influence on the development of abstract art in Brazil in the form of Concretism and Neo-concretism. However, the Discovery of the Organic Line aims beyond mere geometric abstraction, marking the beginning of the artist's exploration of three-dimensional space and constituting a starting point for her ongoing efforts to situate her work in relation to human bodily experience.
The word 'organic' requires elucidation: Clark did not intend this term to refer to something resembling a biological form: her organic line is not sinuous, undulating or otherwise life-like. In her writings Clark refers to a number of other lines that she described as 'organic', including the functional lines of doorframes in an architectural space; this analogy can help us understand how the organic line in a painting was intended to function as an opening through which the viewer could approach the artwork. In the artist's own words, "I began with geometry, but I was looking for an organic space where one could enter the painting."
Oil on canvas
In itself (Bicho: Em Sí)
The Critters (sometimes translated as Beasts, or Animals) were produced between 1960 and 1963. The pieces are small enough to be held in two hands, and are made of flat aluminium circular and triangular sheets attached to each other by hinges. The works have no predetermined form: instead, the hinges allow them to assume a variety of three-dimensional configurations in response to handling by a viewer-participant. The artist envisaged a physical, mutually responsive interaction between art object and user; each Critter has the potential to react to manipulation in a multitude of unpredictable ways, forcing the user to adapt and respond in turn. Although this interaction is playful, it is not entirely without risk: one user described his experience of handling a Critter as akin to 'engaging in combat', and indeed, the artist did not think of these works as passively malleable toys, but as naughty, mischievous creatures capable of unexpected or unwanted reactions.
The Critters are groundbreaking in their rejection of the static qualities of sculpture. Unlike a traditional museum object, they are designed to be handled, with the meaning of the work ultimately residing not in the fixed form, but in the dynamic relationship between object and user. The activation of the work completes it; without handling the Critter remain inchoate and unfinished. The artist was extremely disappointed whenever a Critter was transferred from a public to a private collection, where it would generally be looked at but no longer touched.
As noted by Guy Brett, writing in Art in America, the Critters "are exactly poised between the cerebral schematism of geometry and the pulse of life." They mark both Clark's abandonment of painting, and her turn from geometric work to a corporeal and participatory practice.
Walking (Caminhando) is a pivotal work for Clark, suggesting the dematerialization of the art object and the turn towards an art based in process and participation. The artist invited participants to cut a Möbius strip along its length to the thinnest width possible without breaking it. After cutting the first full length (basically one circumference of a circle), the participant (who has now become the author and thus challenged the preconceived notions of artistic authorship) must choose to move their scissors to the left or right of the existing cut.
The Mobius strip held a particular fascination for Clark. Although it is a line, it fails to perform the function which that form implies: it achieves no act of separation, making no distinction between inside and out, interior or exterior, front or back. The line made by Walking is thus a non-functional one that exists as an action rather than as a physical object. Walking activates and animates the static line that exists in drawings or paintings, recreating the line as an event that is necessarily finite, lasting only until the paper is sliced so thinly that the line cannot continue; unlike a drawn or painted line, the line in Walking is completely contingent upon an active participant. In Clark's own words, "the act is what produces Caminhando, nothing exists before it and nothing after."
Walking proposes the artwork as act rather than as object. From this point onwards, Clark began to describe all her works as 'propositions', a term which emphasizes a participant's freely chosen action as the basis for the work.
Paper, glue, and scissors
Sensorial Masks (Máscaras Sensoriais)
From the late 1960s onwards, Clark's practice focused almost exclusively on participatory propositions designed to heighten participants' physical and psychological awareness.
The proposition Sensorial Masks invites the user to place their head inside a specially designed cloth hood. The hood's folds are filled with sachets of herbs or other aromatic substances; additionally, mirrors might be placed next to eye sockets, or small bells close to ears. By reducing visual stimuli and invigorating the other senses, the participant would achieve an intensified consciousness of both sensory experience and of his or her own inner world. Clark described the materials as "a sort of travel bag in color with stones and inflated plastic bags"; the plastic bags were used to encourage the user to become aware of the relationship between their inner body and the surrounding space into which that body extends. Expelling air from their own lungs in order to inflate the bag, the participant could feel that he was symbolically reforming himself, making an external, visible manifestation of the psychical space that was within him; this aspect of the work reflects Clark's ongoing interest in the symbolic plenitude of the 'empty' interior space.
Crucially, the artist's own subjectivity was considered irrelevant to the work, with Clark declaring, "I have no desire or curiosity to dress in them. I am only interested to know the experiences of the person who puts them on." The significance of the piece is focused entirely upon the sensorial responses of the participants, which reportedly ranged from fun and excitement to claustrophobia and panic. Accordingly, as isolated art objects, the masks are insignificant; they have value only in the encounters that they are intended to facilitate. This poses a challenge for contemporary curators, since when the masks are exhibited inside museum cases (for example) their intended purpose is effectively effaced.
Some commentators have chosen to read the Sensorial Masks in relation to Brazil's military dictatorship and the Cold War, noting their menacing appearance and similarity to the gas masks used by the Brazilian police as well as to forms of nuclear protection.
Cloth, herbs, mirrors, bells - Mixed media
Biological Architecture (Arquitetura Biológica)
Biological Architecture extends Clark's earlier investigations into sensorial experience, shifting the register from the individual (as with Sensorial Masks) to the collective. Two or more participants are connected to each other by long transparent tubes or large sheets of plastic with which they attempt to cover each other or to form a mutual shelter. As participants enter into the structure in order to reshape it, they become the organs and limbs of a fantastical communal body, with the plastic functioning as a kind of connective tissue or shared skin. By using the plastic as a 'relational' material, these structures aim to eliminate the boundaries between body and object, self and other, and anticipate the Relational Objects that would play a central part in Clark's therapeutic practice from 1976 onwards.
At the time of conceiving this piece Clark had not yet undergone psychoanalysis herself; she was, however, deeply engaged in a study of psychoanalytic literature. The connective potential of the object recalls Donald Winnicott's theory of the transitional object, an item (such as a blanket or soft toy) given to the infant to ease their sense of loss as they begin to separate from their primary care giver. In the case of Biological Architecture, the transitional object (suggested by the plastic sheeting and tubes) can offer a form of regression, bonding two or more participants together in a way that is both communal and erotic, physical and psychological. As the artist noted, the importance of Biological Architecture lies in "the exchange between people and their intimate psychology".
Biological Architecture was not intended as a performance, but as a freely-chosen, participatory act. Clark was vehemently opposed to what she saw as the voyeurism of Performance art, and particularly objected to the assimilation of the artist's body with the body of the work, especially when that body was modulated with a kind of masochistic self-harm or martyrdom (as for example in the work of Gina Pane, Marina Abramović or Chris Burden). To this end Clark always refused to use her own body in her work, effectively erasing her own identity as artist/originator as each proposition was gradually transformed and reinvented by the bodies of the participants.
Plastic, nylon, and cloth
Anthropophagic Slobber (Baba Antropofágica)
Anthropophagic Slobber investigates the phantasmatic force of the body; it is not concerned with the body in itself, but with its psycho-sensorial capacities. It takes the following form. A person lies on the ground in the middle of a group. Kneeling in a circle, the other participants place spools of colored thread in their mouths, using their hands to draw out saliva-soaked strands which are draped across the body of the person on the floor, slowly building a tangled web or cocoon. When the lying person is fully covered, the group must reconnect with the slobber by removing the scrambled thread and entwining themselves into it, finally breaking free from the drool by snapping the threads. The last phase of the work is a verbal exchange of participants' perceptions of the event.
The affective experience of Anthropophagic Slobber has been compared to a kind of collective vomiting, or a pulling out of one's own viscera. The breaking of the threads functions as catharsis, and is often described in terms of aggression, joy, euphoria and even pain (the threads being hard to break). Participants have also spoken of their sensorial experiences of the work: the noise of spools against teeth, the smell of saliva, the taste of cotton and the revolving spools gently bruising the mouth. The notion of intersubjective exchange is central to the work, the figurative exchange of inner qualities (symbolized by the drool) echoing the verbal dialogue that takes place at the end; implicit in this is the relinquishment of the individual body in order to be reborn as part of a collective one.
Clark developed the work in collaboration with her students at the Sorbonne, where she had been invited to teach a course on gestural communication. Here, she found an environment energized by the participatory politics of May 1968 and wholly conducive to an exploratory, experimental way of working. The title of the work is an homage to Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropófago (1928), which posited cultural cannibalism as a mode of resistance to colonization. Just as certain tribes once ate their enemies to acquire their strengths (anthropophagism), so the colonized Brazilians should adapt and modify the colonizer's culture in order to produce a form of modernism that is inexorably Brazilian. Another set of influences can be traced in Clark's interest in dreams and psychoanalysis; Clark recalls that at her first appointment with analyst Pierre Fédida, who she was seeing at this time, she could only repeat one word: bave (slobber, drool). The work thus alludes to the limitations of language, transporting the body to a pre-linguistic space where the exchange of secretions acts as a substitute for speech, before returning the body to discourse with a new and shared vocabulary derived from psychosomatic experience.
'Performance,' cotton reels, saliva, cotton threads