Laudation for Cildo Meireles on the presentation of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2023, 22 September 2023 at the Kunsthaus Zürich.
Yilmaz Dziewior | Check against delivery.
Dear Cildo, dear guests
It is wonderful to stand here today and deliver a laudation for Cildo Meireles on behalf of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize jury.
At the same time, it is quite a challenge to honour in around 30 minutes the life's work of an artist whose career extends back to the 1960s. The fact that some of his creations have already gone down in art history does not exactly make things easier.
I would like, if I may, to focus on just nine of the many works he has produced, in order to explain to you a few key aspects of his approach and, hopefully, convey to you why Cildo Meireles is such a fantastic artist.
To put it in simple terms, most of his works are a successful combination of three especially distinctive features: they are based on a clever conceptual plan; they have particular aesthetic appeal; and, not uncommonly, they make a genuine contribution to art history.
Before I go into this in more detail, here is some basic information: Cildo Meireles was born in 1948 in Rio de Janeiro, where he still lives today. In an interview, he explains how, by the age of just 16, he had already developed an awareness of Brazil's troubled political situation during the oppressive military dictatorship that ruled the nation from 1964 to 1985. One way of engaging with this was through art. He began with figurative drawings in which he addressed the social conditions that he saw around him. Increasingly, though, he turned to more abstract conceptual practices. Cildo Meireles has the ability to combine theory and sensory perception in compelling ways. Every now and then, his work stimulates not just the intellect but also the senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch. This also explains why he is viewed as heir to a generation of Brazilian artists whose art is termed Neo-Concrete. Members of this group, which banded loosely together from the late 1950s onwards, include Lygia Clark (1920-88), Lydia Pape (1929-2004) and the somewhat younger Hélio Oiticica (1937-80).
Like them, Cildo Meireles involves his viewers as agents in his work. At the same time, the impact of his projects such as Insertions into Ideological Circuits extends far beyond the gallery and museum space to address a wider audience that, on occasion, does not even perceive them as art.
One outstanding example of this is
Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project, 1970
Here, Cildo Meireles briefly removed everyday Coca-Cola bottles from circulation, applied printed political messages to them, and then returned them to the circuit of exchange. The messages included instructions for converting the bottle into a Molotov cocktail and demands such as 'Yankees Go Home'. In each case, they also bore the work's title and the artist's statement of intent: 'To register informations and critical opinions on bottles and return them to circulation'. To understand the work properly it is important to appreciate that in 1970s Brazil, the Coca-Cola bottle was a symbol of US imperialism and the consumer society that went with it. Printed in white, the inscriptions were almost invisible until the bottles were filled with their dark-brown liquid. By filling the returnable bottles, Coca-Cola itself thus made the words legible while at the same time distributing the work.
Commenting on this, Cildo Meireles himself says: 'My idea was precisely to use the extension of this circulation of bottles, that circuit of permanent movement, in order to reach different people. The project's messages normally grew out of the information or news that had reached me, that people had shared with me, messages about people who had been arrested or who had not been found; at times, people I didn't even know. [...] The sequence of bottles photographed or displayed in the museum is not the work: it is a relic, a reference, a sample. The work exists only in so far as it is being done. Its place is a little like that of the third ball in the juggler's hand. It is there in passing.'
Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project
operated in a similar way. Here too, Cildo Meireles used existing circuits to draw attention to political abuses such as the disappearance of the journalist Vladimir Herzog, who later died in mysterious circumstances while in police custody after speaking out in favour of free and fair elections.
For an amusing but no less disconcerting variant, we can look to
Zero Cent, 1974/1978 and Zero Dollar 1974-1984
By reducing the numerical value of US cent coins and dollar bills to zero, Cildo Meireles humorously questions the economic power of imperialism. The real value, exchange value, and indeed symbolic value of money are here estimated at nought, while the inflation especially associated with the Brazilian currency at the time is transposed parodically to the US dollar. Today, Meireles's coins and banknotes are sought-after collector's items, and so extend the discussion on attributions of material value into the realm of art.
A comparable, seemingly almost ephemeral work by Cildo Meireles - but one that, in this case, was expressly designed for the exhibition space - is:
Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross), 1969-70
The cube, which measures just nine cubic millimetres, consists of two parts: one made of hard oak and the other out of soft pine. Meireles chose these two woods because they were sacred to the Tupi, one of the largest indigenous peoples in Brazil, who rubbed them together to make fire. The concept for Cruzeiro do Sul has the tiny cube being exhibited on its own in a room measuring at least 200 square metres. These proportions are designed to prompt questions of scale and also act as reminders of Brazil's colonial history. At the same time, the poetic neologism 'humiliminimalism', which Meireles invented for this purpose, is a humorous allusion to American minimalism that counters it with a version which is politically charged and extremely small in scale, but no less effective for all that. In that sense, Cildo Meireles has created an 'anti-monument' whose power does not depend on its physical size. I can still clearly remember when I saw this work in 2000 at the Kunstverein in Cologne, and how impressed I was by how it occupied the otherwise empty space. (The only other presences were the AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE pieces that Lawrence Weiner had attached to the end walls.)
Entrevendo (Glimpsing), 1970/1994
While Cruzeiro do Sul occupies a lot of space in metaphorical terms, it is minimal in its actual dimensions. Entrevendo (Glimpsing), by contrast, completely envelops the visitor. A funnel-shaped space within a space, it is almost 10 metres long and tapers in height from over 3 metres to just under 183 centimetres. At the narrowing end of the tunnel constructed out of wooden strips, a fan heater generates a stream of warm air that spreads towards the large opening at the front. The work also includes two different types of ice cream, one slightly sweet, the other slightly salty, which visitors can collect from a freezer before entering the tunnel.
The warm air accentuates the cooling effect of the ice, and the additional challenge to the sense of vision posed by walking through the funnel-shaped architecture is complemented by the stimulation of the taste buds. This productive heightening of multiple senses is characteristic of Cildo Meireles's approach. Given an understanding of where his works fit into society, the resulting awareness could be extended to other fields, such as culture, society and politics.
I will now discuss three works by Cildo Meireles that I have come to know especially well, since I exhibited them in 2004 in his solo show at the Kunstverein in Hamburg.
Ocasião (Occasion) is an installation comprising two separate rooms, one of which contains an enamel washing bowl on a metal stand with a number of loose banknotes lying in it. Tall, wide mirrors hang on three of the surrounding walls, visually multiplying the act of looking and every other action that takes place here. I can still remember the curious fascination of seeing this work for the first time at Portikus in Frankfurt. Even though I was well aware that the artistic context has plenty of experiences and surprises in store, I was still amazed by the sheer attraction of the filthy lucre, and I wondered what action might be expected or even intended here. That experience was further amplified when I discovered a second room from which, via a two-way mirror, I could look into the room that I myself had just been standing in. Awkwardly touched by the insecurity and embarrassed laughter of the visitors now there, I was forced to confront myself: my value judgements, my knowledge of conceptual art, but also of ethical and social issues. Rarely have I experienced a work that is at once so poetic, humorous and profoundly political. Ocasião is one of Meireles's most complex installations and throws up challenging questions about issues such as the nature of value and its ideological implications, the use of surveillance and the spawning of various, contradictory aspects of the individual. The work is a staged production in which observers become active participants, whether they want to or not.
In contrast to Ocasião, which operates quite directly in terms of the aesthetics of its reception, Fio (Thread) from 1990/2004 produces its effect in a more restrained way, albeit that the bales of hay stimulate the sense of smell as well as the eyesight.
Fio (Thread), 1990/2004
Here, as with Cruzeiro do Sul, Cildo Meireles deploys the cube form that is characteristic of minimal art. Yet this time he deliberately uses what is known as 'poor' material, assembling 48 bales of hay into a rectangular block and combining it with one of the most precious metals, namely gold. Inside the haystack with gold thread running through and around it, the artist has hidden a needle made of 18-carat gold. Once again, he is interested in differing conceptions of value, as well as the colours of the hay and the gold needle, which are difficult to tell apart, and also finds a humorous image for the proverbial 'needle in a haystack'. The work hints at unfathomable social relationships, but also the relation between the singular and the greater whole, and between the individual and society.
La Bruja, 1979-89/2004
Cildo Meireles explains: 'I actually showed the work for the first time at the São Paulo Biennale in 1981, using 2,500 kilometres of string running over three floors of the building. The broom is ambiguous: you can see it as the beginning, the origin of the huge expansion, or as the final point of contraction, of compression. And there is another paradox in that, instead of cleaning up, the broom produces this kind of chaotic mess. In São Paulo, the Biennale maintenance people were very frustrated because they couldn't clean the area! I liked it very much the way it was installed at the Kunstverein in Hamburg. You could start with the massive tangle, or you could start with the broom and enter this dark, black chaos.'
The large installation La Bruja (The Witch) is often presented in such a way that the first thing you encounter is a few dark threads of wool. As you follow them, the stream of threads becomes ever denser until it is totally impenetrable. It is not until you discover the origin of this chaos that everything makes sense and an apparent order renders the whole installation comprehensible. All the threads lead to a broom that the artist has pointedly lent against a wall, often in the far corner of a room. In Hamburg, for the first time, Cildo Meireles also extended the threads up to the ceiling, adding an art-historical reference to the aesthetic and social dimension. His network of threads in space is strikingly reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's '16 Miles of String', which he incorporated into the 'First Papers of Surrealism' exhibition that he and André Breton organized in New York in 1942. Duchamp framed the works shown there in a similar way, thus impeding their actual reception. Cildo Meireles's installation begins or ends with an object that represents tidiness and cleanliness, whereas the seemingly endless stream of threads flowing out of the handle and covering almost the entire exhibition space creates an impression of disorder and confusion. The work's title La Bruja, meaning 'The Witch', is an excellent fit for that.
I would like to conclude by showing you one of my favourite works by Cildo Meireles:
Atlas consists of a photograph mounted on a lightbox and depicting a performance by Meireles at the Herning Park in Denmark. The artist can be seen doing a headstand on the 'Socle du Monde (Base of the World)'. In 1961, the Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni had applied an inverted inscription to his site-specific installation consisting of a bronze cube - so that you have to stand on your head to read it and, in so doing, see the whole world upside down. In Cildo Meireles's action, it looks as if the Brazilian artist is supporting not just the heavy plinth but also the whole world with it.
The playful levity with which Cildo Meireles here upends the Western world view and makes the 'Global South' the support for our Earth is enough on its own to merit special praise. The fact that, for more than five decades now, he has transposed art history into the present day in a way that is socially impactful and aesthetically impressive, makes him a truly outstanding figure.
Congratulations, dear Cildo, on your well-deserved Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2023!