Exploring the Archive: on Lygia Pape
Making Worlds, Fare Mondi, Bantin Duniyan, Weltenmachen, Construire des Mondes, Fazer Mundos … our title for the 53rd Venice Biennale, with all the translations, seemed infinitely long. One of the working titles was much shorter, only one word: Creation. The tone was a bit too biblical, but we felt that it would have been appropriate if the show had consisted of the opening piece alone, of that spectacular work installed in the first large space of the Arsenale. Most likely it is the work that people remember most vividly from that large exhibition, and which will have astonished in this new exhibition: Lygia Pape’s Ttéia 1, C.
Consisting of nothing but lit threads of precious metal in rectangular forms stretching from floor to ceiling, it conveys an incomparable sense of wonder. As with each of the Ttéia 1 works (A, B and C) it exists in two shimmering iterations: one gold and the other silver. Pulling the viewer into a Neoconcrete ballet in which his or her body seems to dematerialize and merge with the primordial light, the piece declares its fiat lux in a way fully comparable to the first chapter of the artist’s Livro da Criação (Book of Creation, 1959), which was on display in another part of the 2009 Biennale.
Pape’s ideas, wrote Mário Pedrosa, are contagious sensations that led her ‘from one space to another event, and from there to a state in which flickering colours and spaces devour one another between the inside and the outside’. What is special is their capacity to involve the viewer physically. All works of art require a spectator to be complete, but in Pape’s case the audience really becomes part of the piece. The ‘Neoconcrete ballet’ performed by the person in front of (or inside) the work could, in the words of Márcio Doctors, ‘be called organic because they not only use the human body to support art works but they point out the inconclusive nature of reasoning. They express a multiplicity of relationships, ambiguities and contradictions that lead spectators to complete the work, re-moving them from their passive role’. In the end, says Doctors, the ballet ‘hides the body to reveal it. There are no dancers, only the dance’.
‘There was total freedom. Nothing was dogmatic. Everyone was willing to be creative. We didn’t stick to conventional categories. In sculpture, the idea was to destroy the base and create an object that could be called a sculpture, but could be positioned in any way. Paintings would no longer be surrounded by frames. They would move out in space.’—Lygia Pape
‘Everything is situated within a process – everything is in motion’, wrote Olafur Eliasson in 2008, in his most clearly defined statement about the role of art in the world. ‘This not only applies to comprehensive systems like entire societies or the development of an international search engine on the Internet, but also to our perception of a given space, here and now’. Some five decades earlier, Lygia Pape had given expression to a similarly expansive view of art, her creations an intervention in a pulsating universe: ‘There was total freedom. Nothing was dogmatic. Everyone was willing to be creative. We didn’t stick to conventional categories. In sculpture, the idea was to destroy the base and create an object that could be called a sculpture, but could be positioned in any way. Paintings would no longer be surrounded by frames. They would move out in space. I invented a book called the Book of Creation, which recounts the creation of the world without words. It is half plastic art, half poetry. This sense of invention, of creation, was what truly characterized the movement’.
The point of this juxtaposition of compatible statements by artists of different generations is not to prove that attitudes and visions recur, but more precisely to show that new creations can bring fresh relevance to works of art so well known we forget to pay them attention. At the same time as Pape and her Brazilian colleagues emerged, a group of artists in Germany, who called themselves Zero, were also searching for a new beginning. They provide a case in point: when Otto Piene first presented his Lichtballette (Light Ballets) in the early 1960s, critics were quick to note that similar things had been done before. But as the artist said, ‘I only heard later that I was the son of half a dozen fathers, whom I did not know as such’. Thanks to Piene’s new works, the experiments of Swedish pioneer Viking Eggeling, for example, came alive. That is how it works: poets and artists give birth to their own parents.
…pieces by Heinz Mack, Piene and Günther Uecker presented there make us look back at Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus generation in a new way. If a work of art cannot be reread in relation to the work of younger artists, it is no longer alive and may be ready for storage.
Installation view, ‘Lygia Pape’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2016 © Projeto Lygia Pape
László Moholy-Nagy, Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator), 1930 © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy
We look at Paul Cézanne’s work a bit differently if we know that of Pablo Picasso. Marcel Duchamp’s work gained an additional layer of meaning after Andy Warhol. Influence thus seems to work backwards as well as in sequence: an artwork – be it a painting, poem or musical composition – continues to develop because it is perpetually viewed, read or heard anew. It is reread, mis-read and retroactively reborn over and over again. This ongoing reappraisal is not something in which historians and critics engage alone; artists also rewrite the history of art by creating new pieces.
Particularly important works of art are continuously reinterpreted. This is definitely true of Pape’s Ttéia 1, C. The Zero artists’ installation Lichtraum (Hommage à Fontana) (Light Room [Homage to Fontana]), presented at documenta III in 1964, also demonstrates this point. It should be seen in relationship to the light experiments of László Moholy-Nagy of the 1920s and 1930s. But perhaps more interesting than the issue of the influence of the past is the question of how the pieces by Heinz Mack, Piene and Günther Uecker presented there make us look back at Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus generation in a new way. If a work of art cannot be reread in relation to the work of younger artists, it is no longer alive and may be ready for storage.
Lygia Pape’s grandiose Ttéia 1, C is not complete without you; in fact, you are part of it. Her installations are not self-sufficient objects in the usual sense, but environments – productive instruments, arrangements and apparatuses – awaiting your arrival. They need you in order to come alive.
Installation view, ‘Ttéia no. 7’, Galeria Ibeu, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, 1991 © Projeto Lygia Pap
Lygia Pape working on a Tecelar in her studio, Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro, 1958 © Projeto Lygia Pape
In this sense, the Zero space is alive for any viewer aware of recent developments. Today, a generation later, notice how those rotating light machines in a collaborative space can be reconsidered alongside the oeuvre of such artists as Eliasson and Carsten Höller, as can Pape’s works. The interest in perceptual processes, in the phenomenology of light and vision, and in the difficulty of drawing a line between the natural and the artificial recur in these later artists’ work in a way that makes one return to Mack, Piene and Uecker with questions that have lost none of their urgency. Lichtraum was conceived as a kind of protest against the art world’s emphasis on the individual practitioner, and it emphasized the possibilities inherent in collaborative exploration. The group Zero was in principle infinitely large; its three founding artists created an open network that involved innumerable artists across Europe and beyond. Mark Rothko famously claimed he adhered to their vision. And Lygia Pape, had she not missed a meeting in a provincial German city, would, it has been claimed, have been recruited in the group’s activities. No doubt her art was carried by the same expansive dynamic. At its very centre, said Pedrosa, ‘lies the tiny particle, the breath of life that unites everything, art and nonart, form and part, colour and space, in a circuit that begins here and does not end there, but always keeps open the breach through which the idea once more shoots forth, and makes everything begin again, from lushness to sensations, heat to form and vitality to where life adorns itself, and the continuation of things indicates that art and idea never stop, shot through by the sinewy inspiration of Lygia Pape’.
Just like the Lichtraum, Lygia Pape’s grandiose Ttéia 1, C is not complete without you; in fact, you are part of it. Her installations are not self-sufficient objects in the usual sense, but environments – productive instruments, arrangements and apparatuses – awaiting your arrival. They need you in order to come alive. This is true of every work of art, to a certain extent, since all aesthetic experience requires an experiencing subject. But in the spaces Pape creates, the contribution of an active viewer is so central to the works that one might wager that this very activity is what they are about. The magic strings and interplay of light in her iconic Ttéias produce visual effects, but the effects are part of your perception: these works, in the end, have no other significance and are nothing without it. ‘Because, to me’, said Pape, ‘art is a way of knowing the world … to see how the world is … of getting to know the world’.
Since its founding in 1992, Hauser & Wirth Publishers has been devoted to the presentation of unique, object-like books and a rich exchange of ideas between artists and scholars. Exploring the Archive continues this commitment through the digitization of excerpts from seminal, rare, or out-of-print titles from the Hauser & Wirth Publishers archive, which comprises monographs, artists’ books, exhibition catalog, and collections of artists’ writings.
Daniel Birnbaum is a curator and writer who has written essays on numerous contemporary artists, notably Olafur Eliasson, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Paul Chan. Birnbaum was director of the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009), formerly director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and currently heads up Acute Art.