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Lygia Clark, From object to event
by Suely Rolnik

In the very moment when he digests the object, the artist is digested by society, which has already found for him a title and a bureaucratic occupation: he will be the engineer of future leisure, activity that does not in any way affect the balance of social structures.

Lygia Clark, 1969

The trajectory of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark occupies a singular position in the critical movement in art over the 1960s-70s. At the time, artists in different countries were directing their investigation towards the institutional power held by the so-called ‘system of art’ in the determination of their work: from the spaces allocated to their works to the categories (official) art history draws from in order to classify them, as well as support media, genres etc. The making explicit, problematising and overcoming of such limitations becomes the orientation of artistic practice as a condition of its poetic force – the very vitality of the work, from which its power of critical interference in reality emanates. In Latin America, and Brazil in particular, these movements were characterised by significant creative freedom and a daring that generated singular artistic practices, internationally recognised today as a privileged chapter in the (critical) history of the period. It is in such a context that Lygia Clark’s work is to be found.

The artist’s trajectory started in 1947. Her first sixteen years were dedicated to painting and sculpture, yielding works that would quickly gain currency in the international artistic circuit. From 1963, however, her research took a radically innovative turn, becoming focused on the creation of proposals in which the process they mobilised in the body of participants was made into the condition of their realisation. The work unfolded in the expansion of the participants’ sensibility, in particular the faculty of openness towards the other. The work would no longer be interrupted in the object’s finite spatiality; it took place as temporality in an experience in which the object ceases to be a thing and once more becomes a field of living forces that affect the world and are affected by it, in a continuous process of differentiation of subjective and objective reality. This question, central to the thinking poetics of Lygia Clark, could already be found in her pictorial and sculptural strategies. The 1963 leap is the radicalisation of such a research : the work’s existence is no longer possible if not in the receiver’s experience, outside of which objects become a sort of nothing, resistant to all fetishising desire. At this point the artist has in fact digested the object: the work becomes event, action upon reality, the transformation thereof.

This is the path followed by Lygia for 26 years, until her death in 1988. The penultimate step was the work developed with her students at the Sorbonne, where the artist taught from 1972 to 1976. Here she had already chosen exile from the institutional and disciplinary territory of art, migrating to the university – in the context of post-68 student Paris, where it was more viable to introduce in her proposals alterity and time, which had been banished from the art world. It becomes apparent then that the experience presupposed and mobilised by her objects and dispositifs as the condition of their expressivity runs up against certain subjective barriers on the side of participants. The latter are products of the phantasmatics inscribed in the memory of the body, the result of traumas undergone in past attempts at establishing such a kind of sensible relation with reality – which would have been inhibited by a lack of reverberation in an environment inhospitable to this quality of relation with the otherness of the world (which can be enhanced in dictatorial regimes as the one that ruled Brazil in the 1960s-70s). At this point Lygia Clark becomes aware that the fulfilment of the central question of her artistic investigation – the reactivation of this quality of aesthetic experience in the receivers of her creations – was not at all self-evident. I refer here to the capacity of receivers to allow themselves to be affected by the forces of the objects created by the artist and the environment in which these were lived, and, as a consequence, by the forces of the environments of their daily lives. It is in response to this impasse that the artist creates Structuration of the Self, the parting gesture of her oeuvre, that takes place after her definitive return to Rio de Janeiro in 1976. Now the focus of research would become the memory of traumas and their phantasms, the mobilisation of which would now occupy the very nervous centre of the dispositif,  instead of being a mere side-effect of her proposals. Lygia Clark wanted to explore the power these objects had to bring this memory to light and ‘treat’ it. The creation of her last artistic proposal was thus necessitated by the internal logic of her research, to which a deliberately therapeutic dimension was now added.
Throughout Lygia’s life and for yet ten years after her death there was no reception whatsoever of her experimental practices in the territory of art. The artist was recognised exclusively by her pictorial and sculptural work, which nevertheless comprise only one third of her output. With the exception of two events around 1968 – one room dedicated to a retrospective of her work in the Venice Biennale and the long dossiers on her work in two issues of the magazine Robho (an important Parisian contemporary art publication of the period) – , the recognition of the other two thirds, consisting in the experiments involving the bodies of participants, would only happen in 1998. This is mostly due to the retrospective organised by the Fondació Antoni Tapiès, a travelling exhibition in which the ensemble of her work was shown for the first time. Since then, however, whatever exhibitions that include these proposals tend to present them in fetishised form: either only the objects involved in the actions are exhibited, or the actions are re-enacted in front of spectators who remain external to them, therefore ceasing to transmit the experience in which such actions acquired their sense. Where the artist had made her work into the digestion of the object so as to reactivate the critical power of artistic experience, the circuit now digested the artist, turning her into the engineer of a future leisure already present, which ‘does not in any way affect the balance of social structures’, as she had predicted. In the best of cases one is shown documents, but these allow no more than a fragmentary and merely external apprehension of such actions. What is then made void is the courageous effort of the artist’s poetic gesture, her work turned into a luxury delicacy in the feast of the instrumentalisation of art that the market promotes (which is part and parcel of the role ascribed to art by neoliberalism, so that it is no coincidence that various authors refer to it as ‘cultural capital’). The text that provides our epigraph here is a sort of prophecy which confirms the artist’s acute lucidity in relation to the new regime back in 1969, when one could only faintly discern it in the horizon. The critical forms set in motion by Lygia in her proposals of the two following decades will find no resonance until the 1990s, in the extra-disciplinary drift of a new generation of artists, recognised by a movement of constant entering and exiting the institutional territory of art, whose dying body they re-inject with shots of poetic force that cause its critical deterritorialisation, differently from the anti-disciplinary movement that characterised the artists of the 1960s-70s.

In light of the evidence of this resonance with this new generation’s strategies, and hence of the collective endorsement now offered to Lygia Clark’s critical gesture, which, on the other hand, was being cancelled by the way in which the market had come to incorporate her work, I decided to start the project of building a memory of her trajectory. Developed between 2002 and 2007, its objective was to create conditions for the reactivation of this work’s sharpness in its return to the institutional territory of art.

The way I found to build this memory was through interviews registered on film. The idea was to bring to the surface the memory of the potencies of Lygia Clark’s proposals: to provoke an immersion in the sensations lived in the experiences they enabled, but also to stimulate a work of elaboration through which these could become sayable. Still, it was not enough to restrict the interviews to those directly linked to the artist, her life and/or work; it was just as necessary to produce a memory of the context that originated her poetics, and its conditions of possibility. In other words, the point was to produce a memory of the bodies affected by this experience and in which it was inscribed, so as to make it pulsate in the present; the operation would go against the grain of the neutralisation of Lygia Clark’s oeuvre in the way that her return to the territory of art was being directed by the market.
For that purpose I made sixty-six interviews in France and the United States (filmed by Babette Mangolte) and in Brazil (filmed by Mustapha Barat), the final product of which is a series of DVDs. The films constituted the spinal chord of an exhbition I curated with Corinne Diserens at the Nantes Musée des Beaux-Arts in 2005 and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in 2006. My wager was that in this way the condition of dead archive of the documents and objects that survive from these actions could be overcome in making them into elements of the living memory of an artistic and intellectual legacy that dialogues with critical thought in the present.