One of the most harrowing side effects of devouring human flesh, as I’m sure is widely known, is the neurological symptom known as Kuru — the “shaking death”. There are several tribal societies, most notably in the Brazilian Amazon and the interior of Papua New Guinea that experience this malady in droves — owing mostly to the biological peculiarities of processing the proteins in human flesh — which for these societies is a solely spiritual need. The terminology used among medical professionals for these conditions are “prion diseases” — but this lacks the punchiness, the presence, of Kuru — the rolling “r” and the double vowels give it a sort of linguistic spirit that is hauntingly perfect for what it describes.
Médecins Sans Frontières and other well-meaning NGOs have done their best to try to address the disease — which has a real and threatening affect on the tribal societies that engage in it — to little avail. The physical consumption of the dead in these both the Brazilian and New Guinean tribes is — coincidentally perhaps — done mostly by women in the societies who are of child-bearing age, as a fertility rite. The impact there needs not be further stated.
These activities by the Brazilian tribals, specifically, have become a hot-button issue in the country since the 1960s, when the depths of these jungle regions were mapped by the planes of cartographers and photographed by paparazzi of the tabloids. For a state looking to embrace 20th century modernisms, having cannibals in the newsreels was of particular concern. For a nation looking to vault itself into the modern world headlong, the idea of shrunken skulls and tibia t-bone dinners catalogued by sensationalist presses was a PR disaster of the most significant kind — a blow to an already shaky national prestige. Could it be tolerated?
The Brazilian 1964 coup d’etat was a seminal moment for the young nation. With the ascension of the military junta to political control, the reins of the economy, culture, and other domestic affairs were left to a small class of technocrats, many of whom were simply careerists who understood institutions such as the academy, art, and culture as subjects subservient to the state and its prevailing narratives. Traditionalism and history were reinforced selectively with what could be described as a bank-manager’s appreciation of Western civilization. Connections to the old colonial institutions of its Portuguese past were silenced in the march toward centrist federalism in favor of early Imperial efforts under Emperors Pedro I & II.
The Brazilian establishment made every effort to devour aspects of its own history as it progressed forward, leaving the immaculately arranged and anointed bones of its early lurches towards unity and adoption of free-trade economics under Dutch occupation as salient points of re-education for its new wave of Baby Boomer youth. From this stifling cultural moment the art of Hélio Oiticica was born.
Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium is the rather amorphous, bloviating title of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new retrospective on the collected works of the aforementioned Oiticica, easily Brazil’s foremost installation artist of the 1960s and one of the founders of the Tropicalismo movement that developed in the shadow of the military dictatorship. One of the themes of my writing as of late — perhaps what has consumed it — is the idea that the ossification of the American Art Establishment’s has created within it an inability to make sense of what arrives on its shores — instead opting to neatly categorize unique expressions of nationalist, nativist, and naturalist art into the narrow lens of WASPy, silicon-valley checkmark-culture. The Whitney’s approach to exhibiting Oiticica’s is no different. From their website’s description:
“The show captures the excitement, complexity, and activist nature of Oiticica’s art, focusing in particular on the decisive period he spent in New York in the 1970s, where he was stimulated by the art, music, poetry, and theater scenes. While Oiticica engaged at first with many of the city’s artists, he ended up living in self-fashioned isolation before returning to Brazil.”
The obvious first question that’s present here is what was Oiticica an activist for? Whitney’s curatorial staff would most likely offer some mealy-mouthed explanation of resistance towards the increasing concentration of capital — or perhaps the ascension of a “white over-class” that was ushered in by (international, cosmopolitan, foreign) malignant manipulators of Brazil’s “progress”. The exact, obvious, most prescient and direct answer is that Oiticica was an activist against the very modernism he and the Tropicalismo movement are associated with. The two most significant installations at the exhibit are without a doubt Tropicalia and Eden. To an American without an understanding of the cultural conditions of Brazil at the time, they are simply intriguing installations — Eden invites you to sit in a bed of straw surrounded by a tent covered by black curtains. The installation is inhabited by sand and palm trees which welcome your approach. American critics have lauded the “play” element of these installations. The bed of straw in the tent is preferably sourced from the Rio Grande de Sul, and is designed to be a replication of how the Tupi natives and Gaucho cowboys used to experience the act of sleeping. At its initial exhibition in Brasilia, the audience sizes in the gallery were kept small, and those attending were encouraged to take a siesta in the space. This was not done for purposes of exclusivity or novelty — the Tropicalismo artists were dedicated to reaffirming the traditional experiences of the Brazilian — his peculiar place in the tropics and his unique history.
The Whitney, as it so often does, perfectly strips the function and understanding of this installation, instead stressing allusions to the simple color blocking of Oiticica’s curtains in Tropicalia as in homage to the works of hacks like Piet Mondrian, or the selected short films and video art as resembling the anti-formalism of new media from the 1970s. The Museum could not be doing the entire movement of Tropicalismo a greater disservice, and I firmly believe that this is being whitewashed with intent.
These exhibits, and the summation of Oiticica’s work was a quiet resistance of Modernism while using the movement’s forms as a means of criticism. To do this was a necessity — the technocrats of 1960s Brazil had institutionalized Modernism in all its iterations as the new federalized linguistics of Brazilian culture. The nation’s capital, Brasilia, is a monument to the concept executed in perfect coordination — from the functionalist architecture to its conception of what constituted public utility. This, of course, was all co-signed by the military junta, who appreciated the economy of functionalism and the re-orientation of art to the realm of pure form, free of narrative significance and associated closely with the increasing industrialization that pushed forward the internationally engineered “Brazilian Miracle” of the 1970s. Tropicalismo’s return to the essentials of what Brazil was — a quiet celebration of gaucho existence, or Oiticica’s Grande Nucleo which immersed one in a “cell” of thin Amazonian soil and hanging brazil-wood panels were precisely designed to reorient individuals within their culture in a society that was increasingly looking to isolate and atomize people from their own heritage and environment.
To wander the several rooms of To Organize Delirium is to experience a labyrinthine warning of how no art is safe in the 21st century from atomization of message, history, means, and aesthetics, and that the museum exhibition is now the effective surrender of the artist’s voice in subservience to the curatorial monstrosity. Even the exhibition’s title implies a reassessment, a re-crafting of narrative — an “organizing” — the doublespeak terminology of a municipal bureaucrat birthing ex nilhlio barriers to business, or the new wave of cultural commissars retrofitting and retconning the exhalations of artists into the great existential abyss to fit the needs of a globalism and its new understandings of cultural achievement.
To answer the question posed earlier in the article — the cannibalism of the tribals was not tolerated during the military regime, and attempts at acculturating the natives to a 20th century mindset was undertook by well-meaning missionaries touting Liberation Theology and ill-meaning agent provocateurs gifting the natives radios and telephones. Now, in the age of corporate democracy, the activities of what few true natives remain — all but a thousand of them — are looked upon as curiosities — a human zoo to be viewed by private charter flight by the wealthy and curious. The state of things as they are left me with a clear question throbbing in the reaches of my mind as I exited the Whitney in disgust — what is really worse — the devouring of body parts because of spirituality and tradition, or the intentional consumption and defecation on celebrations of traditionalism that the contemporary art establishment engages in today for fun and profit? I had no answer at that moment, but the answer is clear to me now. The subway ride back out of Manhattan, where Oiticica spent his last years in increasing isolation after being critically exiled from the Brazilian establishment instilled in me a deep feeling of existential nausea that Oiticica must have during his time here, spent fighting against the need to exhibit his work to the increasingly atomized art landscape of the 70s academy.
Whitney’s exhibition needs one to both appreciate it and it fear it for its full impact to be felt. Sitting in Eden’s straw bed should be done with an understanding that on the other side of the black curtains, a spectre is haunting Art. And it is suffering from a contagious strain of the Kuru.