A cocktail to raise the spirits
By Michael Glover
Published: February 21 2006 02:00 | Last updated: February 21 2006 02:00
This sprawling exhibition of several hundred works of various kinds - installations, sculptures, cinema posters, archival film, acoustic works, architectural maquettes, theatre sets and much else - sets a difficult challenge for itself. Its aim is to make sense of a particular historical moment in Brazilian culture over a span of about five years, 1967-72. Over that period a phenomenon that came to be called "Tropicalia" sprang into being. It manifested itself across a range of disciplines, from popular music to sculpture, from theatre to architecture, from music to cinema. It was about a new kind of radical art and a new kind of popular music - Helio Oiticica and Lydia Pape were two of its principal artists, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were two of its musical heroes. Thirty years on, Gilberto Gil is now Brazil's minister of culture.
Tropicalia was a counter-cultural explosion of pent-up energies within a society squirming beneath the boot of dictatorship. It brought together the artistically avant-garde with various indigenous Brazilian traditions. It was both a defiant expression of political radicalism and an attempt to define a new artistic identity. It was also to do with the untrammelled spirit of carnival, sexual liberation and a social loosening up. To that extent it has much in common with counter-cultural energies of the time in London, New York, Paris, San Francisco and elsewhere. It was many different kinds of things to many different kinds of people, and this exhibition tries to make sense of it - both to explain it and to give some flavour of what it meant to those who participated in its growth and flowering.
Its ambitions as an exhibition immediately beg comparison with Summer of Love, the show devoted to psychedelic art recently on view in Liverpool and Frankfurt. That too sought to chart a social-cum-artistic outpouring that had not been properly examined in a museological context before, and the content of that show had much in common with what is being explored here. The psychedelic show, no matter what our conclusions about the quality of the art, was carefully compartmentalised. Its argument was clear and persuasive.
This show at the Barbican begins with a wall text that describes, quite briefly, what the idea of Tropicalia encompasses, and then throws us into some of its many forms without further ado, allowing us to sink or swim. We trawl through clips of old TV film footage of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in concert; we stare at a vitrine of old album covers; we pass by a wall of cinema posters, many from long before the timescale of the show itself. We examine a musical score, in fading pencil, of the song "Tropicalia", written by Julio Medaglia in 1967. There are, intermittently, snatches of music, as if from a distance.
Two key works in the ground-floor gallery space are installations by Helio Oiticica, one called "Tropicalia", and a second "Eden". The first, which is said to be the starting point for the idea of Tropicalia itself, was shown at a 1967 exhibition called New Brazilian Objectivity. We walk across a floor of sand, and past tents of various shapes and sizes, in which we are encouraged to relax and chill out. One structure contains a nest of straw in which we could sleep until closing time, had we no greater ambitions. We wonder at a pair of magnificent parrots in a huge cage, which prove to be alive. Elsewhere we are encouraged to try on masks, or to don a plastic bodysuit by Lygia Clark.
There is, somewhat dispiritingly, something of a sense of drift about much of this. What we seem to be missing is a real feel for the noisy, compelling energies of those years, some sense of the vitalities of the Brazilian people, then or now. In part, this is to do with sound. We never hear anything here that truly arrests us. The acoustics, generally speaking, are rather poor.
Many of the upstairs gallery spaces are given over to individual artists, or to movements trapped within the all-encompassing net of Tropicalia, but the way in which these works have been set apart from each other in rather lonely gallery spaces makes us almost forget that this show is about what united people, and not what divided them. There are excellent works up here - wall pieces by Antonio Dias, for example, made from a conjunction of upholstered fabric, vinyl and wood - which are a little like works by Claes Oldenburg with an additional political charge, or the lovely "poemobiles" of Augusto de Campos - words about the subject of reading emerge from books, pop-up style - or Carlos Zilio's "Lute", in which a strangely anonymous sculpted face sits inside a small aluminium worker's lunch box.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that any of this has much to do with the idea of Tropicalia. Or perhaps it was the anarchic, unbottleable spirit of Tropicalia itself which did for it.
'Tropicalia: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture', Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2, until May 21. Tel 020 7638 8891
Will check it out on Friday myself