Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cildo Meireles: Expositor of Brazil's Christ-Haunted South

Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles’ work, often considers the ongoing confluence of Christian European culture with that of the peoples of South America. Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987, is composed of a narrow tower of communion wafers that teeters high above a sea of 600,000 glittering coins. The sky above the coins and wafers is a canopy of illuminated large animal bones.

Though mostly unknown to a North American audience, this Brazilian conceptualist’s work has been featured at nearly all the major international art biennials over the past few decades. Each time Mission/Missions is installed in a new location the coins used are drawn from the local currency; always utilizing the lowest denomination, the most insignificant coin. In keeping with the highly complicated relationship between Brazil and Western Europe, there is not an exclusive reading of the work.

When the Jesuits brought the Roman Catholic faith to the tribes of South America in a manner both nuanced and complex. This sometimes bore the marks of syncretistic faith in which elements of the indigenous religious systems were either transmuted or subsumed into Catholic doctrines. At other times Christianity was abruptly foisted upon the South Americans, producing a hybrid culture that remained neither Western European nor native Brazilian. On the heels of this religious conversion came the much darker aspects of colonization. The natives were enslaved as cheap and expendable labor while the Spanish and Portuguese stripped the land of its wealth and resources, often in the sign and name of Christ.

The enduring shadow of Western capitalist traditions stretches even further over the form and materials of Mission/Missions. The pendulous expanse of bones can be understood as a metaphor for the slaughter of the indigenous peoples brought about as a result of colonial enslavement. Yet, a more contemporary reading might connect the bones to the consumerist economics of first world beef production. Brazil has been transformed into one of the world’s leading cattle producers. That beef is raised on the deforested parcels of land that once hosted the Amazon forests. The allusion to death implied by these bones may also signal the larger ecological impact Western traditions and systems have placed on not only the global South, but the entire planet.

Meireles’ message has often been political. The ‘60s and ‘70s found Brazil in political upheaval after a military coup brought to power a dictatorial government in 1964 and kept the population living in fear for over two decades. Meireles always understood that that political unrest was a descendant of colonization and that the adverse effects of early colonial impositions could never be completely separated from the Roman Catholic faith that arrived with that system. The allusions within and titles of the artist’s major works often reflect this.

An example is found in the currency of Brazil that mirrors the entrenchment of Catholicism within the culture. Brazilian banknotes are called Cruzeiro—cross—and this is not lost on Merieles. In the 1970s he produced several works that utilized this currency. The Zero Cruzeiro (1974-8) banknote contains two portraits: a native Brazilian man and an insane man. It is a work that not only makes comment on the economy but on the condition of the intertwining relationship between Brazil and the religion of the Europeans. The figures represent the discarded, those rendered as worthless within the culture. This idea of worthlessness also connects to the hundreds of desaparecidos—the disappeared. These were the outspoken political figures who were abducted by Latin American military governments, including Brazil’s, in the 1960s to 1980s, never to be seen again.

The Zero Cruzeiro project is directly tied to the Insertions into Ideological Circuits projects. For some of these, Meireles stamped messages on actual cruzeiro banknotes and then reinserted them into circulation. Messages such as “YANKEES GO HOME!” implicate not only the Western Europeans but the North Americans. This process was also employed with United States dollar bills. These altered currencies continued to function in their intended ways, yet also acted subversively throughout the culture.

Another of the Insertions used equally common and utilitarian objects: glass Coca Cola bottles. These bottles used the standard deposit system of the period to promote reuse. When empty of their contents, the artist printed similar messages on the sides of the bottles. These remained essentially invisible until they were reintroduced to the Coca Cola factory and then placed, refilled, back on store shelves. The message “YANKEES GO HOME!” was all the more appropriate when visible on a product that remains a potent international symbol of American consumerism. The printing of this message on both the bottles and the dollar bills is an obvious indictment of the Monroe Doctrine and the influence and intervention of the United States in Latin American affairs.

A larger room sized installation, Red Shift, 1967-84, appears to be born out of Minimalist environments. The first of the three rooms in the installation—Red Shift: I. Impregnation—is arranged like an actual living space in a home, except that every object is red. These consumer products and materials were all created red at the factory, they are not simply painted to fit the space. There are variations in the hue, but there is an overwhelming sense of being engulfed in this color. Even the subtitle of Impregnation suggests an encasement within a womb.
As one enters Red Shift there is a sense that there is more to the space than the mere unease related to color perceptions. There is a noise—the sound of constantly running water—yet in this chamber there is no indication as to where the sound is centered. This beckons the observer to move deeper within the environment.

In the second room (Red Shift: II. Spill/Surrounding) one encounters a corridor where a small glass bottle appears to have spilled an unknown red liquid all over the floor. Closer inspection reveals that this liquid would actually fill a volume much greater than that of the small bottle. The viewer is confronted with this inconsistency. The direction of the spilled red liquid then leads into the final room: Red Shift: III. Shift.

Here, the viewer experiences a darkened space with a large porcelain sink, tilted diagonally, with a continuous flow of red liquid spewing and splattering from the spigot. It appears that this is what the viewer was meant to eventually stumble upon. Though his methods and materials are certainly varied, Red Shift is a work that seems somewhat different from earlier Meireles works. The spatial considerations seem to connect it to the rest of his oeuvre, while the strain of Roman Catholic imagery and symbols also connects the works and cannot be denied. Just as there are multiple interpretations of the animal bone “sky” of Mission/Missions, there are undoubtedly various analyses of this bloody fount in Red Shift.

Contemporary art aficionados might connect the sink in Red Shift to the sinks in the work of American Robert Gober. A former Catholic, Gober works out of a similar place as Meireles, wherein the iconography of centuries of Roman Catholicism subconsciously manifests itself in multifaceted forms. Both artists endow ordinary objects with manifold symbolic meanings. Though Gober’s sinks reference concepts of baptism and sexuality, both artists, through the use of porcelain bathroom fixtures, automatically reference Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain.

Since much of Meireles’ work explores the sufferings of the indigenous Brazilians at the hands of their European colonizers, the blood-like flow of Red Shift seems to indicate Brazil’s blood soaked landscape. Whether referencing incidents from the sixteenth century or the late twentieth, the sacrificial tenor of the work may also lend itself to other interpretations. After all, the red flowing fountain in Meireles’ work digs deeper into art historical sources than those of just the past century.

Red Shift‘s biblical allusions are more clearly recognizable in a much earlier pre-Renaissance work by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb is better known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Its central image portrays a scene from the final New Testament book of Revelation in which the hosts of heaven bow down before Jesus in the guise of the Lamb of God. The Lamb, standing on a sarcophagus that resembles the high altar of a church, spouts a stream of blood into a eucharistic chalice. There is something about the purity gained through the messy affair of sacrifice that links the van Eyck painting to the Minimalist scene spattered with blood in Red Shift.

Each artwork mimics the late nineteenth century hymn, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?(Elisha Hoffman, 1878):

When the Bridegroom cometh will your robes be white?
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?
Will your soul be ready for the mansions bright,
And be washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the blood,
In the soul cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are you garments spotless?
Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

This is essay is a shortened and edited version of the one that will appear in the Spring 2011 issue of CIVA's SEEN Journal.