“Much of my work is concerned with a discussion of the space of human life, which is so broad and vague,” Meireles once observed. “Space in its various manifestations covers psychological, social, political, physical and historical arenas. . . . I don't think it really matters if an interaction between a utopian space and a real space is achieved or not. I think that there is an almost alchemical aspect: you are also being transformed by what you are doing.” The mapping and measuring of space has preoccupied Meireles from the time of his early series Virtual Spaces: Cantos (1966-68), in which the corners of domestic space suggestively divert Euclidean geometry. In his iconic Insertions into Ideological Circuits (1970), in which he printed banknotes and Coca-Cola bottles with dissident messages and returned them to general circulation, he probed the recursive logic of networks and the power of the (multi-)national institutions behind them. Among the generation that came of age in the early years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Meireles pioneered Conceptual art with works that explored systems feedback and phenomenological experience, often with trenchant political overtones.
Entangled with his negotiation of space are questions of scale and displacement. Southern Cross (1969-70), a wooden cube nine millimeters square, is intended to occupy an area of at least two hundred square meters; its space is at once diminutive and extravagant. The labyrinthine installation Fontes, shown at Documenta IX in 1992 and to which Metros Estudo is related, presents the comparative excesses of incommensurability. Consisting of 6,000 yellow carpenter’s rulers, 1,000 yellow clocks, and 500,000 black numerical labels, the work takes the double-spiral (infinity) shape of the Milky Way. Fontes distills the Cartesian anxiety of the modern world in its subversion of time and space, through rulers and clocks that have no utility and in the accompanying tick-tock soundtracks set to four different times. “At some moments, when I was installing the piece and had that avalanche of numbers,” Meireles reflected of Fontes, “in a way you were very close to the other thing but you had no way of seeing it, the sensation of the isolation of the individual was something that I only appreciated when the work was finished. . . . But the most surprising thing was that sensation of isolation. As if the subject had been reduced to just another algorithm.”
“Fontes is the extension and the origin of knowledge – where we are, when we are, and ultimately, why we are,” Paulo Herkenhoff has observed. “In this work, traditional means of rendering objects – linear perspective and Euclidean representation – are shown to be fallacious or inadequate. Geometry as a symbol of Renaissance form and Panofskian vision is no longer in the frame but spread over a broad visual field. Meireles proposes a deformation of space wherein the very notion of mensurability has been lost.” This deconstruction of geometry had already begun, of course, in the 1960s with the development of Brazilian Neo-concretism and its dematerialization of the art object, led by Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. Meireles has acknowledged this precedent and its further entanglement with the history of abstraction (no less, of the monochrome), but Fontes honors equally the Duchampian tradition of the readymade.
Among the references that Meireles has cited for Fontes is Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14), a work based on a premise that begins: “If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases and creates a new image of the unit of length.” Duchamp proceeded accordingly, dropping three threads onto stretched canvases and adhering them exactly as they fell, preserving the randomly curved shapes that they formed. A play on the metric system and the “universal” measure of a meter, Three Standard Stoppages introduced the idea of the readymade – epitomized in Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), an additional point of reference for Fontes – and of chance to the making of art. In Metros Estudo, Meireles extends a yellow carpenter’s ruler in a shape suggestive of the Big Dipper, anticipating the galactic purview of Fontes; the length of its outline is two meters. The ruler encloses twenty single rules, each showing the same fragment of the whole, their redundancy both a send-up of scientific rationalism and an instance, as Meireles reflected, of “the idea of creating a forest of numbers as a formal metaphor for the universe.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Cildo Meireles, quoted in Gerardo Mosquera, “In Conversation with Cildo Meireles,” Cildo Meireles (London: Phaidon, 1999), 19-20.
2 Meireles, quoted in Nuria Enguita, “Places for Digressions (An interview with Cildo Meireles),” Cildo Meireles (Barcelona: IVAM Centre del Carme, 1995), 165.
3 Paulo Herkenhoff, “A Labyrinthine Ghetto: The Work of Cildo Meireles,” Cildo Meireles, 71, 73.
4 Marcel Duchamp, The Writings of Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973), 22.
5 Meireles, quoted in Enguita, “Places for Digressions,” 165.