From Painting to Therapeutic Practice: Conversation about Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988
In recent years, exhibitions and performances that explore ephemeral forms have made urgent various questions of re-presentation, re-performance, and re-restaging within the institutional environment. To some extent, this trend toward re-creation and re-presentation is ubiquitous, in the same way that the “participatory” experience is now ever present among sites of cultural production.
Curator Connie Butler has been actively engaged with such issues in her practice. During her tenure at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) (from 1996 to 2006), she mounted the groundbreaking exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2006) and co-curated the major retrospective Robert Smithson (2004). As Chief Curator of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she recently organized On Line:Drawing Through the Twentieth Century (2011) and co-curated the survey Greater New York (2010) at MoMA PS1. Butler, who now serves as Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, co-organized the first major retrospective for Brazilian artist Lygia Clark in the United States, which opened at MoMA in May 2014.
In this interview, Butler discusses her curatorial strategies for displaying Clark’s practice, which spans from painting and sculpture to participatory proposals, relational objects, and therapeutic practice. Notably, the Brazilian artist’s late body of work—her therapies—introduces a unique set of questions.
Julia McCornack: In the WACK! show, you presented three works by Clark: Camisa de força (Straitjacket, 1969/2007); Rede de elásticos (Elastic net, 1974/2007); and Cabeça coletiva (Collective head, 1975/2007). All of these works were re-creations. Would you talk about the presentation of Clark’s work in WACK! and how that presentation informed your current decisions?
Connie Butler: It’s complicated, because Clark is not alive. When an artist is gone, you have to somehow get as close to their original intentionality as you can. Or, you have to very clearly delineate it and be transparent about the fact that it’s an abstraction in some way, or an extrapolation from the original work. In Clark’s case, a very strong estate is involved: the artist’s family is actively involved in keeping the flame of her work and in trying to re-situate it historically and honor the original spirit of her desire for interaction with the audience and the viewer. What they basically insist on is that if you want to show the work, you have to show [replicas or exhibition copies] in cases where an original does not exist. The replica that’s used gets destroyed after the exhibition is over. For example, with Rede de elásticos, we had to remake that several times during the WACK! exhibition. In the case of Camisa de força, we did have the option, I think, of showing the so-called original…a vintage one from the 1970s (which will be part of the exhibition at MoMA). At that time, I decided that I was comfortable with showing the replica, and then trying through film and through photographs to enliven the installation and get across to the viewer this idea of interactivity. People were encouraged to interact with Rede de elásticos and Cabeça coletiva. I think for that show, because it was a big group show, these decisions were satisfactory.
I’ve since seen Clark’s work displayed in a number of cases where the originals——or those things made at the time of the relational works and participatory works that still exist——are displayed. In the Tropicália exhibition (2005), they were presented in Plexiglas cases so you had some sense of the aura of these historical objects and could somehow understand them as sculptural forms, which I really think they are, and attend to their materiality, their color. There’s no question to me that they have a kind of auratic presence that’s really important. And to me, that’s the most effective way of situating and looking at these objects, even though it is not perfect.
For the presentation at MoMA, I would say there were moments when we actually thought of only showing the vintage objects and not doing any participation. And we quickly decided that was not the right idea, and everyone who knew the artist says that you absolutely have to honor the participatory aspect because it was so important to her. What we’ve now come to is a hybrid approach. What we’re thinking is that rather than a classical, small, white-cube kind of gallery, there will be much more of an open space where works will be seen in a kind of bigger spatial mix, almost in an environmental and expansive way.
Then, for example, with the Bichos (Critters) [small manipulative sculptures], we’re going to have some kind of large pedestal or table where you will look at a cluster of the original Bichos in all their different sizes. Then, rather than having replicas available on a table, [we’ve decided] to work with what we’re calling “facilitators.” They are people who’ve been trained in either performance or dance, so that they have some sense of their own body but also of an audience and how to interact with an audience. Those people will be in the exhibition and bring to each viewer at various points in the exhibition a Bicho, and engage one-on-one with the audience, interactively and in a conversation. The other thing that is interesting, that was pointed out by a number of people who’ve re-staged her works, is how important the verbal is. We tend to forget this in all of these documentary images. As you’re interacting with these things, say you’re putting on Clark’s rubber coat or you’re activating the breathing tube, there is conversation, there is a kind of sociality to it.
Clark’s work and her career are so elliptical, she comes back to certain thematics over and over that you can trace sometimes from very early paintings and drawings. For example, take the notion of the spiral, which you can see in the very earliest work and various late works. We thought that it would be interesting if you could stand in front of her early painting of a staircase and then turn around and have a facilitator come up to you with a Bicho that also has within it a spiral motion. That way, you’d be looking at a static image where the movement begins, or the representation of movement begins, and then you could actually experience it by manipulating the Bicho. We liked the idea that the live person could, maybe, push at juxtapositions; whereas, if you just encounter all the replicas on a table, then you’re just standing there with a bunch of replicas. One of the things we felt wasn’t satisfactory is this encountering of a pedestal of dead objects. For me that distance between the pedestal of dead objects and the potential of liveness could only be bridged with a live person facilitating it. The therapies are a different question.
JM: This is the first large-scale presentation of Clark’s work in the United States. What approaches did you take for showing her work in that context, specifically New York, and not in her native country, Brazil?
CB: I think that there are ways in which the work can be read—and I’m really interested in this although I’m not the most qualified person to read it this way—in terms of Brazilian political history. There are a few scholars, including Suely Rolnik, who have written about it this way. It so much has to do with the situation of dictatorship and the restriction of the body. And, the political body and incarceration seems key. But in the United States, I think the challenge is to keep some of that intact, but then to also recognize that it’s just not going to be read the same way because we don’t have that history. Then the condition of the audience in New York, at least the contemporary art audience, is a very particular one because it is now immersed in these questions of performance and re-performance within the museum. So there’s a certain kind of viewer that is going to know about Tino Seghal, Marina Abramovic´, and Allan Kaprow, and bring a real criticality to what we do. And they expect us, to some extent, to get it right in terms of re-performance.
There are people in Brazil, people who knew her and people like Guy Brett [a Clark scholar], who said, “The work precludes showing in a museum institution.” I think that’s true more of Allan Kaprow than Clark, because Kaprow didn’t actually want the museum institution. He actually wanted to move out of it, so when you breach that by bringing him back into the institution, that seems a fundamental question. That said, of course, the Kaprow retrospective should have, could have, and did happen. Clark ended up back in Brazil with her showing in museums again, making exhibitions, which she helped install. The larger point is that she was extremely ambitious and was an international artist. She showed at the Venice Biennale.
Clark exhibited early paintings and relational objects but not the therapies. As I understand it, when she moved into making therapeutic work, she saw that as separate from her artwork. What we’re trying to do is actually bring the therapies into the exhibition context. That’s been done one time before, when Rolnik mounted an exhibition in France. She has films of many of Clark’s therapeutic clients talking about their experience, so that exhibition in Nantes at least referenced the therapies. Rolnik has asserted that this is very much part of the trajectory, which I believe too.
But getting back to the New York context, there’s the question of MoMA, which is a challenging one. So many of Clark’s influences, European influences, like Mondrian and painters such as Max Bill, are all represented in MoMA’s collection. For her to be seen in that company is fabulous. You can walk upstairs and see Mondrian, and see many of these artists, such as Léger, whom she was thinking about in her early work, who were so important in her early training. Calder is another one. This situates her much more internationally than has been the case in Brazil. She’s not written into an international art history. She’s begun to be, but not properly.
JM: What other exhibition models did you look to for the presentation of this retrospective?
CB: There’s a fascinating little picture that comes from her archives of an exhibition at the Paço Imperial in the 1980s that Clark was involved with before she died in 1988. It’s just a funny little image of her sitting in the exhibition, as if waiting for the audience or a person. It was so touching to me and so important to see her inserting her own body, and presence and authorship, really. It’s not an interlocutor; it’s her waiting to engage with the viewer. And that was really important to me, and it confirmed this idea of embodiment, how important it is to have some kind of live interaction. We’ve been interested in looking at exhibitions during her lifetime, which I think are always important as a key to how the artist thought about presentation.
In terms of contemporary shows, I think the thing that I’ve thought about most is the area of dance and choreography. A Fundació Antoni Tàpies retrospective of Xavier Le Roy, a French choreographer and dancer, was really important to me for the way that he was thinking about representing a career, but also pulling apart and interrogating the notion of the retrospective as a monolithic, canonizing form that we make in museums. In Le Roy’s case, the performers are integral to the structure of the exhibition. Each performer curated not only Le Roy’s work for the viewer, but also mini retrospectives of their own personal movement, experience of movement, and so on. That was really interesting to me in terms of thinking about the curatorial as a kind of choreographic gesture of restaging works and a career. One of the fundamental questions that [Clark’s relational] works try to get at, and that she was interested in, is transference of authorship to the viewer as participant.
JM: What were your curatorial strategies for displaying the three distinct stages of Clark’s career within one gallery space?
CB: We began with notions of interrogating the form of the retrospective. Also, our thought was that because of the radical proposal that her work makes of dismantling authorship and hierarchical consideration, even of history, one can say, it justified [a different] kind of curatorial move. At the beginning, we had the idea of curating into Clark’s retrospective clusters around different thematics in her work, clusters of objects by other artists, actually. For example, the easiest example is with the early geometric abstraction. We thought to include a Mondrian, a Léger, etc., and to use her work almost as a spine off of which you’d have these galleries of influence or thematic groupings. One of the problems I had with that was that I really wanted to see an all-Clark exhibition. But also, I’m a viewer who has Mondrian in mind, so I don’t need those objects quite as immediately. And again, at MoMA they are hanging upstairs. In the end, I felt, why does a woman artist, and a dead one, have to be the one who has her retrospective organized in this very unorthodox way, when in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that what she would have wanted was just a straight up approach? I mean, who knows, but what she may have wanted, and does deserve, is first a laying out of all the work.
We’ve actually come back to more or less a chronology because the other thing I think you have to account for is just the regular viewer who comes to the exhibition knowing nothing. And mostly the American audience doesn’t know this work at all. So, the clearest thing to do is just to lay it out. But we’ve tried to do certain things. The galleries have kind of an L shape, and you’ll enter on the early paintings, and move through about up to Caminhando (Walking), which is from 1963. All of that early work will move along in a more or less conventional way. And then, you’ll sort of round the corner of the L and move into a space that’s much more open. There won’t be many walls. You’ll see sculptures or paintings in the distance of the Bichos, for example. You’ll encounter this kind of pedestal accumulation of Bichos, so the interactivity will start there.
Then, there will be the feeling, we hope, toward the later part of the exhibition of a real shift in the tenor and look of the show where the more participatory works will be activated. One of the really key works is Caminhando, from 1963. There is something so radical about it that it takes her a while to figure out how to incorporate it. We feel it’s important to have the action [of Caminhando] over and over and over in the show. It is a kind of personal performance, performed by each viewer, potentially.
JM: How are you approaching the display of documentation?
CB: There’s not that much documentation. There are two films, one of which was made with her participation during her lifetime by one of her sons and another made shortly after [her death]. And those moving images are especially important because of the liveness question. Another thing we’ve decided to do is to have short videos of different people, of hands and bodies manipulating certain of the key works, maybe a Bicho or Caranguejo (Crab) (1960), which is one of the first ones. And then have those videos appear at different moments throughout the exhibition, so there’s always movement…. And liveness. When I was originally organizing WACK!, I remember distinctly that when I was talking to Guy Brett about how to present Clark’s work, he said that [it was important to] show film and photographs at a certain scale——at human scale——to preserve their immersive quality.
There are really wonderful archival photographs of exhibitions during her life, which are almost all black and white. She was clearly very aware of her own image. She was photographed a lot with the work; she was very striking. I think you have to be careful, especially with women artists, that you don’t just end up with lots of fabulous pictures of them, dressed up, posing with their sculpture, because that’s so problematic. At the same time, it’s also useful, so we’ll do some photographic blow-ups.
There were a couple of magazines that were important in Brazil at the time, particularly the time of Neo-Concretism, publishing the writings of the Neo-Concrete artists and their manifesto, and so on. We’re going to have some archival presence of those, and the MoMA archive now has a great collection. Plus Clark wrote beautifully and voluminously. She wrote a whole text on Caminhando and a whole text on the Bichos. We’re republishing a lot of the writings for the first time in English in the catalog. There’s a lot of recent footage of the restaging of certain works, but I don’t think we’ll get into that because then you get into photographs of documentation of re-presentation. There are so many levels of remove there that it’s hard to know what you’re actually looking at.
JM: How are you planning to display Clark’s relational objects? In what ways is this category separate from the therapeutic work and the participatory work?
CB: The therapeutic work starts around 1974. The so-called therapeutic objects, like the Ping-Pong ball, the plastic bag, the shells, the bag with sand, and so on, are associated with the therapies. The relational objects and the participatory work, which are the works that Clark was doing when she was in Paris, come before that. Those works were made collaboratively with the students at the Sorbonne, like Rede de elásticos, Camisa de força, Baba antropofágica (Anthropophagic slobber, 1973), and Canibalismo (Cannibalism, 1973). Those works are also going to be demonstrated periodically by facilitators. There will be re-stagings or re-mountings of these other works, like Baba antropofágica, that are participatory, but they require the group, or have a different kind of performativity. It’s not like a one-on-one experience with the object.
JM: You will re-create some of the relational objects and participatory works?
CB: Yes. I think those activities are much less like a performance—which is how we’ve come to understand them, partly because of how the documentation images them—than a kind of social interaction. They’re sloppy, and they’re not predictable.
JM: Clark’s therapeutic practice involved a direct engagement between the artist and the subject, which included the application of materials to the body of the person undergoing therapy. What are your strategies for presenting Clark’s therapeutic work? How do you restage a private process in an exhibition, and how can you reproduce the intimacy of this practice?
CB: I think that the truth is that you can’t. You can either try to get as close to it as you can—with the inevitable failure built into it—or you can accept the notion that no matter what you do, it’s an abstraction of the thing and an interpretation of it, which you have to just be comfortable with. With the therapies, which are different from the relational objects, we initially thought, “Would we make a space within the exhibition that was where the therapies would happen?” It would be a sort of private space. But then you have people lining up and a kind of Disneyland effect that I don’t think anyone wants. We thought of having the therapies off-site to preserve the privacy of them in a way. I had early on thought of a space in the Lower East Side, or a storefront or something. We also now have the incredible opportunity to work with Lula Wanderley, who, with his wife, are the only two remaining people who still practice the therapies in Rio. And he is extraordinary. Really, in my opinion, the living legacy of the work is there with him in that he’s doing real healing work, which is a kind of art therapy with objects that are based on Clark’s therapeutic objects. Wanderley trained the facilitators for the Rolnik show that I mentioned. He initially told us that he was done doing that and didn’t want to do it anymore. But then he came back and said that he had thought about it and that to honor Clark’s legacy, he was willing to come and work with us. In some ways, when Lula had said, “No,” that sort of freed us up. We thought, “Well, we can do some sort of real interpretation that’s really not the thing, but something much more interpretative and abstract.” Then, Lula said, “Yes.” It’s an amazing opportunity. He will come to train these facilitators…but he will also talk to us.
We have decided to invite about eight contemporary artists and scholars [to design and lead workshops]. We are going to have them respond to either particular works or just…the notion of the workshop and the therapies, …not to come up with works of their own, but rather a workshop situation of some kind. It could be a performance, a meal, a conversation, a whatever. In the spirit of it all, I feel like it’s a way of leaving the end of the exhibition, and the end of her career, very open-ended. Almost like a question, which I think is very appropriate to her work.
JM: You seem to believe that Clark’s real legacy is found within her therapeutic work. Why? Does it have anything to do with the space of the museum changing and becoming more participatory?
CB: It didn’t make sense to do the retrospective without at least gesturing toward the therapies and the later work. I do think it’s true that the institution and the environment, in a contemporary discourse in general, have become much more interested in performativity. As with other museums, at MoMA there is an engagement with participatory practices among the staff who do the educational programming and Pablo Helguera, in particular, who has written a book on participatory work. The boundaries between social practice and education are linked, which in fact owes much to Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, whose thinking had an impact on Clark’s work. In the case of MoMA, the museum now has direct experience dealing with facilitators, actors, and re-performers. This applies even on the human resources level of, “How do you deal with people who are in the gallery performing a service that is part of the artwork over time?” Or, “How do you deal with insurance?” Or, “nudity in the galleries.” There’s a team of people now who are really experienced in how to deal with it, so there’s the willingness and the desire for it. This raises nuts-and-bolts questions, like: “How much money is there? How much liveness can the money afford? What is the insurance like?” There are all these realities of the institution that come into play. “How many visitors do you get?” It’s far easier if you don’t get a lot of visitors, you know. When you’re at MoMA and you’ve got too many visitors, how do you deal with this?
JM: The participatory works, such as those that took place at the Sorbonne, have a historicity. What entry points are guiding your approach to bringing this practice to our current generation? In what ways are you thinking about how these works can engage viewers in 2014?
CB: The year 1968 is a very different context for ideas about the body and activism and even what it meant to occupy public space at that time. That was a very different moment than now, where participation means pulling out iPhones and taking pictures of friends looking at the paintings somewhere in the background. It’s a totally different thing! And yet I do think that, maybe because of the Internet and different ideas of social networks, the current audience exists similarly with one another, either digitally or in space. But it still has changed so much. When MoMA—and other museums that I’ve encountered—have had an exhibition or an artist who somehow shifts the institutional space into being more of a social space and invites engagement in a different way, it generates a huge response. People love this kind of thing. They want to participate. I don’t know where that leads one. If the gathering in public by young people in 1968 meant participation, meant a kind of activism in a way, or a really particular relation to the politics of the time, that certainly is very different from the audience at MoMA in 2014. That might be true if we were in Cairo or Beirut. The work would mean something really different. And it would be fascinating to see what it might mean. I guess the truth about these projects is that there is no way of going back; we all have this tremendous nostalgia for that moment. There are new ways of being in public, as we know from the Occupy movement. There’s no point in trying to re-create what that would have been for those participants. All we can do is look at the archival images and realize, somehow, that it was one thing then and it’s a different thing now.
JM: Clark conducted her therapies and treated individuals in her own studio. What happens when her therapeutic work becomes institutionalized? Isn’t there a danger when you institutionalize a practice that Clark did not want to be considered art?
CB: I do think it’s fraught with potential problems. In the clinic in Rio where Wanderley is still practicing the therapies, he’s working with severely disabled people. He’s practicing on people who are really marginalized in society and institutionalized. That’s different than having an art audience sign up online for therapies. And that’s why I think we’re not comfortable doing it or trying to replicate it, because you can’t replicate it. The contexts are too different and I think it dishonors the actual context. I’m just not comfortable with that. I think what Lula will do is try, from his own experience and from knowing Clark quite intimately for many years, to train the facilitators who will handle the Bichos, the relational objects, and those more participatory works. And I think that is fine, I am comfortable with that. Because, again, all of those are replicas, they’re not the real things. It’s all an extrapolation. There’s no way that what we do will be anything but secondary to that or different in ways that we aren’t comfortable with. So, we are not going to do therapies per se, but we’ve come up with this workshop format that will be intimate, or at least with a small and engaged group of viewers. The workshops will be led by artists responding to different things in the work, and our hope is that it will begin to ask more questions than it answers about what the potentialities were and are for that therapeutic work, for the kind of engagement that she was proposing.
JM: Allan Kaprow systematized the future re-presentation of his Happenings and Activities by devising the term reinvention. What definitions did you look to for the re-presentation and re-staging of Clark’s participatory work?
CB: She died before she had figured much of that out. The one example we have is this late show at the Paço Imperial, where she was involved with Luciano Figueiredo, who is an artist and also a curator and close friend of hers. They mounted the exhibition together. We have some indication—based on images, Luciano’s memory, and all—of what she wanted for that show. That’s one place we look. But I don’t think there is any one definition. And again, I think Clark’s work is sort of against definitions. There isn’t one source. Some of the most obvious solutions are not the most interesting, you know? One can make a plastic Bicho and sell it in the gift shop. That’s something. But, you know, another thought we’ve had is, maybe you put a Bicho on the fourth floor of MoMA among the collection galleries near a Mondrian. So actually Clark intervenes in that very static history and presentation. That seems super interesting to me——it’s not one definition.
[When reviewing] the press release, I said, “You can say sculpture…you can say painting. You cannot say performance art. You can’t use the word performance because she was not thinking about it that way.” And there is no good term. We settled on “social practice.” And I said it could also be called “participatory art.” Clark’s work is not written into that history yet, and as a result, there isn’t a good terminology for it. In the press release, “abandonment of art” is her wording, not ours. Recent graduate students like you, years from now, are going to look at these things [differently]. In a few years from now, it’s going to look totally lame what we decided to call it! It’s all shifting at this moment.
Julia McCornack is a 2014 graduate of University of Southern California’s M.A. Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere program. Her recent research is focused on Allan Kaprow’s notion of reinvention and its application to the artist’s impermanent works, particularly as staged in Allan Kaprow—Art as Life (2008) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.