Lygia Clark: From Painter to Mystic
You are no longer a viewer. The artwork as a finished object before which you are placed is gone. Now you are a participant. You are invited to hold a two-inch wide band of paper and twist it into a Moebius strip. Next you are asked to make an incision on it using the tip of a pair of scissors and start cutting continuously along the length of the strip. You get on with the task. Importantly, however, you have to take care to find untrodden “paths” in an increasingly narrow expanse of paper so as to be able to keep cutting. You can go left or right, that’s up to you; the important thing is that you keep cutting. But sooner or later you will have to stop—your scissors, however thin or sharp, will find no more paper to cut. At that point you will have been left with a pile of paper spaghetti ready for the trash (fig. 1). Your action will not have produced any tangible outcome. It was the act itself that mattered.
In this case, as Lygia Clark put it in 1963, “the work is your act.”1 The work in question, evocatively titled Caminhando (Walking), was the first of many “propositions” that would come to define her latter-day production.2 These are intriguing artworks and somewhat difficult to characterize collectively. While many, like this one, are eminently discursive, they still involve dealing with things. The artist offers the participants simple materials like string, plastic bags, rubber bands, or tubes of fabric, or alternatively asks them to gather those objects. Such things might be meant to be manipulated by a single individual or rather require the presence of several participants. Despite these differences, however, all of Clark’s propositions revolve around the participant’s experience of actions to be undertaken with “an object that has no importance in itself and which will only take on such to the extent that the participant will act” (NB 101).
This approach to the artwork did not emerge ex nihilo; it resulted from a series of substantial revisions in Clark’s practice and her relation to the medium. As is known, Clark started out as a painter in the late 1940s, yet by the mid-1950s she turned her efforts to destroying the picture as a bounded object, seeking to both incorporate real space into painting and allow painting to spill out into real space. It was this latter endeavor that, by the late 1950s, cemented her status as the leading figure in the Rio de Janeiro-based Neoconcrete Group, with her work serving as the chief inspiration for critic Ferreira Gullar’s theory of the “nonobject.”3 For a number of reasons (of which more later), Clark abandoned painting by 1960 and, after her celebrated series of manipulable objects, the Bichos, she left behind the discrete art object definitively in 1963.
This trajectory can be scrutinized from different perspectives and contexts of interpretation. Taking Clark’s abandonment of painting as a key inflection point, we might, for example, construe her later work as resulting from a rejection of the quintessentially modernist notions of medium specificity and artistic autonomy.4 Alternatively, though not perforce adversarially, we might cast Clark’s trajectory as a steady progression toward participation and away from both the commodity-form of the artwork and the passive, contemplative mode of spectatorship routinely attributed to painting in contemporary quarters.5 In this latter sense, moreover, we might even characterize Clark’s break with painting as being motivated by the pursuit of Gullar’s nonobject, that is, an “ideal object” whose most salient feature “consists in being open to the spectator’s effective participation, the overall result being the breaking of the contemplative relation between the two.”6
For as widely as these approaches might differ in their investments, they can nevertheless be found to reflect a rather broad historical outlook, offering Clark’s trajectory as either a symptom or a paradigmatic case for understanding the end of modernism, the rise of participatory art, or the history of neoconcretism. In this paper, I offer a decidedly narrow account compared to those capacious narratives; rather than focusing on the “larger context” (however one might define it), I bring to the fore Clark’s views of self and world at the crucial juncture in which she was yet to abandon painting. In following this route, I am certainly not implying that the meaning of the artwork is to be found in the realm of the artist’s philosophical beliefs, less so that an artist is invariably her own best interpreter. What I want is to draw attention to an intellectual and personal event—namely the “mystical turn” that Clark experienced circa 1959—that might shed a new light on the possibilities and limits of Clark’s late work as well as on participatory art more broadly.
I will take the short period comprised between 1957 and 1958 as my starting point, since those years saw Clark conducting her last experiments with painting. The outcome of this inquiry was the 1958 Unidades (“Units,” but also “Unities”) series, which consists of a collection of square wood boards, measuring thirty centimeters on each side, and covered in a matte black industrial paint applied evenly with a spray gun (fig. 2). Those objects would be identical were it not for the distinct placement of a variable number of white lines that run along the edges and at times across the center of each one (figs. 3 and 4). Strictly speaking, these white lines are not graphic: they are in fact grooves in the wood that have been painted with highly reflective industrial paint. While physically set behind the ground plane, they tend to optically jump out in front of the ground, especially under certain lighting conditions. The lines that run along the edges likewise distort the perfect square of the board and blur the limit between the work and its surroundings. In Clark’s own words, they are “light-lines”: “absolutely identical lines, horizontals and verticals, [which] jointly produce an oblique tension that distorts the painting: therefore the space [of the painting] reveals itself as a moment of the surrounding space.”7 The “oblique tension”—the twisting and warping of the plane in the viewer’s vision—thus results from the concurrent action of three sets of oppositions at play in the Unidades: black and white, matte and shiny, three-dimensional (grooves) and two-dimensional (lines).
There are several things going on here. To begin, the presence of the grooves suggests a certain interest in revealing the materiality of the picture plane—one that in turn might allow us to infer, not incorrectly, an effort to expose both the falseness of painterly illusionism and the “truth” of painting as an object in space. Indeed, the bits of wood that hold the boards at a slight distance from the wall—making them subject to an exaggerated play of light and shadow in the room—offer support for this interpretation. But this is only half the story. The grooves, it should be noted, do not fully deny illusion because the paint applied to them produces a rather different sort of illusion—that optical twisting and warping. It is precisely the interplay between these two blatantly contradictory orders that allows the Unidades to create a new sense of spatiality. To put it differently: in disrupting the flat plane, the light-lines not only make evident the thickness of the painting in space; they also unite viewer, work, and the surrounding space into a composite (a composite unit, that is) of space and time. Here space and time become inextricably linked: the Unidades’ effect of spatiality is only activated by the viewer’s gaze and body and disappears just as quickly in their absence. Theirs is therefore a space that can only be said to exist in the here-and-now of the encounter of viewer and work.
Taking on this newly found sense of contingency and situatedness, Gullar would write of the Unidades in 1958: “From the integration of the painting into architectural space, we shift now to the integration of the painting in space itself, on equal footing with architecture.”8 In these works, Gullar thought, painting was no longer an object that merely occupied space; it became a source of space itself as well as the very event of that space’s emergence. It is quite possible that in the Unidades he saw a paradigm of sorts of what the following year he would define as a nonobject.9 This category, as Sérgio Martins neatly puts it, is grounded in a double negation: “on the one hand, the choice of the word ‘object’ itself denies medium-specificity; on the other, the prefix ‘non-’ denies the immediate consequence of that denial, namely the perceptual leveling of the artwork to the ensemble of ordinary objects in the world” (CAG 19). Thus Gullar envisioned an object that could approach the everyday—the real space of the viewer—while maintaining a distance from the realms of language and use in which ordinary objects had not only been caught up but exhausted.10 The active implication of this conceptualization, which proved essential for the neoconcretist movement of which Gullar was the main theorist, was to pursue an art object that could offer an unalienated relation with its viewer cum participant.
It is not clear, however, to what extent Clark underwrote Gullar’s particular views when she was at work on the Unidades—or even after, for that matter. If one leafs through her journal entries from 1957 (which are key to understanding the rationale behind the Unidades), one can readily discern that her efforts were largely centered on the question of space: topics discussed include “the need for external space to participate in the internal composition of a surface” or the possibility of “finding a cylindrical [i.e., curved] space” by playing with “positive and negative planes.”11 Her purported goal, one can gather, was to achieve a “space-time” in painting so as to overcome the traditional opposition between the composition (what she would call the “idea”) and its material support. That opposition, she thought, had engendered two untenable a prioris: on the one hand, the a priori of a surface on which the artist would compose and, on the other, the a priori of a painting that was presented to the viewer as a finished object to be passively contemplated. Faced with this twofold problem, Clark set out to transform the surface of the painting into “an organic body” in which “the idea is integrated into its own support.” For that integration to be successful, she concluded, the “space” of the painting ought to emerge only at the time of viewing—it ought to be a “space-time.”
These eminently formal observations about the question of space are no doubt animated by a strong phenomenological impulse akin to that of Gullar. Still, it should be noted that whereas Gullar was clear as to his goals (he was explicitly committed to stripping the subject-object relationship of all its utilitarian determinations), Clark generally refrained from asserting her own philosophical position at this juncture. In fact, it seems that at this point, it was not yet clear to her what larger implications the notion of space-time held. Sooner rather than later, however, she would realize that her central preoccupation was ethical rather than aesthetic—the self rather than the status of the art object.
In this sense, Clark’s journal entries of 1959 can be said to signal a major shift in both her thought and overall approach. Not only does her writing get more personal and introspective; it also acquires strong religious overtones. It is at this point, I believe, that Clark would apply herself to pursuing what she would variously call the “moment” or the “instant,” taking as a point of departure what had originally been an eminently formal concern of hers—the space-time. No source is to my mind more revealing of this shift than the very intense letter she penned in May 1959 to her “friend” and “old teacher” Piet Mondrian. They never met, and there is no chance Mondrian could have ever read that letter—which was, in fact, a diary entry—as by the time Clark composed it, he had been dead some fifteen years. The letter exudes a curious sense of camaraderie and even intimacy. It is not impossible that Clark felt entitled to write in such a key given her keen understanding of Mondrian’s project; in stark contrast to the North Atlantic postwar tendency to cast Mondrian as either an idealist painter or a mere designer, she had identified clearly his investment in the progressive undoing of the fictive space and, eventually, the very surface of painting.12 Even so, Clark writes, “I don’t know what motivated you to work.”13 Following this blunt remark, which reads more like a reproach than a statement of fact, Clark confesses:
If I work, Mondrian, it’s above all to fulfill myself in the highest ethico-religious sense. It’s not just to make one surface or another. If I exhibit, it’s to transmit to someone else this “moment” suspended in the cosmological dynamics, which the artist captures. You, who were a mystic, must have experienced “moments” like this many times over the course of your life, mustn’t you? (CM 114)
It is interesting to see how insistently Clark describes her artistic practice as oriented toward an “ethico-religious” goal—and not just to the making of “one surface or another”—as there are few signs of that central preoccupation in her earlier writings. This confession, I think, should be read as an exercise in self-criticism. In confronting Mondrian, Clark appears to be confronting herself, although at the same time she seems to expect recognition from a person she considers to be a kindred spirit—another mystic. To describe Mondrian as a mystic is of course not uncommon. Yet the term has been used rather loosely, either to refer to Mondrian’s interest in esotericism (especially the Theosophical teachings of Madame Blavatsky) or, more generally, to the sense of spirituality that infused many early projects of abstraction. In her letter, however, Clark invokes a rather different notion of mysticism. Neither school nor doctrine is involved in it but rather a particular kind of experience.
If described from the point of view of the person that undergoes it, that kind of experience, as William James observed in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, can be defined as one entailing notions of ineffability, intuition, transiency, and passivity.14 Mystical experience cannot be transmitted. It is noetic as opposed to dianoetic, immediate rather than discursive, a mystery in the sense of requiring no proof and defying rational explanation. It is also bliss, rapture, ecstasy. In this respect, even though mystics across religions and cultures have prescribed various forms of ascesis and self-discipline as a way of invoking mystical experience, they have done so in the understanding that such an experience cannot be forced or intentionally provoked—it is ultimately a gift. At its core, mystical experience involves an epiphany: the sudden and penetrating revelation of a truth at which language can only hint. This is because the mystical truth is not supposed to impart some knowledge or wisdom about the world in the same way the sciences, for example, do. The mystical truth is not a hypothesis that has been proven via some accepted validation procedure. Nor is it a “message” that can be detached from the experience that brought it about in the first place. If I conduct a successful experiment, for example, my results will stand as valid on their own, which is to say that I will not need to repeat the original experiment every time I want to make known the truth that I have arrived at. The mystical truth is different: it only exists, as a subjective certainty, during the time of its revelation.
The “content” of the mystical truth is therefore to be located in the mystical experience itself. And across the ages that experience has been customarily described as one of union with a transcendent being.15 In the case of monotheistic religions, that being has been identified with an individual personality called God; pagans, and pantheists more generally, have rather offered that entity as the totality of what exists. Though there are significant differences between those two outlooks, mystical experience can be accurately described in both cases as one of self-transcendence. And in this respect, it can even be cast in secular terms: the sense of union and communion that mystical experience entails might have as an object not divinity, but anything larger than the self understood as a self-sufficient, isolated entity.16
Overall, Clark’s religious beliefs and sentiments leaned towards pantheism. In her letter to Mondrian, she writes of how nature, during times of personal crisis, had nourished her “in an almost pantheistic way” (CM 114). And in one of her most programmatic texts, “The Death of the Plane” (1960), she states: “We are a whole, and now the moment has come to reassemble all the pieces of the kaleidoscope into which humanity has been broken up, has been torn into pieces” (NB 96).17 This kind of observation is characteristic of Clark’s post-Unidades writings. Throughout the 1960s, indeed, references to totality and wholeness will appear insistently in her diary entries, with the emphasis invariably being placed on how those two qualities had been lost in the modern world due to the pervasive action of reason. In all this we can certainly detect a very familiar pattern of dissatisfaction with the modern age—a dissatisfaction that, in the words of the noted contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor, has historically manifested itself in the “seeking [of] a kind of unity and wholeness of the self, a reclaiming of the place of feeling, against the one-sided pre-eminence of reason, and a reclaiming of the body and its pleasures from the inferior and often guilt-ridden place it has been allowed in the disciplined, instrumental identity.”18 It is important to note, however, that Clark’s issue was not only with modern reason but with reason tout court, irrespective of epochal qualifications. For her, the essence of reason was to separate, classify, and organize; reason, she thought, tore the totality of what exists apart and rearranged the resulting pieces according to its own principles.
Thus, reason was for Clark a source of division: it separated humans from the natural world but also, and perhaps more importantly, from their own primordial nature. For the general operation by which the self was torn asunder by reason Clark had a specific name—“projection.” This concept was fundamental to her mystical turn. No discussion of it is to be found in her diaries prior to 1960, even though she would routinely utilize the term (predominantly as a verb) to designate the act of making a picture. Beginning in 1960, however, Clark would enlarge the semantic scope of this word; generally speaking, “projection” would come to designate both the act and the result of “sending out” some particular image, thought, or idea that thus acquired objective existence and became external to the subject.
One of such externalizations was the God of monotheistic religions. According to Clark, God was a human invention in virtue of which people had furnished themselves with a “mirror of their own spirituality” (NB 117). Though imperfect, the image of the mirror is quite revealing of what Clark had in mind: her point was that the notion of God as a single transcendent entity was essentially an idealized reflection of the human self. Here we find echoes of the argument that Ludwig Feuerbach famously made in the mid-nineteenth century with regard to Christianity; the Christian self, he claimed, “projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject.”19 Key to this dialectic is the fact that the self does not perceive God as a reflection of itself, but as an entirely different and independent entity to which the self is subordinated. If we were to take God as a paradigmatic case, then, we could say that projections are devices by means of which humans become enslaved to their own subjectivity.
This veiled form of subjection is what Clark found most questionable about projections. In her eyes, they provided us with a false sense of security that ultimately came at the cost of our own freedom. Not all projections, however, functioned as images of otherworldly transcendence. In Clark’s account, the bulk of them were indeed rational constructs that she regarded as manifestly contrary to the natural order of things. In this sense, further instances of projection included the built environment (“when man lived with more space, he could be satisfied, as nature was his habitat; he would awake when light opened upon him and would sleep when night closed in … Today, however, he is confined within massive buildings that squeeze him into their own needs of irradiation”20), ideology (“in an ideology there is always a search for authority, which is an element from the external order and removes the responsibility for the act”21), and even language (“if we crystalize into a language, we stop, inexorably”22). This list is not exhaustive. The notion of projection, as Clark understood it, encompasses practically all forms of social organization as well as their related categories of collective identity: state and citizenship, nation and nationhood, party and militancy, church as a denomination and church as a congregation. To these institutions Clark opposed nature, by which she did not mean only the natural world, but also—in a Rousseaunian vein—the existential condition of man prior to civilization. The world, what is external to the self, could be thus divided into two distinct realms: on the one hand, the realm of projections and, on the other, the realm of nature to which the self would in principle belong in the absence of projections.
It is to this latter realm that Clark would attempt to reach out, seeking to rid the self of all those extraneous mediators whose origins, paradoxically enough, lay in the self. In the years to come, Clark would accordingly regard her practice as both restorative and emancipatory: if the self were to return to its own primordial sources, she came to believe, it would need to reject all the ego-normalizing fantasies that it had projected upon itself. Set against this ethico-religious endeavor, the experience of the “moment”—the here-and-now of an embodied subject—would serve as both a means and an end. This is of course only an approximate description for a “project” (Clark, it goes without saying, would have strongly disapproved of such a designation) that would be otherwise inapprehensible: nothing was indeed more alien to Clark’s late views than the language of means and ends, plans and predictions, causes and effects. If I resort to those terms, it is because I want to make clear that the experience of the “moment” for Clark is a purposeless one. The “moment” is not an outlet to the world that would in principle allow a self-absorbed consciousness to find meaning beyond its own interiority. Nor is it a means by which the subject may reach a higher form of mental life. The “moment” is an end in itself. In Clark’s own words:
Only the instant of the act is life. By its nature, the act contains in itself its own outstripping, its own becoming. The instant of the act is the only living reality in us. To become aware is already to be in the past. The raw perception of the act is the future in the process of making itself. The past and the future are implied in the present-now of the act.23 (NB 100)
The Unidades only hint at this mystical view. Here we find the first example in Clark’s trajectory of a space-time that asserts the priority of the here-and-now as well as an implicit rejection of projection in the inseparability of surface and idea. But, as I have argued in this paper, textual evidence suggests that at this point she was driven by formal rather than religious concerns. It is, I think, only after her mystical turn that Clark would find it pointless to continue that exploration of surface and plane from which the Unidades were born. As she moved toward mysticism, she would come to the conclusion that painting was hopelessly contaminated by the logic of projection. This was not only because the surface had historically served as a screen onto which what she called “ideas” had been projected. The problem was deeper: projection in painting did not only exist at the level of composition. Even if the painter suppressed the distinction between the “idea” and the surface, as had arguably been the case with the Unidades, there would remain what Clark came to regard as the archetype of all forms of projection—the plane. Of it she wrote in 1960:
The plane is a concept created by humanity to serve practical ends: that of satisfying its need for balance. The square, an abstract creation, is a product of the plane. The plane arbitrarily marks off the limits of a space, giving humanity an entirely false and rational idea of its own reality. From this are derived the opposing concepts of high and low, front and back—exactly what contributes to the destruction in humankind of the feeling of wholeness. It’s also the reason why people have projected their transcendence part outward and given it the name of God. (NB 117)
This wholesale rejection of all forms of projection would lay the groundwork for the entirety of Clark’s future endeavors. If she had originally drawn the distinction between the inner and the outer (as well as that between the self and the world, the viewer and the artwork, the artwork and its surrounding space, etc.) in physical terms, from now on she would conceive of those two realms as mental realities enmeshed in a complex dialectic of reflection and subjection. Hence the inner would now stand for the “truer” realm of primeval instinct and undifferentiated unity, and the outer for all rational constructs that the self had projected onto the world. Out of this conception of self and world Clark would develop an art that might allow for the self to turn inwards as a way of transcending the fictive realities that the human mind had created.
For her, that was an art of participation. Her first propositions, it is worth noting, predate the theories of the death of the author and the open work that proved so instrumental to the conceptualization of participatory art during the 1960s. And yet, they can be meaningfully interpreted under the light of those theories—at least in terms of their practical corollaries—for Clark committed herself to abolishing the work of art as a fully made object whose meaning was supposed to be interpreted by the viewer, transforming the artist-author into a mere facilitator and redefining the spectator as either a creator or a co-creator of their own aesthetic experience.24 In 1965 she would propose, for example, that the artwork “not count in and of itself and instead be a simple springboard for the freedom of the spectator-author” and suggest that, as an artist, she was “content to propose to others that they be themselves and that they achieve the singular condition of art, but without art” (NB 101).
But taking into account its mystical premises, to what extent can this art, or non-art, be said to effectively harness the ideal of participation? In raising this question, I am certainly not intimating that Clark’s late work fails to erase the historic duality of artwork and viewer. That it accomplishes, though I would be hesitant to conclude that such an erasure brings the contemplative mode of spectatorship to an end. Although the artwork in Clark’s late experiments is no longer a thing to be found out there—here “the work is your act,” as she would say—it can be argued that contemplation nonetheless persists in the form of self-contemplation: the dynamic into which the spectator is drawn by her propositions cuts all possible ties with the world because the world is now drained of significance. It is the act that takes over, arguably overcoming the traditional binaries of subject and object, self and world, inner and outer. And yet, it appears to me that no such overcoming actually takes place, since both the artwork and the world become absorbed in the realm of the self—a self that cannot be strictly defined as a person, an ego, or a consciousness. The self as envisioned by Clark is immersed into what Sigmund Freud, borrowing from his friend, the Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, called the “oceanic feeling” of a limitless bond with the universe.25 But if Rolland saw this feeling as desirable, the basis of all religious, and especially mystical, experience, Freud certainly did not: he considered it to be a form of regression to an early stage in the formation of the ego where no boundaries between self and world are perceived—a state of mind akin to the “limitless narcissism” experienced by the infant.26 Whether or not charges of narcissism apply in the case of Clark, the fact is that the self she came to envisage in her late work cannot be properly considered an agent. For it is a self that as a matter of principle cannot project itself onto the world, less so find meaning in any externalizations of its will.
Clearly Clark’s subject is not a revolutionary one, nor does it want to be. This subject is one who believes that any attempt at shaping the world will leave us at the mercy of alienating forces of our own making. Therefore, they engage in what, from a skeptical point of view, seemingly amounts to little more than a hedonistic exercise—one that disavows any utopian future in favor of the “present-now” of embodied experience. Of course, it would be unfair to ignore the salutary aspect of this pessimistic attitude toward the dreams of reason and all that they entail, from totalitarianism to the destruction of nature. At the same time, however, the argument can be made that Clark’s project could not be but aporetic, as it was grounded in an insurmountable contradiction between the passionate search for some kind of absolute freedom and the rather sterile assumption that no actually existing institutional framework would ever allow for that freedom to be realized. Necessarily, perhaps fatally, Clark’s only prospect of freedom thus lay in renouncing the world to find sanctuary in the private realm of the senses.
My thanks are due to Elise Archias and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this essay.