But there have been more than a few exceptions to this loose, stilted rule. Modernism was given several pre-deconstructive inversions by artists like the Cuban Wilfredo Lam and the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia, long before anyone had recourse to the thick-tongued blatherings of Jean Baudrillard or Luce Irigaray. The Mexican muralists, all on their very own, founded an advanced, popular art movement where Western and Eastern Europe failed. And the last three decades of art history have recorded highly significant activities at the margins of the Western canon's attention?notwithstanding two problematic exhibitions, the Pompidou Center's "Les Magiciens de la Terre" in 1989 and MOMA's "Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century" in 1993.
Chief and most influential among artistic developments in Latin America is the Brazilian neo-concretist movement, a homegrown brand of equatorial postminimalism that paralleled and often predated conceptualist novelties Stateside and on the continent. Far more socially and politically committed than their better-known North American counterparts, Brazilian artists like Tunga, Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica made it their business to fashion open-ended "idea art" that embraced common experience, engaged physicality and immersed the viewer in a "multisensorial experience," the better to dispute the straight Cartesianism of either the mind or gaze (according to Descartes, who conceived of the agency of light as an action by contact, "the blind see with their hands").
Now the New Museum of Contemporary Art presents an overdue retrospective of the work of one of the most influential Latin American artists anywhere, the Brazilian Cildo Meireles. Long associated with the neo-concretism his country spawned, Cildo Meireles veered from an early period of neo-expressionist figurative drawings to constructing room-sized environments that above all prize interactivity, sensory perception and philosophical, social and political ideas communicated through an extremely seductive materiality. This resulting freewheeling exchange of energies Meireles refers to doubly as "esthetics as ethics" and "ethics as esthetics." Faced with a sophisticated but perennially hardscrabble Brazilian reality, often-clashing social, cultural, political and artistic circumstances demand nothing less.
Meireles' charged environments blend sound, touch, smell and sight into dramatic experiences that compel audiences to move beyond passivity and simple contemplation into instances of complicity. Taking as his starting point the essentially universalist ideas of French existential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Meireles' environments are designed to eliminate boundaries between the physical and the metaphysical, the outside and the inside, the concrete and the immaterial, the critical and the quotidian. With Meireles, political engagement or reflection is always right around the corner, as is the most astute, firsthand, experiential notion of phenomenology.
In the 1970s when Brazil was ruled by a series of brutal military dictatorships, Meireles created two highly provocative and signature works titled Inserções em Circuitos Ideologicos (Insertions Into Ideological Circuits). For the first, he stamped Brazilian currency with messages of protest, such as the question "Who Killed Herzog?," in reference to the state-sponsored murder of a leftist journalist. For the second, he affixed decal messages like "Yankee Go Home!" and "What is the place of work in art?" to endlessly recyclable glass Coca-Cola bottles. Put back into circulation, these objects constituted an enigmatic political message for the widest possible public. Brazilians curiously sought them out and got rid of them as fast as they could. Meireles courted real danger; the uncontrolled violence of the age punished people with "disappearance" for much slighter offenses.
In a similar vein, Meireles' five walk-through installations at the New Museum invite metaphorical readings that touch on the cultural, social, artistic and political consequences of living in a money-rich Third World nation like Brazil, while remaining entirely accessible to U.S. viewers. There is, for example, Fontes (Fountains/Sources), a mustard yellow room (the color is supposed to mimic van Gogh's strident Wheat Field under Threatening Skies with Crows) filled to the brim with 6000 carpenter's rulers, 1000 yellow clocks and thousands of black plastic numbers upon which viewers, in their passage through the cramped space, tread. A claustrophobic reflection on the regimented notion of time, Fontes is a nightmare vision of Protestant efficiency, its digits littering a constricting maze of order run amok.
Volatil (Volatile), an environment in which Meireles characteristically injects an element of danger, consists of a sealed-off room ankle-deep in white talc, smelling as if someone had left on a burner on a natural-gas stove. At the other end of the room from the entrance, the space reveals its sole source of light: a single lit candle. But of all of Meireles' complex installations, it is the Hitchcockian Desvio para o Vermelho (Red Shift) that ratchets up the index of metaphorical fear and violence to psycho-killer levels. Consisting of three consecutive rooms, Desvio first conducts the viewer through a room in which every object, painting, book and piece of furniture (even the coral-colored fish swimming inside a red tank) is a different shade of red. A darkened room comes next, containing a spilled bottle of red ink, its nightmare vision heightened by an optical illusion suggesting the spill's movement. Lastly one is led around to a third space holding a dangerously skewed, stained sink; alone and damaged inside the room, its faucet cycles through gallons of vibrantly colored crimson water.
Human blood, the essential material suggested here, begot Desvio when Meireles witnessed its use in graffiti about a murdered dissident. The artist sat on his experience for years, finally incorporating it in plan and sketch form in 1967. Making Meireles' sketches a hard and fast reality took longer: it was not until 1998 and the XXIV Sao Paulo Biennial that the artist was able to build the finished work. Far and away the most impacting installation in the current New Museum exhibition, Desvio stands as a high-point for installation artists everywhere. In it the truly quirky, humanist Meireles evokes both quotidian presence and horrifying absence; a blood-colored environment pointing the way to the metaphorical murders the mind conjures up all too easily.
"Cildo Meireles," through March 5 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 219-1222.