Whitehot Magazine

‘When Is Art’ in the Queer State of Florida?

Courtesy of the artist.

By BRADLEY WESTER January 8, 2024

The late Brazilian artists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark were primary leaders of the Neo-Concrete Movement (1960), an anti-object, anti-rationalist artmaking philosophy emphasizing human experience over spectatorship. Oiticica used the term Tropicália to identify his work inspired by the music, color, and culture of the Rio favelas (ghettos or shantytowns) in ironic contrast to the notion of Brazil as a tropical paradise. A proto-Social Engagement practice and precursor to Brazilian Conceptual Art, his interactive installations and performances were radical for their time and in confrontation with the U.S.-backed 1964 military coup that brought a military dictatorship to power.

From 1964-79, Oiticica created his Parangolés series consisting of colorful, multi-layered capes or ‘costume paintings’ made of layers of plastic and fabric, sometimes with objects and words, meant to be worn and danced in by everyday people to samba music, then the music of the underclass. Oiticica was obsessed with samba and learned to dance in the Mangueira favela. For him, dance allowed one to be free of “excessive intellectualization.” Although not of the favela, he wanted to make visible the vibrant but marginalized, mostly Black culture that embraced him there. As a Queer man living in a heteronormative society made even less tolerant by the new oppressive regime, being marginalized was a condition he felt and understood. The favela's color, fashion, and architecture inspired the Parangolés. The intent was to empower the individual through communal interactivity, to turn the spectator into a “participant,” and to make visible the invisible. Hélio Oiticica wanted art to be experienced by everyone and to exist in the now.

When is art? is the question Belgian artist/architect Lieven De Boeck asks in his PhD thesis called “The Archive of Disappearance, a Field Guide to Getting Lost,” developed at the Hortence Research Centre of the Faculty of Architecture La Cambre-Horta of the Université libre de Bruxelles. His attempt to answer that question took the form of a performance where he, his studio assistant, a dozen students from Ringling College of Art & Design, and a saxophone player walked into the atrium space of the giant beach tent at the opening of the Untitled Art Fair on December 6th in Miami Beach—the culmination of his research. They performed The Parade, What’s going on?—De Boeck’s reactivation of a work by the late Hélio Oiticica, as if to demonstrate that the when of art is in the live making of it, in the impermanence of the present moment. Their joy was palpable as the students began to move improvisationally, their bulky, somewhat awkward-looking Parangolés unfolding and billowing into lavish sensuousness within the neoliberal contemporary art fair space, where merchandise, primarily in the form of paintings, hung lifeless in comparison. Joy engulfed the onlookers, too, and some became performers when several students removed their capes and proffered them.

Inspired by Oiticica’s letter writing, Lieven De Boeck wrote letters to the dead artist to formulate a method for this reactivation. Perhaps, too, to ask for Oiticica’s symbolic permission. How to perform the Parangolés today, make it relevant, and stay more faithful to its essence than a strict artifactual exhumation from the archive?—a primary concern of De Boeck’s thesis.

Courtesy of the artist.

Lieven arrived at Ringling College in sub-tropical Sarasota, Florida, a week ahead of the Basel Art Fairs’ preview as part of a long-established cultural exchange between Ringling College and Belgian artists and art schools. I arrived two days after De Boeck. A dozen Ringling students across disciplines had already answered the call for Queer-identified student volunteers to create their own Parangolés based on interpretations of Queer flags in preparation for the premier performance of The Parade, What’s going on? No prior performance experience was required. In a contemporary expression of Oiticica’s intentions, this would be an opportunity for Queer, Gay, Bi, Lesbian, Nonbinary, and Trans identified students to be made visible, even to each other. The students would come to praise the project for helping them find others like themselves and for forming new bonds and friendships.

Like Oiticica, Lieven De Boeck is a Queer artist attempting to make the invisible visible. In this case, a reactivation of Oiticica’s archive as living artwork in the present vis-à-vis contemporary Queerness within a native tropical environment like Brazil. But other timely and more poignant contexts were shared between Oiticica and De Boeck that even De Boeck had not planned on. Contexts that deepened the agency of his project significantly and were contingent on it happening on American soil in Florida at this moment and time. 

I have some familiarity with Sarasota. By sheer coincidence, I had taught at Ringling as a Visiting Artist for three years from 2007-10. Further, I was on the original team that set up the first iteration of the Belgian exchange between Ringling College and Sint Lucas Antwerpen. Yet, I was introduced to Lieven by a mutual friend and international curator who saw an intersection in our work long before the Florida opportunity presented itself. This added confluence made me want to cover his project even more.

A lot has changed in Florida since my time there, becoming one of the leading states mandating against freedom and difference, which seems especially relevant to a reinterpretation of the work of Hélio Oiticica. Just up the road from the private, non-profit Ringling College, for example, is the public state school of New College, once known to be one of the country’s most progressive and rigorous colleges with an exceptionally liberal DEI acceptance policy. Earlier this year, Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis initiated the conservative takeover of the school by appointing a majority to its Board of Trustees, increasing enrollment while decreasing the overall grade average. Another example of Florida’s current standing is a recent Pen America study showing that 40% of all banned books in America’s school libraries occurred in Florida, with thousands of those books by or about Black or LGBTQ authors or characters. Startlingly, in the first week of my time back in Florida, immersed in research and conversation about the work of Hélio Oiticica, who fled his country because of a newly installed dictatorship, I counted at least four articles in the New York Times and Washington Post alone, with the words ‘Dictator’ or ‘Dictatorship.’ All were referring to what might happen if that other famous Florida resident, former President, and current Republican frontrunner were to become President again.

Florida has a long history with clowns, sinister and otherwise. I was reminded of Ringling College’s origins and a part of Florida's history that seemed particularly compelling now. Since 1927, the newly merged Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—“The Greatest Show on Earth,” had its winter headquarters in Sarasota until 1959. The circus “Golden Age” lasted through the Civil War, the Gilded Age, WWI, and the Great Depression. A small city on rails, the circus could encompass as many as 1500 people and 85 rail cars that would roll into the outskirts of an American town and transform a barren plain into an exotic fantasy world. “I’m gonna run away and join the circus” was a famous romantic phrase in American culture and represented the youthful impulse of the outsider longing for freedom, adventure, and the space for non-conformity.

What could be Queerer than the circus? The American circus of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an itinerate society of outsiders and misfits. Clowns, lion tamers, acrobats, sword swallowers, contortionists, and “freaks.” However, the “Freakshow,” or sideshows, were often cruel displays of people with congenital disabilities or simply those born differently: dwarfs, conjoined twins, and hermaphrodites. Tom Thumb, The Elephant Man, The Lobster Boy, The Dog-Faced Boy, and the Bearded Lady! What dark insight into the human psyche to know people would pay to mock the physical differences of others. Not dissimilar to inciting hatred for Black, Queer, and Trans folks today by banning their books in exchange for contributions, loyalty, and votes.

The book banning and the crackdown on neighboring New College might have had a chilling effect on this newly formed band of parading fellow travelers. Instead, I found the Ringling students eager, engaged, and dedicated to this project; the longer they worked together, the braver and more extraverted their performance interpretations. Unsurprisingly, it was met with shock when, at the dress rehearsal performance in the courtyard of the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, one of the students was told they had to cover their breasts. The unexplained directive from the museum’s Executive Director came through several intermediaries only moments before the performance. Like another student who proudly revealed their scars from a recent top surgery, the 'offending' student had chosen a sheer fabric as part of their Parangolé design. This didn’t dampen the jubilation that was expressed at that rehearsal. At a post-performance talk in the museum’s auditorium with Lieven De Boeck and a couple of the students, one said, visibly ecstatic from the experience, “It’s like everything that has been on the inside is suddenly on the outside!” This same student, in response to the censorship at the Museum and in solidarity with the others, decided to go topless at the Untitled Art Fair.

Courtesy of the artist.

John Ringling, the long-dead namesake circus owner-impresario, had made millions. He built his Ca’ d’Zan mansion on a sprawling tropical estate on the shore of Sarasota Bay. He added a faux Italian villa to house his European-bought art collection, complete with a life-size copy of Michelangelo’s David, still presiding over the museum’s courtyard today. Mr. Ringling wanted to create an art school and started The School of Fine and Applied Art of the John and Mable Ringling Art Museum as a branch of Florida Southern College. Two years later, in 1933, the school broke off from Southern College and, under a new charter, became the Ringling School of Art, the first incarnation of what it is today. As the story goes, it was because conservative Methodist trustees of Southern College were incensed that students drew nude models. Earlier this year, in 2023, exactly ninety years later, the principal of a school in Tallahassee, Florida, was forced to resign for showing an image of the original David, one of the most famous artworks in the world, to 11-12-year-old students.

Full circle.

In Lieven De Boeck's reimagined Hélio Oiticica performance, he leads the Ringling students in a single-file line wearing his own Parangolé. The line turns into a wide circle where the performers stop and face outward to the unsuspecting audience. In unison, they speak aloud the words of Lygia Clark like a manifesto:

"We are the proposers, we are the mould, it is up to you to breathe the meaning of our existence into it. We are the proposers, our proposition is that of a dialogue, alone we do not exist. We are at your mercy. We are the proposers. We buried the artwork as such, and we call upon you so that thought may survive through your action. We are the proposers; we do not propose to you with either the past or the future, but the now."

They turn again and begin walking, moving the circle clockwise. After several rotations, one performer escapes the perimeter for the center, where they dance alone with their unique Parangolé cape. A rotation or two later, another enters the circle. It becomes a duet. Then another enters, then another, until the circle is no more, and it’s a mass of flowing bodies and fabric. Onlookers are absorbed into it, and the boundaries between art and spectator are penetrated. Thus, it continues until its natural end, generating just enough of the highest form of resistance, unbridled joy. WM

Bradley Wester

Bradley Wester (New York/Rhode Island) is a visual artist and writer. His work has been exhibited extensively in New York and other parts of the U.S. and Europe. Wester is a contributing writer for Filthy Dreams. His “Shiny Object” essay was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. His “Brothers Katrina” won the 2016 Fresher Writing Prize (U.K.) for Best Creative Nonfiction.

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