When you’re nine years old, art galleries are a drag. Nothing to touch, no bright decorations, the strong whiff of dust, little to play with, and the art stuff can be seen and skipped away from in the flash of an eye. It seems that the Tropicália movement was well aware of this from the start, and reacted accordingly. At the Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, anyone’s inner child will have a whale of a time: toes can be dipped into sand, hay and water, coloured inks tasted, nuclear suits worn. There’s nothing boring here.
Of course, the Brazilian modernist movement had slightly more ambitious aims than entertaining sulking youngsters. Certainly they were engaging with notions of pleasure and play, but it was a way of overturning grim-faced authoritarians and of breaking the repressive binding that restrained Brazil from embracing the contemporary age. It was this that inspired the sundry artworks displayed in this exhibition.
Installation of Helio Oiticica’s Eden
The exhibition documents this political impulse pretty well. Indeed as a work of raising interest in a particular politicised moment in late twentieth-century history, it hits all the right buttons. The waters of the movement ran fast through many cultural media, all represented here. We see Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes play together (although the odd combination of pop star, orchestra and conductor has a curious Radio2 feel for contemporary ears), we see various films and posters. Aided by some clear descriptive explanations, the context in which this spectrum of artists operated is clearly drawn.
One also gets a much better sense of how the movement was part of the larger 60s bloodstream, contributing to a cultural movement which was not just about western Europe and north America. The posters in particular, with their swirls of primary colours, seem archetypically psychedelic. The exhibition appears to make claims about the movement being a fundamental source for the psychedelia movement, but I’m not sure they are quite substantiated. One listens to video documentary of Gil and Os Mutantes and notes the fusion of pop and bossa nova. Did they invent this particular fusion? Or did they steal / borrow styles from elsewhere? Pretty quickly, you realise this question of origins treads on complex conceptual ground and you learn to forget about asking about cause and effect. It’s much easier, and more suitable, to acknowledge that the cultural world in general would have been poorer if Tropicália hadn’t been thrown in the mix. The exhibition also does a good job of showing the movement’s political influence – strikes, demonstrations and general swaying towards counter-culture movements all integrated artists from the Tropicália movement.
The artworks in this exhibit continue this sense of fusion, or playfulness. Body suits could be worn (leading to a rash of mobile phone pictures being taken); and in the exhibition’s iconic work, Helio Oiticica’s Eden, shoes are taken off and ‘spectators’ walk over a bed of sand, pausing intermittently to stand in baths of hay, lie in tents, or jump onto wooden pavilions. Whilst fun, they demonstrate the weakness of the exhibition.
Perhaps, during the heady years of the late 60s, the spectators’ ability to walk into a gallery, slip off their tight ill-fitting shoes and lie down on a natty but soft mattress would have constituted a small but (revolutionary) gesture – evoking possibilities previously unthought.
But we now live in a fraction of time dedicated to the expanding, subverting and continuously reformulating the notion of entertainment. While it might still be fun to discard your comfy trainers at the edge of paradise, I’m not sure it constitutes a mark of political tension. Diverting and amusing for sure, but hardly groundbreaking.
And it’s the exhibition’s (understandable) failure to continue the propulsion of this political impulse that means that the exhibition never reaches the starriest heights. It feels a bit stuck between a museum and a gallery – stuck between documentary and politico-aesthetic concerns. The contents are interesting, the movement’s lead characters are engaging and one learns much about Brazil and its effect on the modern world, but the artworks don’t have the same immediacy that they would have had in the sixties and seventies, whether in South America, North America or Europe. Not that the show’s a disaster, far from it. But one senses it might just have been a bit more fun just being there at the time.