Contestation Art: The Experience of JACs
Mirtes Marins de Oliveira
28 Apr 2020, 10:39 am
There is a gap in the debate, study and diffusion of contemporary visual art in the period between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s in Brazil. This was a moment when we saw the emergence of a youth culture that questioned the societal values established in the context of the Cold War, out of which the Brazilian dictatorship was born. Artists challenged the art canon and conventional ways of selecting, legitimizing and promoting art. They sought to expand the participation of spectators, whilst redesigning definitions of art.
In 1960s’ Brazil, we saw the surfacing of revolutionary proposals marked by a pedagogical perspective, focusing on urban and rural working classes. Today, these have been replaced – in terms of identification by artists and the public – by an interest in minorities: women, Black people, homosexuals, Afro-Brazilians and marginalized groups in general. As well as issues that are specific to the Brazilian context, 1960s’ currents included a counterculture movement concerned with sexual liberation (conjured in the body); experimentation aimed at the expansion of perception, via non-Western religions or drugs; psychoanalysis; music trends; underground publications; and alternative ways of living (desbunde). A notion of politics no longer restricted to right or left polar-ends unfolded, focusing on experience and the deconstruction of totalizing ideological explanations about reality, moving away from consolidated norms around family and education. In this new wave of questioning, which challenged the whole establishment, we saw the emergence of an agenda proposing the appropriation of consumption, so artists and their artworks would not become mere commodities. Discarded and/or near-obsolete objects were incorporated and offered to the spectator in the form of ephemeral art, renewing the idea of consumption. The spectator became a participant in the artistic process. To consume was also to eat, to feed the body and the senses, and to open up the mind to new possibilities.
Many of these concerns reverberated in the subsequent decade and continue to echo today in contemporary artworks. Environmental interventions encouraged the participant’s critical and playful awareness, searching for renewed definitions of art, and indicating a prevalent expressive need to re-affirm the indefinable, without pretending to fully answer questions, but always promoting multiple possibilities of understanding artistic gestures under a plethora of urban perspectives (feminist, homosexual, marginal etc.) always in dialogue and collectively.
To examine the Brazilian dictatorial context is crucial for a critical understanding of the period. However, it is also important to search for the rhythms, senses and intensities of the cultural flows between the Brazilian and international scenes. The 1960s and 1970s were witness to the speed and efficiency of mass communication, which facilitated an understanding of how art was carried out outside the country. A recurrent reading of this era tends to restrict artistic manifestations to the context of limited and obscure censorship norms and a generalized sense of fear. Whitelegg suggests this international perspective emerged from the boycott of the 10th São Paulo Biennial (1969), even though domestically artistic practice was intensive and transgressing. This also seems to be relevant to the remainder of intellectual life in Brazil, despite the constant tension and climate of suspicion.
An emblem of those years of crisis was the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo (MAC-USP) and the series of exhibitions called JAC – Jovem Arte Contemporânea (Contemporary Young Art), which were immersed in a sense of possibility and contradiction.
Artists challenged the art canon and conventional ways of selecting, legitimizing and promoting art. They sought to expand the participation of spectators, whilst redesigning definitions of art.
MAC-USP was founded in 1963 – under the direction of Walter Zanini (1925-2013), as the result of Ciccillo Matarazzo’s donation of the Collection of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM-SP), under widely-known controversial circumstances. In order to host such a major collection, the University of São Paulo (USP) created MAC-USP, which was responsible for preserving and promoting artworks awarded by the São Paulo Biennial, purchased by Matarazzo and Yolanda Penteado, and donated by Nelson Rockefeller as a way of stimulating the art field. It aimed to be a university museum, open to experimentalism and research. Provisionally set in the Biennial building in Ibirapuera Park, its doors were open to young artists since its inception, thanks to Zanini’s understanding that the institution should be a laboratory museum, moving away from market-oriented agendas and serving as a vital space for expression during the period of military dictatorship and censorship in Brazil. It promoted events and exhibitions open to conceptualism and, in line with debates on the role of the art museum, as a place for artistic practice, at times dematerialized, but clearly interested in the transformation of language and society itself.
The 1st National Young Drawing Exhibition (JDN) – which was the first initiative at MAC-USP featuring emerging artists – was opened in September 1963. The first editions focused on graphic language. Each year the JDN was rotated with the National Young Print Exhibition (JGN). In 1967, both were merged into the JAC – Young Contemporary Art, which incorporated painting, sculpture and other languages, galvanizing the interest of a larger number of artists. Despite the lack of attention from the printed media, the initiative was disseminated through the initiatives that MAC promoted in partnership with other institutions. Thanks to the high level of freedom enjoyed by the institution, the JACs promoted participation and collaboration between institutions, artists and different audiences, turning itself into a case study of how to thrive in an otherwise adverse cultural environment.
This success was a two-way scenario: whilst the institution was increasingly more open to the demands imposed by young artists, these same artists were radicalizing the experimentation of language, transgressing – both artistically and behaviorally – the harsh obstacles enforced by the regime.
A quick listing of the names of young participants demonstrates the extent to which the JACs provided the foundation for the current art scene in Brazil: Antônio Henrique Amaral, Donato Ferrari, Fábio Magalhães, Maciej Babinski, Montez Magno, Nicolas Vlavianos, Odila Mestriner, Rubens Gerchman, Tomoshige Kusumo, Wesley Duke Lee, Anna Bella Geiger, Emanuel Araujo, Evandro C. Jardim, Vera Chaves Barcellos, José Roberto Aguilar, Anésia Pacheco Chaves, Antonio Dias, Regina Silveira, Ubirajara Ribeiro, Wilma Martins, Georgete Melhem, Anna Maria Maiolino, Carlos Fajardo, Claudio Tozzi, Cybele Varela, Regina Vater, Luís Paulo Baravelli, Sergio Sister, Aldir Mendes de Souza, Paulo Bruscky, Liliane Dardot, Gilberto Salvador, Humberto Spíndola, Laurita Salles, Carlos Asp, Carmela Gross, Cassio Michalany, Lydia Okumura, Alex Vallauri, Maria Olimpia Vassão Costa, Mario Cravo Neto, Gilda Vogt, Genilson Soares, Francisco Iñarra, Paulo Portela Filho, Dudi Maia Rosa, Rubem Ianelli, Yvete Ko, Gabriel Borba, Isay Weinfeld, Marcio Kogan, Amélia Toledo, Gastão de Magalhães, Fred Forest, Analivia Cordeiro, Iole de Freitas, Fernando Cocchiarale, Paulo Herkenhoff, Antoni Muntadas, Clemente Padin, Dick Higgins, Leticia Parente, Bené Fonteles, Júlio Plaza, amongst many others.
Daria Jaremtchuk, a pioneer in the study of the JACs, outlined the 5th edition as a turning point, as it exhibited not only artworks in traditional media, but also innovative ephemeral works, such as interventions and environments. The author considers this moment of institutional opening-up to experimentalism a conceptual shift both in terms of the exhibition’s organization and the museum’s understanding of art.
For instance, instead of a traditional prize – inherited by French art salons – a research grant was awarded to an ephemeral work. A cerca da natureza [The Fence of Nature] was an intervention installed on the museum’s ramps by Lydia Okumura, Genilson Soares, Francisco Iñarra and Carlos Asp, which featured three painted wooden panels that represented the transformation of a landscape, from figuration to abstraction. The work encouraged the participation of visitors, who were forced to go through the passages to continue going up the ramp. Each panel measured 2 x 4 meters and offered a camouflaged entrance to the building. The first panel encountered by those going up the ramp showed a complete landscape, the second showed part of the landscape and the third, at the entrance of the museum, showed only the representation of land and sky. When leaving the building, the spectator saw the backside of the panels that showed drawings with black and white lines, and were left to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
In the same edition, the exhibition program also included music, dance, theatre, poetry and experimental cinema. Another differential was the catalog in the form of a bag printed with the sentence “Consumption of an artistic situation”. It included exhibition texts and reproductions of the artworks. The exhibition emphasized its ephemeral nature, symbolizing the ambiguity of the art circuit, which was simultaneously crisscrossed by political, economic, theoretical, behavioral and other issues. According to Jaremtchuk, a critical spirit marked the exhibition. Jury members even suggested that all applicants were accepted, without selection, and criticized the age limit of 35 (which was abolished in the following year). There were many unfulfilled proposals to take the exhibition to São Paulo’s city center as a way of moving away from the mostly elitist audiences that frequented the museum. The general trend of dematerialized art that characterized the era, in general, and the exhibition, more specifically, sparked a debate around the recording of artworks and offered an updated reflection on conceptualism. Art was used to oppose the concept of consumption as an imperialist/capitalist symbol. Some artists, such as Hélio Oiticica, were trying to understand consumption not as inescapable, but as something to be incorporated as a tool to tackle an adverse reality. The tension and political opposition triggered by the exhibition Do Corpo à Terra [From Body to Earth] (1970) echoed the boycott of the 10th São Paulo Biennial that had happened a few months earlier, in 1969, when the international art community mobilized a protest against the climate of violence and censorship afflicting Brazil.
In 1971, on the occasion of the opening of JAC’s 5th edition, only two years after the boycott, the movement’s echo had already been embodied into new forms of relations between artists, museums and audiences, mostly due to the intensification of the violence perpetrated by the repressive authorities, as well as the climate of generalized fear.
However, the watershed, since its format and opportunities for debate have persisted until today, is the 6th edition (1972), which was one of the most celebrated shows, even though it still needs to be investigated and acknowledged accordingly. Starting from its organizational proposition, the exhibition was unique, even when compared to current standards. It abolished the jury in favor of a committee for the organization and distribution of research grants, using assessment parameters that included set-up, proposition awareness and public debate. As suggested by artist and committee member Donato Ferrari, one way of accepting the largest possible number of candidates without imposing excessive exclusion criteria was a random draw. Therefore, the 1,000 square meter space was divided into 84 lots, and 210 participants applied. After the initial draw, the artists were able to make exchanges and the setting-up phase lasted a week, followed by performances and happenings, a public discussion about the artworks and nominations for the research grants. The participants of the debate voted to reassign the research grants for the production of an exhibition catalogue. The disparity between the number of lots and applicants led some artists to join efforts in the occupation of the designated spaces.
The 6th edition (1972), which was one of the most celebrated shows, still needs to be investigated and acknowledged accordingly. Starting from its organizational proposition, the exhibition was unique, even when compared to current standards.
Some of the works exhibited in this edition are testament to the show’s radicalism. For instance, Paulo Fernando Novaes occupied lot 15 with his Boi encantado [Enchanted Bull], a piece of decomposing bovine meat treated with formaldehyde to minimize the bad odor. The work evoked the transiency of life – a theme dear to art since medieval times – and was, at the same time, a clear environmental intervention. It was later removed upon the request of some artists who signed a petition (not unanimously). Other participants used the meat in a barbecue.
A well-known image of the 6th edition is artist Circe Bernardes simulating and giving three-dimensionality to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503). On the day of the opening, Bernardes walked around the exhibition space dressed as Giaconda, as a way of updating the image and symbolizing a contemporary perspective on past centuries’ representational art. Also using the Mona Lisa, the collective Outubro Cinzento, formed by Rubens Coura and Aldir Mendes de Souza, simulated a protest against the museum organization and the JAC, launching a manifesto (submitted to newspapers and TV channels) with the image of a muzzled Mona Lisa, denouncing the arbitrariness of the museum’s organization, and the system of lots and grants. The media showed some interest in the controversy and the artists then exhibited the material published by the media on the ramps of the MAC-USP building, revealing the media’s often-contradictory assessment of art. Lot 28 featured animals in cages as symbols of the artists subjected to the edition’s random draw system.
One work that is still widely discussed today is Incluir os excluídos [To Include the Excluded] by Okumura, Soares and Iñarra. It was not selected by random draw but ended up being exhibited through the projects of Arthur Luiz Piza, Jacques Castex, Jannis Kounellis and Sérvulo Esmeraldo. A portion of the scarce documentation about the process and final result was presented in Soma, an alternative periodical published by a group of the same name, made up of Sergio Macedo, Saint Clair Cemin and Carlos Vampré. The publication expanded the project platform. As well as photos, each artist had their own assigned page to introduce other elements of their solo works. The uniqueness of Incluir os excluídos relies on its collective and interpretative project procedures, moving away from the conventional definition of ‘art’.
The uniqueness of Incluir os excluídos relies on its collective and interpretative project procedures, moving away from the conventional definition of ‘art’.
These aspects were made possible thanks to the possibilities offered by MAC-USP as an experimental laboratory. Until today, the initiative is highly regarded for its alignment with the international art scene of the time – despite the difficulties imposed by censorship – but, mostly, for the objectivity and unpretentious critical rigor of the proposals. These groups from São Paulo, promoted by the JACs, are analogous to the emergence of cultural alternative spaces in New York, which also came to life via collaborations between artists as a way of reconstructing a society lacking future perspective. In the New York case, these spaces were a response to the lack of cultural policies that could guarantee the subsistence of artists, as well as a means of promoting a gregarious way of life and bypassing or ignoring established bureaucracies and rules. Despite the different circumstances, these initiatives are very similar to the groups and collectives in the Brazilian case.
The printed press’ reaction to the 6th JAC mostly demonstrated a lack of understanding, even from those involved in the art circuit. They demanded adherence to art traditions and the conventional role of the museum and were against the promotion of what many considered garbage, such as chickens and cows, in a public space. However, this did not stop the museum from promoting the debate; it maintained a reflective and inquisitive agenda in the following editions (1973 and 1974). Even after the JACs came to an end, the museum incorporated experimentation permanently with the opening of Espaço B, a space for the exhibition of young invited artists, as a way of pursuing its mission to make a difference, despite external adversity.