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Coloured Poetics Hélio Oiticica’s Magic Square No.5 - De Luxe

Nestled in the paradisiacal gardens of the Museu do Açude, Rio de Janeiro, Hélio Oiticica’s Magic Square No.5 - De Luxe confronts the softened senses like an enormous, joyful monolith. Impossibly bright rectangular walls, hollow panels stretched over with wire and others perforated with cut-out squares constitute this irregular, partially open cube-like structure. One’s immediate impression is surprise at the magnificent colours- magenta, primary red, canary yellow, whites and blues- and its unquestionable presence. Magnetic, it draws you to its walls, where you are dwarfed by the carefully placed panels. It feels like a house of our wildest, postmodern dreams, and has the dimensions of one. Despite its daunting size, the work is unequivocally tactile, and has a live energy that is fed by the constant re-invention of the structure, as the fierce tropical sun toys with its colours. At midday, the sun hits a blue Perspex panel, and sends a quivering square of violet into the heart of the cube.


This sensual structure is perfectly balanced in tension by a live dialogue between colour, structure and spectator. What it proposes for architecture is an exciting exploration into the purpose of the architectural object, a study into colour as form, and a radical statement as to the role of architectural space in relation to the inhabitant. The question fundamental to these explorations lies in Oiticica’s radical belief in non-objectivity formulated in the late 1950’s (Oiticicia declared his works to be ‘non-objects’ in 1959) 1 and begs the question of how we can experience an architectural structure as a non-object. How do we experience this joyful monolith as it stands in our way?

The energetic presence and magnetism of Magic Square No.5 is true to Hélio Oiticica’s neo-concrete artistic practise, a movement he founded alongside other Brazilian greats Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960’s. Neo-concretism proposed that art should be non-representational and non-objective, focussing on the experience of the spectator, rather than the art object. Oiticica’s best known works involve the centrality of the spectator and focus on the transformative experiences of those that interact with his 1 In 1959 Oiticica declared his works to be ‘non‐objects’ following the concept formulated by critic Ferreira Gullar.


work, such as in the Bolides and Penetrables series, of which Magic Square No.5 is one. In the Bolides (translated as ‘Fireballs’)2 series, the artist creates various objects, atmospheres or environments that are to be entered into; proposing, as critic Guy Brett has suggested, other realities, or ‘another way of being in the world’3. His large body of Penetrable sculptures are made for the spectator to enter bodily and experience kinaesthetically. In both cases, the artist creates ‘bodies’ or proposals with which the spectator interacts, creating energy in the ‘communication spaces’ between the two. It is in these spaces between bodies that transformational energy is created, proposing alternative relationships between all things, or, as metaphorically expressed by the artist, ‘new possibilities for walking between places’4. Oiticica’s later work includes architectural structures and maquettes of exquisite sculptural precision, which combine a study of colour as a key element of this exploration of penetrability and total spectator interaction.

Therefore the forested, tropical idyll in which Magic Square No. 5 sits must not lull us into a false sense of the work being a purely aesthetic gesture, for although it is a boldly beautiful statement, it’s also tense, searching and rebellious. The cicadas that cry and screech in rhythmic waves in the forest portent this unease. Oiticica himself said, ‘the so-called garden aesthetic is a plague that must end’5, and was always highly suspicious of the designated art or museum space, asserting the ‘impossibility of experiences in galleries and museums’ and, whilst Magic Square No.5 is visually tantalising we must also acknowledge its ability to ‘un-do’6 itself and its surroundings. As curator Marcio Doctors asserts that Oiticica’s work has a cunning habit of ‘fusing in order to diffuse’ 7 , and in its role as a Penetrable it invites kinaesthetic interaction, and in doing so shrugs off its own objectivity in favour of centralising the spectator experience. 2 Translated by Guy Brett in his essay ‘Hélio Oiticica: The Experimental Exercise of Liberty’ in

Carnival of Perception: Selected Writings on Art by Guy Brett (Iniva, London, 2004) 3 Guy Brett Carnival of Perception: Selected Writings on Art (Iniva, London, 2004) p. 64 4 H. Oiticica The Senses Pointing Towards a New Transformation p. 5 5 H. Oiticica ‘Programa ambiental’ (1966) 6 Marcio Doctors, published in the exhibition catalogue ‘Museu do Açude Space for Permanent Collections (Museu do Açude, Brazil, 2000) p.28 7 Marcio Doctors, as above


In this way this work is a fusion of two great preoccupations of the artist throughout his lifetime - that of continual experimentation into the living experience of the spectator, and his exquisite understanding of form. Here, the search for the ‘continuing revitalisation of imagination’ and ‘invention-play’, 8

which happen in the imagination and lived experience of the spectator, can

only happen within this joyful, masterful structure, which Guy Brett describes as a ‘gesture of extreme simplicity…in its play with opposites and ambiguities in its pursuit of energy’ (p.69). What is clear is that this ‘energy’ noted by Brett happens within the communication spaces between colour, structure, the body of the work and the body of the spectator. Space becomes ‘diffused’, as David Sperling notes, ‘space is no longer referred to by its geometric characteristics, but…as a surrounding where action is processed’9. This idea is key to our understanding of the work as a non-object, for instead of being experienced as an objective structural reality, the work is experienced as the locus of our living actions. As Lygia Clark asserts, ‘the action is not making, but rather living in terms of architecture’10. What Magic Square No.5 proposes for architecture is that it is should create loci for human action, or as Clark writes, ‘a vehicle for the experience of the body’; structures that seek to not inform us about their own physicality but rather about our own. We interact within the structural body to reconfigure our lived experiences, which the artist poetically calls ‘vivências’11, in our own.

In the case of ‘Magic Square 5’, colour plays an important role in the making of this transformational space. Oiticica proposes a system in which form is not experienced as object, but rather where we experience colour as form. Here, colour creates form in an active process of creation; for whatever performative possibilities the artist believed colour to have, he also believed it to be a

8 H. Oiticica quoted in Carnival of Perception: Selected Writings on Art by Guy Brett (Iniva,

London, 2004) p.68

9 David Sperling in ‘Body + Art = Architecture: Propositions by Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark’ in

Loose Threads: The Art of Hélio Oiticica (Perspectiva, Brazil, 2008) p. 137

10 Lygia Clark quoted in ‘Body + Art = Architecture: Propositions by Hélio Oiticica and Lygia

Clark’ by David Sperling in Loose Threads: The Art of Hélio Oiticica (Perspectiva, Brazil, 2008)

11 Word often used by Lygia Clark and H. Oiticica to mean ‘life‐experiences’


creative force in the most literal sense. Oiticica used colour as the building block on which to inform his structural queries, as Brett notes ‘It was through colour that Hélio explored all the basic structural questions, beginning with the pictorial order and expanding outwards to his experience of space and time’ (p.54). Magic Square No. 5, a late work, has these enquiries as a central theme. Colour in this sense is not representational, and it certainly isn’t appropriate to talk of Oiticica seeking some form of balance or ‘harmony’ in the colours he uses. However, what is undeniable is that the dialogue between the colours, each proposing a structural reality, contributes to create the energy that makes the experience of being inside the work electrifying and transformational. It becomes instinctively clear that each colour can be, of itself and in an active sense, ironic, witty, defiant or controversial. Simply, colour is a poetic force that can be used not only to create structure but as an immaterial transformational tool.

As you enter the square from the entrance to the forest, you pass an extraordinary red panel, only for another perpendicular wall of deep, unapologetic pink, to leap out at you. Spectators laugh or exclaim as they come across this unexpected statement, wittily hidden behind the primary red.


What creates this wit and surprise is that our brains do not expect to see this colour in this context. This pink is simply ‘unthinkable’ next to red. Another instance is an enormous canary-yellow wall, perforated with square cut-outs that is somehow too sensual, too reminiscent of food, and our senses blend uncomfortably to produce water in the mouth and at the same time a desire to look away. With these gestures, Oiticica bypasses our pre-conceived notions of representational colour and transforms our experience of colour into a real live experience, or ‘vivência’, which recalibrates our seeing bodies and makes the experience of being inside the work really live. The monumental, witty and yet ephemeral structure acts not only as a carefully crafted object but, more crucially, as an experience, through and within which we –simply- live, in the most present sense. Colour bridges the gap between structural form and our embodied spirit, or, as curator Marcio Doctors puts it, ‘colour is the passage between matter to spirit’ (exhib catalogue p.29).

In this way, colour plays an important role in the architectural function (and construction) of the work and contributes to its tense, contained energy. This tension continually recreates itself, as spectators pass through and the sun hits the materials, transforming them continually. The periodical appearance of the ephemeral ‘magic square’ of violet light, that seems to constitute the living, beating heart of the work, is the constant reminder of this piece’s purpose. By putting this ephemeral square of colour at the centre of the piece, the artist asserts that colour is the essential structure of the work. It could also be proposed that this blue ‘ghost’ constitutes the ‘vivência’ of the structure itself as a ‘body’ of colour. Similarly, he who enters and leaves the structure briefly brings their bodies, their lived experience, into the structure. It is in these moments of experience, interrogation and interaction with the spectator that the sculpture assumes its power, within the spectator himself. Magic Square No.5 achieves the purpose of the transformational architectural structure as seen by Lygia Clark, who writes ‘It is a poetic shelter where inhabiting is equivalent to communicating’.

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The coloured poetics of this

12 Lygia Clark ‘1969: O Corpo é a Casa’ quoted in ‘Body + Art = Architecture: Propositions by Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark’ in Loose Threads: The Art of Hélio Oiticica (Perspectiva, Brazil, 2008) p.143


sculpture whisper in the communication spaces between structure and spectator and are altered, transformed, reconfigured and re-made in us.

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Coloured Poetics  

An exploration of Hélio Oiticia's installation 'Magic Square No.5' as a non-object, a test case in colour as structure, and key agent in the...

Coloured Poetics  

An exploration of Hélio Oiticia's installation 'Magic Square No.5' as a non-object, a test case in colour as structure, and key agent in the...

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