Journal Article
Lygia Clark: Between Spectator and Participant

A photograph of the art work Abysmal Mask (1968) presents an image of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark seemingly lost in a world of her own. The mask envelopes her face, her eyes are covered. Her hands hold the nylon sacking, delicately sensing its shape as it is filled by the air expelled from her lungs. She appears completely disconnected from her surroundings. But what are these surroundings? What is in the air, so to speak? Clark (1920–1988) is perhaps best known for her Beasts or Bichos (1960)—metallic sculptures with moveable parts, meant to be manipulated by an active audience. She started her career influenced by Constructivism, but soon became more interested in the actions prompted by objects rather than the objects themselves. Her later works focused on collective actions and personal therapy. It is only recently that her emphasis on agency has been included in broader discussions of participatory art. In Participation (2006), an anthology on the subject, art scholars Claire Bishop and Hal Foster cite Clark’s collective propositions as precedents to contemporary participatory work. I complicate these readings by contextualizing Clark’s work in the late 1960s, a period in Brazilian history in which the military increasingly gained control of the government. These political upheavals had a clear impact on the Brazilian art world. Argentinean art historian Andrea Giunta has argued that the first symptoms of this change could be seen with the transformation of the artist into a cultural figure, and the shift of the work of art from an abstract aesthetic expression to an engine for real political change. Clark’s artworks stand at the fulcrum of this development, as both a reaction to, and an escape from, a stifling political environment.

Title
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsLeón AMaría
Journalthresholds
Issue39
Date Published07/2011
ISSN1091-711X
Abstract

A photograph of the art work Abysmal Mask (1968) presents an image of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark seemingly lost in a world of her own. The mask envelopes her face, her eyes are covered. Her hands hold the nylon sacking, delicately sensing its shape as it is filled by the air expelled from her lungs. She appears completely disconnected from her surroundings. But what are these surroundings? What is in the air, so to speak? Clark (1920–1988) is perhaps best known for her Beasts or Bichos (1960)—metallic sculptures with moveable parts, meant to be manipulated by an active audience. She started her career influenced by Constructivism, but soon became more interested in the actions prompted by objects rather than the objects themselves. Her later works focused on collective actions and personal therapy. It is only recently that her emphasis on agency has been included in broader discussions of participatory art. In Participation (2006), an anthology on the subject, art scholars Claire Bishop and Hal Foster cite Clark’s collective propositions as precedents to contemporary participatory work. I complicate these readings by contextualizing Clark’s work in the late 1960s, a period in Brazilian history in which the military increasingly gained control of the government. These political upheavals had a clear impact on the Brazilian art world. Argentinean art historian Andrea Giunta has argued that the first symptoms of this change could be seen with the transformation of the artist into a cultural figure, and the shift of the work of art from an abstract aesthetic expression to an engine for real political change. Clark’s artworks stand at the fulcrum of this development, as both a reaction to, and an escape from, a stifling political environment.