Lygia Clark’s Response to the Hatred of Ecology

From animism to Gaia 2.0, emerging biennales and online art platforms must take heed of ecology. When shows happen outside of Europe or America, the premodern natural knowledge and epistemology of Asia, Africa, and Latin America feel like a readymade weapon that guest curators appropriate to deconstruct modern Western mechanical materialism. However, such an ecological turn in curating often overlooks specific problems, such as the fact that almost all European art movements at the beginning of the 20th century held a mechanical view of nature at their foundation. Futurism from 1909, concrete art from the 1930s, and dimensionalism from 1936 all directly advocated for mechanical and objective precision as a means to modernize art. Rather than propose the simple duality of nature and technology, or European modernity versus the premodern cosmologies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, I would like to return to a moment in the history of non-Western modernism when the mechanistic view of nature was viewed with doubt. Today’s art is whitewashed with the idea of ecological conservation, but only when we start to effectively question the constituent parts of European modernity—which supposedly hated ecology—will we understand the meaning behind the pursuit of multinaturalism that lies in, say, Brazilian modernist’s oeuvre.

Brazil once had a voracious appetite for modernization and development. Its modernist movement was more mature than the one in the United States, which became subsumed in the socialist movement after World War I. As Europe descended into war, newspaper magnate Assis Chateaubriand and other Brazilian upper-class immigrants participated in the mass acquisition of contemporary art, and now the São Paulo Museum of Art possesses a collection larger than that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Until World War II, the upper crust and political elites of Brazilian society were fascinated by the science of mechanics and how it was transforming their land. The most prominent example of this infatuated mood was Lúcio Costa, the architect who had designed the nation’s new capital, Brasilia, in a strictly rational and scientific way in the 1950s. The entire city was designed according to the exterior of an airplane; even the urban areas were divided according to the reductionist principles of the assembly design of large-scale machine parts. Therefore, when influential critic Ferreira Gullar wrote the Neo-Concrete Movement’s manifesto in 1959, critiquing the abstract group creations happening at São Paulo as over-the-top rational and mechanical, his words also suggested a reflection on modern European culture of the time.

In her 1959 “A Letter to Mondrian,” Brazilian artist Lygia Clark posed a series of questions to the already deceased European father of modernism:

“They say you detested nature—is it true? Because today I felt that transcendence through nature, in the night, in love. How could you be angry at nature? Don’t you think that the work of art is the product of two polarities that are the dynamic of human life? Were you so profoundly tied to the earth and was flight, in the sense of verticality, your measure? Nature fed me, balanced me in an almost pantheistic way.

They say that you hate nature—is this true? I’ve reached the spirit of transcendence through nature’s love and nature’s nocturne. Why is it that you would hate nature? [...] Perhaps you might be the rain that waters the flower born in the sand or on the pavement (if you prefer the city to nature).”1Butler, Cornelia H., and Luis Pérez Oramas. Lygia Clark: the Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988. Museum of Modern Art, 2014.

It was also in this letter to Mondrian that Clark proposed withdrawing from Brazilian Neo-Concretism, which was only two months old at the time.2​ And yet even before the manifesto’s declaration, Clark’s early work had already begun to distinguish itself from both European abstract art and Brazilian concretism. Clark had a love-hate attitude towards her most beloved Mondrian: on the one hand she admired Mondrian’s pursuit of the truth through formalism, but on the other, she was heartbroken over his hatred of nature, as well as his chauvinism and mechanical materialism.

The main reason Clark couldn’t completely accept European abstract art was the reductionist thinking of the modern mathematical and scientific revolutions that started in Europe, which regarded nature as a kind of unmanned machinery. The environmental crisis in Europe forced Clark to consider how abstract art expressed the vitality of nature. And this is why she suggested the Organic Line concept, a holistic view embodied by Clark’s use of the Portuguese word bicon to hint that her abstract work was not purely just a spatial or geometric game. In Bicho Pássaro do Espaço (Critter Bird in Space), Clark cut the middle of two connected planes into circles and triangles, and through gravity formed a three-dimensional structure. Then, as if it were origami, she folded the metal planes so that they looked like a tropical Brazilian bird with wings outspread. The suggestion of the Organic Line can be traced back to Clark’s observations about humans and the construction of their living architecture; she sees the constant opening and closing of doors as a fluid, life-giving form. This was the reason why, after 1960, Clark decided to let the viewer change the abstract form of her work based on their own subjective will; the organic gaps created by the folds then become the unique language of Clark’s own personal aesthetics, or, in her words, “a living organism, a work essentially active.”3Clark, Lygia. Writing Revelations, Surrendering Authorship. Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães (ed.). Museum of Modern Art, 2014.

In Caminhando (Walking) (1963), Lygia Clark invited audiences to cut out a Möbius strip within an infinite loop structure according to their own design. This was a classic topological structure in mathematics, and its non-Euclidean method of thought came from the fact that modern physicists saw the development of topology as an important tool in solving problems beyond that were more than three-dimensional.

Although the reductionist theorizing behind topology lets scientists simplify the objects of the world into mathematical forms of homeomorphisms and non-homeomorphisms, Clark emphasizes that people should actively twist and tie the continuous deformation of subspaces according to their own moods and inclinations. In Trepante (Climber) (1965), the artist cut out ring structures from the middle of a thin copper sheet the shape of an oval and then pulled on either side, twisting the sheet so that it was made into a topological knot. The sheet was subsequently hung vertically on a log, metal and organic form co-created between the human hand and the wood.

In Clark’s 1966 Pedra e Ar (Stone and Air), she breathed air out into a clear plastic bag and then put a round stone on top of the bag once she was done. Next, she pressed the plastic bag without stopping so that the stone would move upwards and downwards, in imitation of a complete set of mammalian breathing.

In 1968, shortly after Clark had completed this work, many Brazilian avant-garde artists went into exile in response to political pressure by the government. Clark moved to Paris, and around the time of the political explosion of May1968, her creative work started to shift from abstract play-forms to collective creations centered on social intervention and institutional criticism. These experiences of interacting with other people also helped with the final improvement of her ideas in regards to relational objects after she returned to Brazil. In 1976, as the political situation lost some of its urgency, Clark became disappointed with the reality of French politics. So she moved back to Copacabana and turned her home into a clinic (cutely titled: Espaço Aberto ao Tempo; Space Open to Time) where she would heal the artists, writers, and marginalized people who had suffered under the military regime.

Just like the Chinese conception of vital energy qi and the holistic thinking of yoga in Indian culture, Clark also connected the human body with objects, asking the patient to use their bodies to touch the surface of material objects in order to treat what was sick within them. In Clark’s 1984 video Memória do Corpo (Memory of the Body), Clark continuously described to the audience how to use their bodies to feel the surface texture and weight of ping-pong balls, sandbag pillows, and other soft materials, treating it as a type of organic object. Her role as a therapist towards the end of her life could be regarded as memory therapy for the political ideals that the Brazilian intelligentsia could not achieve in their lifetimes.

If we wanted to be like Bruno Latour and reset modernity, perhaps we should imagine what Lygia Clark would do, faced with contemporary lifestyles and art as it stands now.  If Clark could be here for this year’s biennales, perhaps she would have felt that we are too used to living in a geometric space and environment, compared with the 19th and 20th centuries, and that these abstract substances and spaces have become a part of nature, shaping the way people live. In any case, the retraction of the modernist heritage of non-Western regions seems more important today than ever before.

Translated from the Chinese by Alice Xin Liu

Kunlin He is an artist currently sojourning in San Francisco. His research focuses on historiographies and knowledge production in the sinosphere, including the heritage of non-Western modernism and premodern epistemologies. A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, his artistic practice weaves the lyrical tradition of Chinese literature with Western rational abstract painting. He was a recipient of the 2018 Drawing Center Open Session Fellowship and the 2020 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and a finalist for the 2019 SFMOMA SECA Art Award.

Alice Xin Liu is a writer and translator living in Beijing with 13 years of experience working in the China field. Born in China, she left aged seven and was educated in Britain, graduating from Durham University studying English Literature. Alice has translated three books: The Letters of Shen Congwen (Yilin Publishing House), The Problem with Me: And Other Essays on Making Trouble in China by Han Han (Simon and Schuster), and The Road Home by Ai Wei, which is a Penguin Special.

Bicho Pássaro do Espaço (1960) © O Mundo de Lygia Clark-Associação Cultural, Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of SFMoMA

Bicho Pássaro do Espaço (1960) © O Mundo de Lygia Clark-Associação Cultural, Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of SFMoMA

Video demonstration of the cutting of Caminhando. Monica Arandia, "Lygia Clark Caminhando," YouTube, 8.3.2017. <link>  (c) Monica Arandia

Curator Peter Eleey introduce the flexible display of Clark's Bicho. Peter Eleey, "Bicho by Lygia Clark," YouTube, 5.7.2009. <>  (c) Walker Art Center

Published: 2021.07.22