First major UK retrospective of late artist Lygia Pape opens at the Serpentine -Magnetized Space – firming up her reputation as the Mother of Brazilian Contemporary Art
Magnetized Space is the first major exhibition of Lygia Pape’s work to be presented in the UK. As the central founder of Neo Concretism – the movement considered by many to have been the origin of contemporary art in Brazil –, such a retrospective of Pape’s work is somewhat overdue; and indeed, despite her death in 2004, she has so far been something of an unsung hero outside art circles (her Wikipedia page, for example, is limited to a paltry paragraph).
But, in presenting us with the great scope of Pape’s work – from her early Concretist drawings and woodcut prints in the 1950s, through groovy video works of the 1960s, and her Neo Concretist Livros (Book) series, to her late venture into installation – the Serpentine seeks to put the record straight. It does more than that, however. Not only is this a valuable history lesson, it is also a remarkably affecting show, in which the fundamental playfulness of Pape’s work comes to the surface like never before.
This, of course, makes sense. In reaction to the inflexible mantras of Concretism – that art must be fully abstract, free of any symbolical association with reality, since line and colour were sufficiently concrete by themselves – Pape, with artists like Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica, Amilcar de Castro, introduced elements of the subjective, the symbolic, and the organic: reality external to art was back in business, with art becoming, in Pape’s words, ‘a way of knowing the world… to see how the world is… of getting to know the world’.
And what makes Pape’s work so pleasing is the way in which – be it ever so abstract – there is an overwhelming sense that it at, all times, relates to real life. Her Livros da Arquitectura (Book of Architecture), for example, inventively undertakes a whirlwind tour of the history of built environments, with each step on the timeline abstractly modelled on square pieces of card; the Lascaux cave paintings, cut-out pyramids, and Modernist architecture can just be discerned amid much ambiguity. Even more abstract are the Books of Time and of Creation, in which specific reference points have been utterly erased; and yet the components seem to allude to a universal symbolism – an almost Jungian set of archetypes, inherent and common to all existence. Crucially, it is this emphasis on real life that enables Pape’s work to transcend its now-extinct context of Brazilian political repression.
The highpoint of the exhibition, however, is arguably her most recent piece on show – a recreation of her Venice Biennale ‘Web’. Using hundreds of golden threads Pape constructs 3D shimmering pillars, descending/ascending from ceiling to floor like beams of light that illuminate the pitch blackness of the installation room; disorientating, the piece suspends the viewer in abstract, weightless space, immersing them in what looks to be some cataclysmic cosmic event – the moment of creation perhaps, in which the fabric/web of reality and time is in the process of being pulled together from out of nothingness. And all achieved with a wire, hammer and nails: Photoshop eat your heart out.
Ultimately, this exhibition is a fitting epilogue to a long and radical career. Lygia Pape, we salute you. Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst