The plastic artist Cildo Meireles
The plastic artist Cildo Meireles in his studio, in Rio de Janeiro/Marcos Pinto

The expression “a needle lost in a haystack” is found on more than 17 pages on the internet, commonly used to designate something impossible to find. It was from this expression that Cildo Meireles created Thread, bales of straw wrapped in a hundred meters of gold thread, with a needle also of gold at the point. “I like it when things are based on the imagination of the greatest number of people”, explains Cildo, in his spacious studio in Botafogo, Rio.

One of the most visible Brazilian contemporary artists abroad, with recent retrospectives in England, Spain, Denmark, Italy and Portugal, Cildo Meireles, 67, is now also one of the most popular in the country, thanks to his permanent installations in Inhotim: Through e Deviation to Red. Versions of both, by the way, will also be on permanent display in the US, in Glenstone, a museum near Washington, with similar characteristics to those of Brumadinho.

Thread is one of the works by Meireles on display at the 34th Panorama of Brazilian Art at the Museum of Modern Art, in the smaller room, in a section called Immersion, which seeks to contextualize the works in the show.

“I created this work from an exhibition called Gold and Wands, in 1990, when I used two common materials, but with very different values, such as wood and gold”, he says. The exhibition ranged from a fakir bed with gold studs to boxes assembled with the same noble element. “In 1999, when I showed Thread at the New Museum, in New York, it was stolen, but I don't think that's serious”, he says, detached, in a style that seems to accompany his life. After all, despite being one of the most popular national artists, he always dresses casually and wears a shabby cap, which he calls “my wig”.

One of Meireles' most recent works, Aquarum, two glasses, one filled with water with surface tension, that is, with the liquid just above the edges, and the other filled with gold, is on display at his Italian gallery, Continua, until January 2016. “Gold is so dense that it took 8,5 kg to fill a glass”, he says, as if the material was not very valuable, when in fact the cost of the work alone exceeded R$ 1 million . “But the glass with gold is the gift for whoever takes the glass with water”, he jokes.

Why use materials like gold? “First, because since the 1970s I have done works that have both the cheapest and the most expensive material. Then, what interests me as an artist is when the subject becomes raw material”, he says.
In fact, many of his works start from matter as the first producer of meaning, a case of Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals), from 1987, shown in the anthology Earth Magicians, in Paris. In it, a floor of 600 coins is joined by a thread of 800 hosts to a sky of two thousand bones, a work with a markedly critical reading about the action of missionaries in the south of the country.

Politics, however, entered the artist's poetics for reasons unrelated to his first intentions. Meireles never formally studied art. At the age of 15, in 1963, in Brasília, he attended the Ateliê Livre of the Cultural Foundation of the Federal District, coordinated by the Peruvian Barreneschea, with whom he continued studying, even after it was closed by the military, the following year. In 1968, Meireles entered the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, in Rio, but dropped out two months later: “They taught what I already knew, it made no sense”.

“Fio”, one of the works by Cildo Meireles on display at the 34th Panorama of Brazilian Art
“Fio”, one of the works by Cildo Meireles on display at the 34th Panorama of Brazilian Art, at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art/Photo: Disclosure

By this time, however, the artist was already working on two series whose projects he continues to carry out to this day: the Virtual Volumes and os Songs. The latter, corners that challenged the Euclidean system, could be entered by spectators. Would it be a way of creating penetrable, like the proposals of Hélio Oiticica? “At that time, it was almost the opposite way. He was looking for something more telluric and at the same time with popular participation, while I wanted to simplify the space, I was on the path of abstraction”, he recalls.

both the Virtual Volumes like the Songs ended up being selected for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, in 1969, the pre-Biennial of Paris, from which representatives of the country would leave for the French exhibition. However, due to the dictatorship, the exhibition was closed by the military before it was even opened, forcing Cildo to deviate to a political character.
His first work with such a facet, soon after, was none other than Tiradentes: Totem Monument to the Political Prisoner ou Introduction to a New Criticism, in which he burned live chickens on April 21, 1970, part of the exhibition from body to earth, organized by Frederico Morais, in Belo Horizonte.

At that time, at just 22 years old, Cildo had already been invited by curator Kynaston McShine to the show Information, which would be held at MoMA, also in 1970, which also had Artur Barrio, Hélio Oiticica and Guilherme Vaz. The invitation came from his participation in the Salão da Bússola, at MAM in Rio, the previous year, when McShine saw the Virtual Spaces.
It was on the Vera Cruz train, which traveled from BH to RJ, that the artist wrote Cruzeiro do Sul, the manifesto that would explain his participation in the North American show, which begins with the classic phrase “I am not here in this exhibition to defend a career”. and not a nationality.”

However, the work for Information, which became one of its icons, came out more spontaneously the following weekend. After going to a secluded beach with friends, on the way back the group stopped for lunch at a pub. It was where one of the friends threw an olive pit into a Coca-Cola bottle and said that, due to the industrial washing process, it would be impossible to remove the pit. That's Eureka! of the artist: “I thought the text inserts somewhat obscure and, with the possibility of intervening in a bottle, I put my ideas into practice. From there I also printed texts on banknotes, using serigraphs on both”. It was Oiticica who ended up taking the Coca-Cola bottles to the show at MoMA, all printed with the help of the artist Dionísio del Santo.

At that time, in Rio, Meireles lived in Santa Teresa, paying around one hundred cruzeiros for a small room. It was there, almost 50 years ago, that the then young curator Aracy Amaral visited him for the first time, and since then has followed his work closely.

In charge of the 34th Panorama of Brazilian Art, From the Earth Stone From Here, Aracy rescued a project by the artist, which she must have known in 1969, the series Physical Art, composed of several propositions, one of them removing from the highest point of the highest peak in Brazil about one centimeter of matter and, in its place, placing something two centimeters from the subsoil of the country.
For Panorama, it was not the artist himself who carried out the project, but Edouard Fraipont and his assistant Miguel Escobar, using a piece of the kimberlite mineral to increase the height of the country by one centimeter, putting into practice another rule of Meireles' poetics, in its own definition: “From as little as possible, change as much as possible”.

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