Nelson Leirner, "Você Faz Parte II", 1964. Wood, chrome steel, mirror and chipboard. 111,3 x 111,3 x 10,2 cm. MAC-USP.


A work from the USP Museum of Contemporary Art that has always intrigued me is, You are part II, produced by Nelson Leirner in 1964. I think of her and immediately her modular grid structure comes to mind and, as a counterpoint, the artist's mood filling each of the modules with representations of locks and keys, with the exception of one of them, representing a empty lock with a mirror in place of the key[1]. I always thought about what that work meant or could mean, because the interpretive fury that devastates almost everyone has never left me, despite the readings I did (and still do) about its dangers.[2].

when I wrote Nelson Leirner. art and not art[3], before writing about the work, I preferred to ask Leirner about how the idea for the play (and the entire series) came about, what its meaning for him, etc. Listening to the artist is a kind of “methodological obligation”, a belief that the “truth” of any work is held only by its author; that only he or she can give the “most correct” interpretation of it. I have always doubted the veracity of this belief. However, during the writing of the book, before writing about You are part II, I thought it wise to send Nelson an email asking him about the work and the series. He replied as follows:

“The Atrium exhibition, incredible as it may seem, was born in a Jewish cemetery, where families buy blocks, because in our religion you cannot build monuments to the dead. And it was in a block with all the lots covered by black marble tombstones that I noticed one just covered by earth, as if waiting for the body to be buried. And I could see that, in this cemetery in Vila Mariana, within a short time the 'playfulness' of life would no longer exist. The equation for the exhibition was formed, the rest was a matter of game”[4].

I was frustrated with the answer, filled with personal questions that didn't interest me and that would only come to my attention years later. I remember that I absorbed and positively instrumentalized part of the testimony – the playful issue of the works – making a point of quoting her testimony in a footnote, adding at the end:

“… As you can see, Leirner perceived, on a block of a Jewish cemetery, with a vacant lot, the basis of the game between life and death, which gives all the works presented at the Atrium another powerful allegorical sense, even so unsuspected [5]

Having made this comment, I followed the analysis of the artist's works, highlighting interpretations that took into account some of his allegorical potentialities (which I will come back to).


Be focused on other interpretive possibilities for You are part II prevented me from examining his testimony attentive to another important fact in Leirner's career: in addition to the first two works in the series You're part of the 1960s, in 1990 he produced another work that would join the group – You're part, today at MAM SP. And, starting in 2000, Leirner would continue to continue the series.

As for the work of MAM SP, I just found it curious that it refers to the works of the artist's early career (by the title and the use of the mirror), and that's it. As for Leirner returning to the series in 2000, I didn't pay enough attention either. For me, they were nothing more than an ironic response by Nelson to the market, at that time eager to own the most radical works of his early career or, at least, new copies that referred back to his initial production. After all, despite his long career as an artist and teacher, Leirner was only recognized in the second half of the 1990s.[6]. When, from then on, collectors interested in his works began to emerge, it did not surprise me that Leirner's cynicism and irony led him to resume the series that had practically marked his debut on the Brazilian scene. After all, challenging the art institution – and, within it, the market – has always been one of his goals. I never discussed this issue with him and, after so many years, I still haven't completely ruled out the series. You're part re-emerged in the early 2000s as an operation to stoke the market (in every sense).

However, there is another aspect of this resumption of You're part that only now begins to make sense to me: after all, Nelson chose to rescue that particular series, and not any other production that he developed at the beginning of his career. He insisted on repeating a series that can be understood as the fruit of a disturbing and, apparently, unresolved experience. I am referring to what Nelson experienced while visiting the Vila Mariana Israelite Cemetery, in São Paulo. After all, who was that “earth-covered” lot waiting for, if not Leirner himself?[7]

Apparently, not being able to overcome that experience explains the reasons that led him to, from time to time – and through the most diverse circumstances – relive the shock he experienced in the cemetery.

Book cover: CHIARELLI, T. Nelson Leirner. “Art and not Art”. Sao Paulo: Takano, 2002.


For a long time I believed that, as curious as it might be to think of the series You're part like the ritual repetition of a disturbance experienced by Leirner, this fact said more about the artist than about the series. Nelson himself seemed dissatisfied with just this connection between the series and the cemetery episode, hastening to draw attention, in the aforementioned email, to the provocative and playful dimension of the works shown at Atrium.[8], removing the protagonism of the “content” of the series and preferring to think about the “here and now” of each of the pieces as signs and propositions.

Today, respecting Leirner's position, and taking care in relation to the possible attacks of that "interpretative fury" mentioned at the beginning, I believe it is possible to use this data from his biography to propose some possible interpretations for You are part II, respecting its autonomy as a work, but taking into account its importance in the artist's path in Brazilian art.


You are part II it's a provocation. By placing a series of representations of locks (16 in all) in which only one is without the key that “locks” it, Nelson induces the person to approach to fiddle with those keys or, at the very least, to look through the keyhole. Knowing that it is impossible to touch the work (as tempting as it is), she approaches to peek through the hole in the only empty keyhole, and then the surprise: having put a mirror in place of the key, instead of revealing some hidden mystery of the On the “other side” of the work, Leirner disarms the person's expectations, throwing them out of the work and into the space they occupy in the exhibition room.

This frustration occurs because the artistic tradition of the West – and I refer here, above all to painting – behaved as a window to the contemplation of a reality in which perfection and beauty would reign as antidotes to the imperfections of the “real” world. Leirner's work, by mimicking aspects of painting, behaves as such: rectangular and two-dimensional, and attached to the wall, it blends in with the paintings around it, to better frustrate those who observe it.

Half painting, half object, it evokes Marcel Duchamp's latest work, Don't forget, produced between 1946 and 1966, now in the Philadelphia Museum. In front of it, the person is led to approach a door with two holes (one for each eye) and observe a naked body of a woman holding a lamp in front of a landscape. You are part II, 1964, could be Leirner's “commentary” on this work (Duchamp was always a reference for him). However, in addition to Don't forget to have been made public after Leirner's production, it rewards the viewer voyeur who, when looking through the holes in the door, finds a dreamlike, erotic and allegorical scene. Leirner's work, no. It does the opposite: the mirror placed in the lock repels the possibility of introducing the person into another reality. The mirror continually throws him out of “Art” and into the physical space in which the work and the person it observes are situated.


Aracy Amaral, in art from São Paulo, pays attention to how the peculiar “art/industry relationship is transparently perceived in Nelson Leirner from the end of the 60s”[9]. In fact, one of the characteristics of his work is the use of industrialized material. However, this “Paulista” characteristic was already present in his productions exhibited in 1965, visible both in the industrial finish (without indications of the artist’s “hand”) and in the modular configuration that he granted them, referring them to constructive art in its ending in São Paulo, concretism. However, this relationship is problematic. You're part II with concretism. Those shapes representing keys inside locks, as in a factory store showcase, compromise concrete rigor, while undermining any positivity of São Paulo industrialism, since a key is “missing” in the showcase.

Em Nelson Leirner. art and not art, I reflected on the peculiarity of the works that were part of the exhibition at the Atrium, in 1965[10]. Virtually all – What time is it, Miss Candida?, Event e answer if you can[11] – had a modular constitution, referring them to the industrial logic and to the Concretist “heritage”. This rationality, in turn, was always contradicted by some element: a lock without a key, a series of mousetraps in which only one traps a mouse, a series of clocks that do not work.[12]. This criticism of rationality, by discrediting the capitalist logic ingrained there, magnetized the works with a humorous and playful character, leading the public to believe that it established a less ceremonious relationship with them. However, this possibility of participation that the works suggested (changing place keys, moving the hands of the clocks, etc.) was illusory.

Apparently “affable”, those works behaved strategically like traditional works, not subjecting themselves to public domination, to participatory catharsis.[13].

From this limit between approximation and refusal to submit to the visitor's wishes, they forced the person to perceive the real exhibition space in which he was, making him aware of the fact that not experiencing the ludic experiences what those works suggested was to become aware that she was immersed in another game: that of the art system she integrated, whether she wanted to or not. You are part II decolonizes the person and art from ideology, making the former also aware of the mistakes of “participatory” art, anticipating by ten years mirror with light, by Waltercio Caldas[14].


Leirner, with You're part II, seemed interested in provoking the person who was looking at her, preventing her from both “traveling” through her and from creating any kind of “participatory” interaction with her. Its objective, it seems, was to force the spectator to perceive himself/herself as part of a system that already preceded him/her and would undoubtedly succeed him/her, of which he/she could only be a hostage and accomplice.


It was Nelson's discomfort in the face of the implacable dimension of death that made him populate his journey with different configurations of this kind of mantra: “you are part of it”. It is as if he felt a responsibility to always remind anyone who contemplated his production that life is constantly threatened by death. Hence the continuity of the series after 1964. However, as this original meaning that motivated him to produce so many works with the same title was never revealed to the public - remaining unmanifest in the configurations assumed by the pieces that make up the set -, this non-disclosure apparently neutralized that was the original objective, giving it another meaning.

What persists in all the works in the series is the presence of the mirror, throwing the one who observes out of the work, into the space in which he/she is. And if the person who contemplates does not reach the game between life and death that gave rise to the works, it is predictable that he will then perceive himself as a participant in another game – the game of art, of the art system that presupposes it. , but which precedes and follows it.

That is why, when referring to the supposed neutralization of the original meaning of the works in the series, I used the adverb “apparently”. And this is because, You're part II, from 1964 – and all the works that are added to the series –, metaphorizes the similarity between the situation of the observer, both in relation to death and to the art system itself: the irrevocable impossibility of escaping both.


You are part II, 1964, as well as all the other works by the same group, randomly reflect what is in front of them, whether the room of a residence or a museum and, in this sense, they are works whose strict sense will always be circumstantial. In short, they are works that are always dependent on their relationship with the environment.

In 1963, therefore, a year before the piece created by Nelson Leirner, and in the same gallery where the artist would exhibit it, Waldemar Cordeiro presented a painting in “mixed technique” (oil and mirror on canvas) to which he gave the title Opera presses. The expression in Italian referred in part to the origins of the artist[15], but, above all, to the homonymous book by the Italian essayist Umberto Eco, published the previous year in that country.

Waldemar Cordeiro, “Opera pega”, 1963, oil, mirror, collages w/o canvas, 75 x 150 cm. Col. Lamb family.

Opera presses, 1963, represents, perhaps, the most important moment of Cordeiro's career, when he brings elements taken from everyday life into his practice as an artist, previously linked to the concrete experience of São Paulo: photographs, newspaper pages, bicycle wheels, bottle caps, mirrors. Opera presses also emphasizes its grid structure, dear to modernism in general and very dear to constructive and concrete aspects: in a conventional canvas, Cordeiro arranged four horizontal lines, each one of them rhythmic by ten square mirrored surfaces, with the first and third lines being the series of ten squares start a short distance from the left side of the screen, while the second and fourth row mirrors start from a greater distance from the same side.

If it weren't for this rhythmic arrangement of mirrors proposed by Cordeiro, they would configure an arrangement allover to the pictorial field, similar to that proposed by Nelson Leirner in You are part II. This choice of Lamb ends up conferring the Opera presses obedience to the concept of traditional pictorial composition (there is no real break in the figure/ground relationship so dear to great European painting). This fact, however, does not take away from it the main element, which is its accidental dimension, its ability to change meaning with each environment in which it is inserted and with each spectator that is placed in front of it. In fact, the mirrored squares, giving it a random component, neutralizes its traditional composition.

Presenting this painting by Cordeiro in these considerations about Nelson Leirner's production is not intended to claim for the former the primacy of the introduction of mirrors in works of art in São Paulo, a question, in itself, innocuous. The use of the mirror in Opera presses, by the former leader of São Paulo concretism, on the other hand, did not mean the continuity of this operation on the part of the artist, since Cordeiro would direct his production to other issues that distanced him from any effective relationship with the criticism of the art institution - the contrary to Nelson's trajectory.

What justifies remembering this work by Cordeiro is to pay attention to the fact that, in São Paulo, in the first half of the 1960s, there was a process of deepening the experimental dimension of art, without breaking with the norms established by tradition, as happened in some artistic segments of Rio de Janeiro – the works of Helio Oiticia, Lygia Clark and even Ligia Pape.

If, in the latter, a search for interaction between work and spectator was perceptible – with all the radicalism and risks that this intention held –, it is noted that, in São Paulo, this closer contact between work and spectator continued mediated, so to speak, by the own maintenance of certain schemes established by the artistic tradition: painting, the limits for manipulation. Such an attitude (conscious or not), although apparently more conservative, nevertheless brought that critical device of confronting the very limits of the art system that only after a few years would begin to be explored by younger artists.


Cildo Meireles, “Mirror Blind”, 1970. Wood, caulk putty, embossed metal letters, 36 x 49 cm. Private Collection.

blind mirror, 1970, by Cildo Meireles can open an interesting reflection on the mirror, this device traditionally focused on the look, now diverted to another sense, the touch[16]. The material (a type of rubber) placed in place of the reflective plane in Cildo's piece, plus the title of the work in English and the artist's name inverted and in relief, spur the spectator to manipulate that object, with the in order to perceive it in its physical dimension. Assuming that such manipulation is possible – difficult, since the work when on display must be safeguarded from the physical contact of visitors –, I ask myself, how far would the spectator be taken by this experience? different from Bichos, by Lygia Clark, blind mirror it does not transform when manipulated, and therefore the experience of handling, when it ends, must lead to a somewhat pleasurable sense of frustration. The spectator, after looking around in shame, would return the piece to its place. Such a sensation would be the same if he/she, the visitor, simply observed the piece, without touching it.

What is a blind mirror for except that, after a few seconds of contemplation, the visitor's eyes begin to roam the space in which he/she and the “mirror” meet? Interesting how, even without reflecting the surroundings - as is the case of You are part II –, blind mirror it also resonates in the mind of the observer with the awareness of the institutionalized space of art, its limits and rules.

The same could be said about You are blind, 1972, by Waltercio Caldas. A montage composed of a pedestal-shaped base and, on top of it, an object representing an easel and a painting. At the bottom, the title: You are blind.

Waltercio Caldas, “You are blind”, 1972.

Caldas' interest in frustrating any possibility for the spectator to “enter” the works, being forced to become aware of the concrete space in which he/she and the art object he contemplates find themselves, gains its greatest expression, perhaps, in the work already mentioned, mirror with light, 1974: a framed mirror in the form of a painting, with a small button in the lower right corner that lights a red lamp above it.

Ronaldo Brito, in a text about the artist's work, associates, not without reason, mirror with light to a critique of the “participatory” art of the time, and to the interest in the supposedly new perspectives raised by the myth of the “open work”, which gained greater strength from the aforementioned publication by Umberto Eco. Brito takes a stand on the work:

"… But not. THE mirror with light is closer to being a closed work. In this closure, in this refusal, would be his critical intelligence. As we have seen, cruelty is precisely the ability to not deliver meaning, in short, not to communicate (oracle of the dominant technicist idealism). The red light that turns on in the mirror prohibits entry, barring access to the interior of the work. Moreover, it makes it clear that there is only one mirror and one light: there is no scene…”[17]

Yes, there is actually a “scene” there: the reflection of the occasional visitor (frustrated by the fact that nothing happens after pressing the button) and his/her surroundings, the space in which the work and he/she are inserted.


Having established such a proteinaceous and unexpected relationship between You are part II, Opera presses, Blind mirror, you are blind e mirror with light, I believe I can finish this text by raising a possible allegorical dimension[18] for You are part II.

The mirror present in You are part II, by throwing the spectator out of the work – and, therefore, into the exhibition space – forces him/her to seek in the work itself another type of support that provides some support so that he/she can give “meaning” to the work itself. ” to the work (most viewers are not satisfied with just the “here and now” of the work of art). And a first clue to the discovery of meaning he/she will find in the title itself and in the dating of the play that function as a peremptory statement: You are part II, 1964.

For most Brazilians, 1964 meant and still means a year in the history of Brazil in which the process that the country was going through suffered an important setback, motivated by the civil-military coup perpetrated that year. So, You are part II can be interpreted as an allegory of that moment when all Brazilians, supporters or not of the coup, were responsible for the situation in which the country began to live.

You are part II is so current that, if the date were changed to 2020, we would not be surprised at all.


[1] – Two important data concerning the piece: it was the second in a series (the first was lost) and it was part of a set of works that, produced from their grid configurations, all introduced elements of humor into the resulting modules. This set was shown in an exhibition at the former Atrium Gallery, in São Paulo, in 1965, which Leirner shared with his friend Geraldo de Barros.
[2] – On the subject, read, among others: SONTAG, Susan. Against interpretation. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 1987 (especially the text that gives the book its title).
[3] – CHIARELLI, T. Nelson Leirner. art and not art. Sao Paulo: Takano, 2002.
[4] – This statement is part of a series of emails exchanged between the artist and myself between June and September 2001 to collect information for the production of the book mentioned in note 3.
[5] – Note 23, in – CHIARELLI, T. op. cit. page 42.
[6] – Crowned recognition, when curator Ivo Mesquita invited him to, together with Iran do Espírito Santo, represent Brazil at the Venice Biennale, in 1999. In this, which was the 48th. edition of the show, Leirner's power in Brazilian contemporary art was evident, not only for the critical dimension of his production, but also for having been one of the mentors of a significant generation of artists that emerged in the 1980s, in which Iran do Holy Spirit.
[7] – This fact perhaps explains the superstitious side Nelson sometimes displayed. A fact that calls attention to this characteristic of his personality can be seen in the cover photo of the book, mentioned here, art and not art. Nelson insisted that the series of amulets linked to various religious matrices that he carried hanging on his chest was the protagonist of the image. Another fact: in 2002, when I held the exhibition “Apropriações/Collecções” at Santander Cultural in Porto Alegre, I chose to present the productions of six fundamental names for thinking about the issues of appropriation and collection in Brazilian art. They were Alberto da Veiga Guignard, Jorge de Lima, Athos Bulcão, Aloísio Magalhães, Farnese de Andrade and the only living artist among the “honored”, Nelson Leirner. Nelson came to complain to me, saying that he felt uncomfortable being the only one alive among the “classics” in the exhibition. Would it be the “You belong” syndrome again?
[8] – It is worth reviewing the text: “And we could see that, in this Cemetery in Vila Mariana, within a short time the “playfulness” of life would no longer exist. The equation for the exhibition was formed, the rest was a matter of game”.
[9] – “Arte paulistana”, an AMARAL, Aracy. Texts from the Tropic of Capricorn. Articles and essays (1980-2005). São Paulo: Editora 34, 2006. Vol.3 pg. 303. Originally published in the newspaper Mercantile Gazette, Sao Paulo, 10,11,2000.
[10] – CHIARELLI, Thaddeus. Nelson Leirner. art and not art. Op. Cit..
[11] – The three works are from 1965. The first two belong to private collections and the third to the Daros Latin American Collection, Zurich.
[12] – In time: the clock is the sign par excellence of industrial modernity, of time subordinated to the logic of capitalist society; clocks that don't work, surrender the bankruptcy of such logic, displaying it.
[13] – Leirner's plays acted in the opposite direction to the propositions that Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark were developing more or less at the time.
[14] – I will return to the work of Waltercio Caldas and the analysis made on it by Ronaldo Brito (BRITO, Ronaldo. Waltercio Caldas Jr. "Gadgets". Rio de Janeiro: GBM Editoria de Arte, 1979 – mainly pg. 56 et seq.).
[15] – Son of an Italian mother, he lived for many years in Italy, arriving in Brazil at the age of 21.
[16] – On the subject, consult: ALMONFREY, Juliana de Souza S. Cildo Meireles: insertion and deviation in conceptual transit. Vitória: Master's Thesis, UFES, 2009.
[17] – BRITO, Ronaldo. Waltercio Caldas Jr. "Gadgets". Rio de Janeiro: GBM, 1979; page 72.
[18] – The allegory can start from the desire of the artist himself, who may want to give a certain work of his authorship an allegorical dimension, or else the allegory can be in the order of the spectator who can interpret a certain work as an allegory, regardless of the author's designs ( On the subject, read HANSEN, João Adolfo. Allegory: construction and interpretation of metaphor. Sao Paulo: Ed. Hedra, 2006).
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