Cildo Meireles

Volatile by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles offers the spectator a hauntingly intense experience. At the end of a room filled calf-high with grey talc, a single candle burns, scarcely illuminating the situation. In order to approach it, viewers have to wade barefoot through the dust. The feeling of being absorbed as well as exposed is further enhanced by the latent threat generated by the sound and smell of leaking gas in the space. The intimacy of the situation in conjunction with the combination of gas and open flame, generate a sensual intensity that goes beyond conventional, more distanced patterns of reception. As in an earlier work where Meireles covered the floor of a gallery in black sandpaper and matches and played with the possibility of one kick setting the entire gallery alight, here too it is the presence of the visitor that activates the installation’s potential.

The work thus insists on the body as medium of supposed immediacy and sets it off against the dominant claims of optical experience. It revalorises levels of communication categorically sidelined under the primacy of visual information; the senses of smell and touch stand in for underprivileged and more direct modes of perception and are re-activated in response to a civilisation and art world experienced as sensually impoverished.

The work thus also opens onto differently coded encounters that redefine the relationship between art and world experience. Drawing on a mixture of seduction and repulsion, the work resonates strongly with the remains of magical or religious ritual. Fragments of faith are as present in the work, as the question of in which sphere might the work appropriately be placed and considered.

Ever since he placed little drawings on banknotes in the 1970s, fed them back into the circulation of money and information and claimed them to be insertions into the ideological circuit, Meireles’ practice has actively claimed an in-between realm where the mutual dependencies of the world and art can be translated back into an open question. Volatile too appears to be taken from an existing experiential realm whose potential is appropriated here for artistic production and experience. Simultaneously though, the artistic format itself appears as paradigmatic for a construction of sense that refers the viewer back to the possibility of different experiences in the world. In the interplay of both perspectives, the body is valorised, and with it a dislocated function of art. It is no less exclusive, but premises its exclusivity on a sensually enhanced potential of experience that remains to be activated by the audience.

By Edgar Schmitz



"Volatile" (1980/94) (Wood, ash, candle, essence)
(Dimensions variable) (Installation view at Galerie
Lelong, New York, 1995.)