It’s not often art makes you think about belly buttons.

The Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, currently the subject of a retrospective in São Paulo, was keen on activating the whole body though art.  She made a work in which visitors were invited to wear magnetized belts around their waists so their belly buttons would be ‘violently attracted’ to each other.  Now that’s just delightfully crazy, in anybody’s world.

Lygia Clark at Itau Cultural, Sao Paulo
Lygia Clark exhibition at Itau Cultural, São Paulo

In film footage from the 60s and 70s, we can see Lygia Clark conducting therapy sessions in her home in Rio, sometimes rolling plastic bags full of air over the bodies of her patients, holding torch light to their lips, dripping honey into their mouths.  ‘I’m all skin’ murmurs one, stretched out on a bed in his underpants, ‘as if I was all surface.  Surface is where we meet the world’.

These words came to me again on leaving São Paulo, as the plane blazed up high above the city, the intricate urban mesh of a megacity reduced to a crusty membrane.

View from the plane leaving Sao Paulo
Leaving Sao Paulo

One of the world’s most populous cities, with some 20 million inhabitants living in close quarters, it also exudes warmth and sensuality. Food and friendliness are given time and careful attention.  In just two intense days work here, I saw graciousness in so many small human exchanges. How do people retain or acquire that quality of gentle attention?

Traffic in Sao Paulo
Traffic in São Paulo
Overhead cables in Sao Paulo
From the taxi window

I saw another exceptional exhibition, at Pinacoteca - São Paulo’s flagship art museum - consisting of boxes and books made by Brazilian artists including Lygia Clark and many others besides. It was curated by Guy Brett, an English art critic and curator who has maintained close friendships with many Brazilian artists since the late 50s. His intimate knowledge of these artists has resulted in a beautiful show, which brings together many objects that the artists have held onto over the years. Brett has observed the particular  fondness for box forms and book forms in Brazilian modernist art. Many of the art works are more like private meditations than public offerings. What struck me was the way the artists were working with the utmost delicacy of thought, making form out of surface, surface out of form.

Pinacoteca, Sao Paulo entrance
Entrance to Pinacoteca, São Paulo

In a letter to Lygia Clark in 1967, Guy Brett wrote describing what he saw as ‘a remarkable impression of tenderness’ in her work.  The woman who imagined people propelled by their belly buttons to connect to another person across a room must have had a tender and brave imagination.

Surface is where we meet the world.  With or without magnetized belts. 

As Tate’s Head of National and International Initiatives, Judith Nesbitt is responsible for collaborative projects and partnerships.