I like dealing with paradigmatic things, material things that are recognised by the public in their everyday lives, things that are at the same time matter and symbol. Money for example.
SPACE AND SCALE
Working across extremes in scale, Meireles explores different connotations of space and the myriad ways in which we experience it – physically, geometrically, historically, psychologically, topologically and anthropologically.
In his drawing series Virtual Spaces: Corners 1968, Virtual Volumes 1968–9 and Occupations 1968–9, Meireles investigates the possibilities of geometricised Euclidean space, using three planes to define a figure in space. Looking for a way to make this abstract idea more concrete, in 1967–8 he began to make full-scale models reconstructing typical domestic corners, which he described as ‘places where there is no action, places of total refuge’.
The Geographical Mutations series contemplate Brazil’s immense land and the nature of geographical boundaries. Earth from either side of the border between the rivalrous states Rio and São Paulo is brought together in a small leather carry-case and, distilling the idea still further, in a ring.
A further object, Condensation III: Ringbomb 1996 demonstrates that the potency of an art work is not related to its size. This small ring, resembling an oil barrel, contains a lens and compressed gunpowder. ‘If you wear this ring in the sun,it will explode’, Meireles explains.
The Physical Art projects propose actions relating to geographical and topological space, many of which were never realised. Some of them are impossible, such as the Cravan Project, which proposes sailing around the North Pole in a small canoe, paddling in the direction of the Earth’s rotation, to become a bit younger.
CIRCULATION AND DISTRIBUTION
Broadcast as a series of simulated news bulletins, Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds caused widespread panic, many listeners fleeing their homes, terrified, believing that an actual alien invasion was in progress. Meireles has described the broadcast as the ‘unconscious source’ of the Insertions into Ideological Circuits 1970–6, existing on the border between fiction and reality and belonging to those two worlds simultaneously.
Around 1970, Meireles turned to the idea of space as a circulatory network. The first Insertions were adverts placed in newspapers. Realising that although newspapers have a wide circulation, they are centrally controlled, he searched for a medium that could operate under the radar, thus evading the censorship of the increasingly authoritarian military dictatorship.
At that time, Coca-Cola bottles in Brazil circulated on a deposit system, so Meireles was able to print political messages onto a number of bottles and put them back into circulation. Applying the same principle to banknotes, he stamped them with inscriptions such as ‘Who killed Herzog?’, referring to a journalist who had been tortured by the regime and died in prison.
Art historian Paulo Herkenhoff has observed that the Banknote Project was the most effective of the Insertions: ‘The notes and the unwanted message circulated quickly, for people would neither keep the money nor destroy it.’
Money Tree 1969 explores the paradox of symbolic value versus the real value of things. Consisting of a bundle of 100 one-cruzeiro notes presented like an art work on a plinth, it was offered for sale for twenty times that amount. Extending his exploration of value, from 1974–8 he ventured into artistic counterfeiting, producing Zero Cruzeiro and Zero Centavo spoof Brazilian currency. Reducing the value of these bills to zero, Meireles replaced the illustrious figures who normally adorn banknotes with two people who existed on the margins of society with few legal rights: an inmate from an asylum he had visited in Trindade and a Krao Indian.
TIME AND INFINITY Meshes of Freedom 1976 and 1977 began as a doodle, with Meireles drawing one line then another that intersected it until he’d made a grid. With no formal limitations, the grid can grow indefinitely. This system of bifurcation, or division and replication, becomes increasingly disorderly, following a principle discovered by mathematician Mitchell Feigenbaum as part of his studies in chaos theory.
Using mesh, a material associated with devices of restriction, Meshes of Freedom transforms this system of disordering into a possible liberation from the coercion and repression of life under the military dictatorship.
In his story The Garden of Forking Paths, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes a similar concept through the work of a fictional novelist who attempts to explore all the possible outcomes of the events in his book, leading to a ‘dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times.’
The premise of To be Curved with the Eyes 1970/5 is simple but magical – the cumulative gaze of spectators over time has the potential to curve the straight iron bar. The inscription in the wooden case reads ‘two iron bars parallel and curved’, a challenge to the principles of Euclidean geometry. The exploration of the infinite and how we attempt to place boundaries upon it in order to define our place in the universe is a recurrent theme across Meireles’s work.