Hélio Oiticica

Tropicália, Penetrables PN 2 ‘Purity is a myth’ and PN 3 ‘Imagetical’


Not on display

Hélio Oiticica 1937–1980
Original title
Tropicália, Pentraveis PN 2 'Pureza é um mito' e PN 3 'Imagético'
Wooden frames, cotton fabric, plastic sheets, carpet, nylon fabric, patchouli root, cinnamon sticks, sand, plants, metal, terracotta, brick and other materials
Displayed: 2480 × 15140 × 6350 mm
Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, Tate Members and the Art Fund 2007


Tropicália, Penetrables PN 2 ‘Purity is a myth’ and PN 3 ‘Imagetical’ 1966–7 is a large-scale installation by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica that can be walked through by visitors. The floor is covered in sand, over which a winding gravel path has been laid. This path is flanked by tropical plants in terracotta pots and poems written by the artist on wooden boards. Located alongside the path is a large metallic birdcage containing two live parrots, as well as two wooden-framed structures, or ‘Penetrables’, known as PN 2 and PN 3, which are designed for visitors to enter. PN2 is an open-roofed structure composed of four wooden panels painted in different bright colours which houses herbs and soil. PN 3 is a larger, roofed series of corridors and rooms with ribboned door hangings and panels in wood, fabric and plastic, some of which have floral patterning. Positioned in the darkened space of PN 3 on a wooden crate is a television set broadcasting local channels, which vary depending on where the work is shown.

This work was first displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in April 1967 as part of the seminal group show New Brazilian Objectivity. It was later shown in an important solo exhibition of Oiticica’s work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1969 – a show that was commonly referred to by the artist as ‘The Whitechapel Experience’. In 2007 Tate acquired the original and only version of the Tropicália installation directly from the artist’s estate. It had never previously been sold or appeared at auction, although copies of it have been produced for exhibitions.

By allowing visitors to enter Tropicália rather than observe it from afar, Oiticica may be seen as encouraging a more active form of gallery spectatorship. In 1969 the artist described how a visitor might experience this work:

Tropicalia is a kind of closed labyrinth without a ‘wayout’ at the end. When you enter it it has no ceiling, and in the spaces through which the spectator circulates there are tactile elements. As you penetrate further on, the sounds you were hearing from the outside (voices and all kinds of sounds) are revealed as coming from a television receiver that is placed working at the very end of it.
(Quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1969, p.19.)

The word ‘tropicália’ was coined by Oiticica for the title of this work. It did not previously exist in the Portuguese language, although its Latin root signifies ‘things tropical, things that are typical of the tropics, the tropical itself’. The term has subsequently been used to describe a much broader artistic movement in Brazil, with a particular emphasis on music (see Ramírez 2007, pp.118–19, 382). The subtitle ‘Purity is a myth’ that relates to PN 2 can be seen as a reference to the claims made by modernist artists such as Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) concerning abstract works in primary colours and geometric forms similar to those employed by Oiticica in this installation.

Tropicália also evokes various other elements of Brazilian culture, from the informal architecture of favelas (slums) to the tropical birds and plants. In 1969 the critic and curator Guy Brett, who organised ‘The Whitechapel Experience’, assessed the national and global contexts of this work:

On one level Tropicalia is an environment of blatantly presented tropical images, and it would be easy to take it superficially as a piece of Brazilian folklore. But the hidden level of Tropicalia is the process of penetrating it, the web of sensory images which produce an intensely intimate confrontation, especially perhaps with the innermost image of all, in pitch darkness, the universal switched-on TV set. The typical turns into the actual in this mythical space.
(Quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1969, p.30.)

Born in Rio in 1937, Oiticica began making abstract paintings in the 1950s before developing three-dimensional works such as Spatial Relief (red) REL 036 1959 (Tate T12763). In 1960 he joined the neo-concrete group of Rio-based artists, which included figures such as Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, who emphasised feeling and expression rather than scientific rationalism in abstract art. Oiticica’s subsequent Parangolés series (1964–79), which consists of paintings made on layers of plastic and fabric that are designed to be worn while dancing to samba music, further demonstrates his long-running interest in challenging conventions of colour and space.

Further reading
Hélio Oiticica, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969, pp.18–23, 29–30, reproduced p.20.
Guy Brett and Luciano Figueiredo (eds.), Oiticica in London, London 2007, pp.9, 11–13, 20–33, reproduced pp.17, 20, 28, 50, 56–9.
Mari Carmen Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, pp.20, 118–19, 382, reproduced p.119.

Richard Martin
June 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

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