Most of these large scale works … intend to gain some independence in relation to space, they seek autonomy, they create a space of their own. The piece is an experiment that exists from its outermost surface inward.
‘Eureka’ was the mythical cry of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, when he realised that the volume of an object could be measured by the displacement of water in his bathtub, enabling him to determine its density.
In Eureka/Blindhotland, Meireles invites the visitor to experience the different weights of 201 seemingly identical rubber balls, questioning the dominance of visual perception. One of his inspirations was Jorge Luis Borges’s story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a tiny cone from a parallel world enters our own, but is so heavy that the narrator struggles to pick it up, experiencing fear and revulsion at its combination of smallness and heaviness.
As Meireles explains
Eureka [consists of ] a wooden cross, placed on a weighing scale, and two identical bars of the same wood, placed on the other scale. They are both seen to weigh the same, although the perceiver would assume they had different weights. Blindhotland is the generic name given to a series of works begun in 1970, in which the dominance of the visual gives way to a ‘blind’ perception of reality through the senses of hearing, smell and taste; through awareness of density, heat, and so on.
The soundtrack, Expeso, is a recording of spheres of different weights falling from different heights at different distances from the microphone. Finally, Insertions, is a series of uncaptioned images placed as advertisements in newspapers during the exhibition, featuring the catatonic figure from Zero Cruzeiro paired with a sphere. Each time, they appear in different sizes in relation to one another, expanding Meireles’s exploration of scale to encompass how we imagine ourselves in relation to our surroundings, the psychic as well as physical impact of space on our bodies.
At once beautiful and foreboding, the vast, labyrinthine Through compels us to enter, but simultaneously confronts us with a series of barriers. Each of these is an object of prohibition that normally proscribes our movement through space, but which the eye can penetrate, from institutional rope barriers to domestic shower curtains.
Crunching across the field of broken glass, the visitor must negotiate these diverse barriers in order to move through the work. In Meireles’s maze, access is both permitted and denied – the gaze can traverse where the body cannot.
At its heart is the great cellophane ball of Clear Sphinx, with which Meireles proposes a formal enigma, the mystery of soft glass. In its cell-like structure, with Clear Sphinx as its nucleus of light, this expansive installation evokes the microscopic. Like the fishing nets that border Through, biological cells are enclosed by an outer membrane, which restricts the flow of chemicals into and out of the cell, but which is not completely impermeable.
The enormous ball can also be read as a cosmic metaphor, signifying the infinite, which lies at the heart of devices of limitation. Guy Brett asks ‘Are we relieved of the social minutiae of each different barrier by the transparent abstraction we discover at the centre? Or are we reminded of the human need constantly to frame and contain experience in order to be able to live in the ferocious universe?’
Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals) 1987
Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals) was created for a group exhibition of Brazilian artists to commemorate the seven mission settlements founded by the Jesuits in Paraguay, Argentina and the south of Brazil between 1610 and 1767 to convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity.
‘I wanted to construct something that would be a kind of mathematical equation, very simple and direct, connecting three elements: material power, spiritual power, and a kind of unavoidable, historically repeated consequence of this conjunction, which was tragedy’, Meireles has said.
The resulting work comments on the human cost of missionary work and its connection with the exploitation of wealth in the colonies: the ceiling is composed of
2,000 bones, while the floor comprises 600,000 coins. Symbolically joining these two elements is a column of 800 communion wafers.
The missionaries hoped to save the Indigenous population from what they understood to be the most savage of practices, cannibalism. As Paulo Herkenhoff explains, ‘In a plea to eradicate cannibalism, the missionaries offered in exchange the Eucharist and the Holy Communion – the consumption of Christ’s body.’ Yet the missionaries’ desire to absorb and replace the beliefs and practices of the Indigenous people itself constituted a form of cultural cannibalism, one culture or civilisation absorbing another.
In Glovetrotter, a steel mesh of the kind used to make butchers’ gloves envelops a range of spheres of varying sizes made from different materials and with different purposes – from footballs and metal spheres to a single pearl. The combination of these elements at once recalls the ancient metal of medieval armour and an exquisite, futuristic, lunar landscape.
Meireles has said:
I began to think about those spheres and imagined something that would refer to the idea of conquering worlds, using that collection of elementary forms and something that would somehow contain them and would also be reminiscent of the great voyages, in the modern age, of Portugal and Spain and the conquest of the New World. I then thought of this stainless-steel mesh, which has an amazing modular capacity: it possesses a weight, it retains, it generates a field all by itself
The title is a playful pun on ‘globetrotter’, alluding to the historical links between travel and conquest. ‘It’s a situation in which the materials relate through imposition. The mesh imposes itself’, the artist explains. The subtitle for the work, ‘Brave New Worlds’, derives from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, itself rooted in themes of colonialism and the opposition of savagery and civilisation.