“You complete me” works just as well for conceptual art as it does for rom-coms. Like so many Jerry Maguires, conceptual works would be nothing without us; they’re only fully realized inside our heads.
The urge to create art that’s needy seems particularly heroic right now. Demanding engagement, asking us to think (politically, even!), is a welcome tonic after a round of shows that encourage little more than Instagramming.
And right now in New York, no exhibition is needier than Cildo Meireles’s at Galerie Lelong. The Brazilian-born artist’s first show in the city in more than a decade, it reminds us why he has become so important in his home country and should be seen more here (he has had several major shows in Europe recently). Works conceived as early as the late 1960s are on view alongside a few new ones; all align with 40-plus years of balancing politics, aesthetics, and viewer participation. To a greater or lesser extent, all take our presence as their animating force. And though we may IG the life out of them — especially the monumental Amerikkka, a massive panini press of an experiential artwork — we’re obliged to see them IRL.
Born in Rio in 1948, Meireles came of age as an artist during the military dictatorship that began in the mid-1960s. Censorship of media and art was the norm. His early efforts manifested an activist streak inflected with enough poetry to evade the censors, including interventions in the early 1970s in which Meireles stamped anti-government slogans on two of his country’s most circulated items: currency and Coke bottles. Who knows how many of his fellow citizens noticed, or cared? What mattered was that the ideas were out there.
Today the government (here, at least) doesn’t censor us. We censor ourselves.
Few dare utter critical words against the machine that feeds them — why put livelihood and likes at risk? And so work like Meireles’s feels all the stronger for being built on ambivalence, doubt, and questions of value.
Take Pares Ímpares [Evens and Odds] (2011–2013), a pair of eyeglasses resting on an acrylic shelf. From afar, both lenses appear to have cracks. Up close we notice that while one is broken, the other is intact: The flaw is in the shelf itself. Similar encounters happen in a side gallery where several Espaços Virtuais [Virtual Spaces] (1967–1968/2014) — each a full-size corner of a room — are installed, one against the next, in a surrealist play on our awareness. Aquaurum, made this year, is a pair of crystal glasses, one filled with water, the other gold. Which commodity is more essential, which is more highly valued? What does value even mean?
Amerikkka (1991/2013), with its title implicating this country’s racial hatred, is a confounding work and the show’s commanding centerpiece. Like a surreal George Foreman Grill, it has an almost twenty-foot-long floor made from more than twenty thousand wooden eggs. An angled ceiling panel suspended overhead is covered in thousands of variously sized bullets inserted into a cerulean panel. We’re invited to remove our shoes and walk — oooo, ohhhh, ouch! — across the surface, only to find the space between creation and destruction decidedly uncomfortable.
Amerikkka makes for an odd encounter, perhaps more painful than revelatory. But it’s an experience, all right. And you have to be there to <3 <3 <3 it.