Part 1: Lygia Clark: At the Border of Art

Curator Christine Macel traces the connections between Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s fascination with psychoanalysis and subsequent exploration of the body and mind in art. Part one of this essay offers an introduction to Clark’s career and discusses her early work, influenced by Sigmund Freud, Georg Groddeck, and psychiatric institutions.

In addition to Macel’s commentary, you can access installation views and the press release through MoMA’s online exhibition history archive here.

Lygia Clark, Arquitetura fantástica bichos (Fantastic architecture critters), 1963. Gelatin silver print, 4 1/8 x 5 13/16 in. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
Lygia Clark, Arquitetura fantástica bichos (Fantastic architecture critters), 1963. Gelatin silver print, 4 1/8 x 5 13/16 in. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
Lygia Clark, Bicho (Critter), 1960/1984. Stainless steel, variable dimensions. Private collection. Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

Lygia Clark’s plan could have been to unify art and life, had she not already come to consider them inseparable parts of a whole. From the start, the artistic and philosophical dimensions of her work appear to be intimately intertwined, while each leap forward in her work was often followed by an existential crisis. More than any other modern artist, Clark resisted categories and divisions to such an extent that her work defies definitions. In the 1960s she put the body and perception at the heart of her undertaking, moving beyond the dichotomies of body/mind, subject/object, and individual/collective and subtly creating a way of being in the world that was part of the overall rhythm of things, wordlessly, in what she called a “mute thought.”1Lygia Clark, “On the Suppression of the Object (Notes),” 1975, in Lygia Clark, exh. cat. (Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 1998), p. 269.  Her own artistic and philosophical struggles led her beyond objects toward the outside, in a desire to fuse with the other, the collective, and the all.

From the 1960s on, Clark’s work reflected her keen interest in psychoanalysis, including research that predated her own, from Freud to Georg Groddeck, as well as schools that were typical of her time. She situated herself within 1970s thought on psychiatric institutions, questioning ideas of normalcy and pathology both as part of her own analysis with Daniel Lagache and Pierre Fédida and in her reading, which was broader than one might imagine. Her experience of art as personal therapy and as “course of treatment,” together with her own thinking and the analysis she underwent, led her to redefine the very idea of art as a gift, a possibility of offering others a way of living differently, in a way that would be creative and free. Considering art a “field of being and events,” Clark inventively explored the body and consciousness, perception and memory, with astonishing prescience, anticipating the focus of today’s cognitive sciences and psychoanalysis, which sometimes come together as neuropsychoanalysis.

It is not surprising, then, that her art, from the Objetos relacionais (Relational objects) of the 1960s to the therapeutic experience of Estruturação do self(Structuring of the self) in the 1970s and ’80s, elicited unease, misunderstanding, and even rejection, given how difficult it was to grasp the nature of her work as a “research” artist — which is how she defined herself in response to such uncertainties.2In a 1984 letter to Guy Brett, Clark defined herself as more a researcher than an artist. See Brett, “Lygia Clark: Six Cells,” in ibid., p. 33. It is in these unexplored zones, at art’s edge, that Clark redefined the work of art, and the experience and perception of a work of art.

Lygia Clark. Study for Bicho (Study for Critter), 1960. Balsa wood, adhesive tape, and pencil, variable dimensions. Private collection
Lygia Clark, Bicho (Critter), c. 1960-63. Metal, variable dimensions. Private collection

Many critics have observed the internal logic of Clark’s work, the way each stage of her research led to the next, often at the cost of a personal crisis, as if, animated by a life with powers of its own, she was the product of a generative process. Thus her art took a path from the two-dimensional paintings of the 1950s, through the three-dimensional Bichos (Critters) of 1960–63, to the “living” Objeto relacional, which related to the participant’s body, the body becoming a full-fledged part of the artwork. At that point a switchover happened to the “client”/participant’s body, which had become a medium for the object’s use. The organic dimension of the artwork itself was certainly connected to Brazilian culture and its strong interest in the body and living things, as well as to research in the 1950s, when Mário Pedrosa had introduced Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to the Brazilian Neo-Concretist group. Even more important for Clark was Pedrosa’s introduction of psychoanalysis and the works of Sigmund Freud. The model of art by institutionalized patients had also paved the way in the 1940s, when Nise da Silveira founded the Setor de Terapia Ocupacional (Occupational therapy section) at the Centro Psiquiátrico Pedro II (also known as Engenho de Dentro) in Rio de Janeiro, influenced by the thought of Carl Jung and with the participation of artists like Ivan Serpa, who would teach Clark’s close friend Hélio Oiticica.3See Tania Rivera, “Ethics, Psychoanalysis and Postmodern Art in Brazil,” Third Text 26, issue 1, no. 114 (January 2012):53.

Given the pervasiveness of psychoanalysis in Clark’s milieu, with her Bichos — creatures animated by their own life, which could be manipulated as one chose — she managed to redefine art not as a static object but as what she termed a proposição (proposition), tied to the act of making something, an event taking place in the now. “The only thing that matters,” she wrote, “is the act-in-progress.”4Clark, “To Capture a Fragment of Suspended Time,” 1973, in Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 187. The viewer then becomes an author, or rather, the agent of a perception defined by the act. These intuitions represent a revolution that goes well beyond the field of art. Since the nineteenth century they had occupied physiology (Ernst Mach, Julius Bernstein) and in the 1940s were taken up by the phenomenology of perception (Merleau-Ponty); today they flourish in the cognitive sciences, making agency a central concept tied to the self and perception.“5Perception by action” is the key to this research, which questions the traditional concept according to which voluntary motion is the product of conscious reflection and decision. See Daniel Andler, ed., Introduction aux sciences cognitives(Paris: Folio Essais, Gallimard, 2004), pp. 617–18.

Clark holding O dentro é o fora (The inside is the outside), 1963. Black and white exhibition print. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro
Clark making a Caminhando (Walking, 1963) with paper and scissors, 1963-64. Performance views. Six black and white exhibition prints. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

Clark thus began to redefine notions of the object’s internality and externality, as well as of the relationship between subject and object. Several years later, in 1971, she wrote about her key work, the 1963 Bichos piece O dentro é o for a (The inside is the outside), which scrambles the essential idea of her work on boundaries — boundaries that are most often destroyed through a desire for nonseparation. Clark analyzed the piece using a psychoanalytical framework:

“I am reading an article by Groddeck which is called “On the human womb and its soul.” He makes the same fantasy about the soul that I was doing years ago. When the newborn baby opens its mouth and takes its first breath of air it is the soul which is coming into the body. I see that I am very close to Groddeck because in the Bicho O dentro é o fora it is the space of this Bichowhich I call my lung, an affective space.”6Clark, letter of August 22, 1971, in Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 282.

The work is thus stamped with a fantasy feel linked to the body through its preverbal stage, where the border between oneself and the outside is inverted and the body becomes externalized, as though turning a glove inside out. This desire to redefine the subject in its relationship to the world, to abolish the borders between subject and object, culminated in the 1963 proposition Caminhando (Walking), an act that could be performed with a paper Möbius strip, cut so as to create a double ribbon. Because the cut end does not come back to the starting point, scissors make their path through thinner and thinner cuts until the object is held together by a thread. This proposition, according to Clark, brought the precarious and the whole together, helping one become aware of one’s own body while perceiving the totality of the world, in an instant that melds with eternity.7See Clark, “To Capture a Fragment of Suspended Time,” pp. 187–88. Beyond providing an aesthetic revolution that dissolves the very idea of artwork, artist, and viewer, the experiment did not yet offer a course of treatment, but rather effected a meeting between the subject and his or her own boundaries. “The active subject meets his own precariousness,” Clark would write.8Clark, “On the Act,” 1983, in Lygia Clark(Barcelona), p. 165. Quoted by Rivera in “L’espace le sujet la psychanalyse l’art contemporain et l’œuvre de Lygia Clark,” in “Création et inconscient: Le dire de l’œuvre,” Psychologie clinique no. 4 (2012):89. It is striking to note that a year earlier, in 1962, and apparently unconnectedly, Jacques Lacan had used the image of the Möbius strip in his seminar: “Lacan had already completely cut the strip lengthwise, along a line midway through its width . . . to say that the subject is nothing more than a cut that ushers in the distinction between the inside and the outside.”9Rivera, “L’espace le sujet la psychanalyse l’art contemporain et l’œuvre de Lygia Clark,” p. 89. Where the psychoanalyst focused on the idea of cutting apart the subject, Clark proposed an act that would allow one to experience the cutting apart as eternally replayed but never definitive, where the border becomes thin to the point of precariousness yet does not break.

Clark with her proposition Pedra e ar (Stone and air), 1966. Stone and plastic bag. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro
Clark’s proposition Respire comigo (Breathe with me), 1966. Industrial rubber. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro
Clark’s proposition Luvas sensoriais (Sensorial gloves), 1968. Ping-pong ball, leather, metal, vinyl, tennis ball, rubber ball. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

During the 1960s this was the point she focused on in creating her Objetos sensoriais (Sensory objects), intended to be manipulated by the viewer-participant, which were grouped under the title Nostalgia do corpo (Nostalgia of the body). From 1966 on, the body became the main theater for perceptual and emotional experiences. In this period of great creativity, Clark designed sensory hoods that would allow wearers to experience scents, noises, or tactile sensations, and clothing that would influence motion, as well as breathing experiments and sensory books. Throughout these propositions she continued to work on articulating inner and outer space in which the object becomes a “body,” as in Pedra e ar (Stone and air, 1966) or Respire comigo (Breathe with me, 1966). She then specifically focused on perception beyond sight — notably touch — with Desenhe com o dedo (Draw with the finger, 1966), Livro sensorial (Sensorial book, 1966), and Luvas sensoriais(Sensorial gloves, 1968). In the watershed 1967 work Máscaras sensoriais (Sensory masks, 1967), participants wear a hood that obscures sight, perceiving smells and sounds while hugging a plastic bag and becoming aware of the boundaries between their bodies and external space. Through these experiments on the body and the self, Clark touched on the very nature of perception and its complexity. For her, “the driving part of the nervous system is engaged in the aesthetic process.”10Clark, 1969, quoted in Stefan Kristensen, “Le Mouvement de la création. Merleau-Ponty et le corps de l’artiste,” Alter no. 16 (2008):256. Intuitively she reconsidered perception at a somatosensory level — that is, at the level of the soma, which goes far deeper than touch or muscular sensation. As today’s neurosciences confirm, “There is no such thing as a pure perception of an object within a sensory channel, for instance, vision. . . . To perceive an object, visually or otherwise, the organism requires both specialized sensory signals andsignals from the adjustment of the body, which are necessary for perception to occur.”11Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999), p. 147.  Sight, smell, and hearing require the body to become involved in its deepest dimensions, down to the “nervous system,” which is made up of the internal or visceral environment, the proprioceptive or kinesthetic apparatus (which exists even when there is no motion), and the sense of touch at skin level.

Lygia Clark, Camisa de força (Straitjacket), 1969. Elastic, nylon, and stone. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro
Clark’s proposition Camisa de força (Straitjacket), 1969. Elastic, nylon, and stone. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

In 1968, even before coming to Paris later in the year and being plunged into the climate of the times, when psychiatry (R. D. Laing) and the power of psychiatric institutions over the body (Michel Foucault) were being questioned, Clark designed a proposition that took the opposite tack from her previous ones by restricting the participant’s body movement. Camisa de força (Straitjacket), which can also be read as a political work in a Brazil under dictatorship, does not obstruct a single sense, such as sight, but inhibits the very freedom of motion, in a work that is “dramatic but beautiful.”12Clark, untitled note, January 15, 1969, in Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 241. The viewer, arms tied, with counterweights of stones at each end, puts on the “jacket” and starts to move within the proposition’s diminished boundaries; it is as if, after aiming to dissolve boundaries, Clark were now redoubling the perception of them, seesawing between internalization and externalization.

Nostalgia do corpo finely sketches a progression in Clark’s work from the internal to the experience of a dialogue — in Diálogo de mãos (Dialogue of hands, 1966), O eu e o tu (The I and the you, 1967), Estruturas vivas (Live structures, 1969) — and then to Arquiteturas biológicas (Biological architectures, 1969), the fantasy of a collective body, which she would explore more thoroughly in the 1970s. Two or more participants, slipping their feet or hands into bags sewn on a plastic surface, cover each other or form a shared shelter. As Clark would later point out, these works arise from the fantasy of a shared body that does away with the boundaries between the self and the other. Here, we are seeing the aesthetic and philosophical dimensions come together so that the artwork, if we can still call it that, offers an experience of the self engaging the other in a dissolution of boundaries, even a fusion with the whole of the world.

This is the first section of an essay by Christine Macel on the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, excerpted from the exhibition catalog Lygia Clark: The Abandonment Of Art, 1948-1988, available at the MoMA bookstore. The second section is available here and the third and final section here.

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