Part 2: 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 two of this essay delves into Clark’s work during the late sixties and throughout the seventies as her art began to border pathology.

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

Clark’s proposition Rede de elástico (Elastic net), 1973. Elastic bands. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

It is not surprising that Clark’s artistic and existential quest, punctuated by personal crises and health problems, should lead her to undergo psychoanalysis, which she called “one of the most creative and mythological things” she had known.1Clark, letter to Hélio Oiticica, July 6, 1974, in ibid., p. 287. In Paris from 1968 through 1976 she went through a new period of exploring herself and her work, where the boundaries between the two once again became porous.

Clark’s approach to psychoanalytic treatment, first with Daniel Lagache and then with Pierre Fédida, bred artistic work that was directly informed by psychoanalysis as she experienced it in her treatment and through her wide reading.2Daniel Lagache participated with Jacques Lacan in founding the Société Française de Psychanalyse in 1953, and, ten years later, the Association Psychanalytique de France, of which he was the first president. Pierre Fédida, whose approach was different from Lacan’s, seemed to suit Clark better: his “interest in rediscovering the body brings him closer to me,” she said. Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 314. The author of L’Absence(1978), influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss and his thinking on psychoanalysis and shamanism, Fédida wanted to reintroduce the body into therapeutic treatment. In the 1970s he created a class on “Semiology, Art, and the Techniques of the Body” at the Sorbonne. An intimate of Georges Didi-Huberman, who dedicated the book Gestes d’air et de pierre: Corps, parole, souffle, image (2005) to him, he studied the idea of the formless that would later figure centrally in the thought of Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss (who was close to the psychoanalyst) in their 1996 Centre Pompidou exhibition that prominently featured Clark. Fédida gave an exciting interview to Suely Rolnik on his approach to Clark’s art, “Ne pas être en repos avec les mots” (Not being at peace with words; see n. 52 below). The period with Fédida (1972–76) seems to have been denser with respect to the treatment’s influence on her art. As the psychoanalyst told her, she felt that it was “time to build a space for language with her body” — on “the flip side of words,” as Fédida would later say3Clark, “La ‘fantasmatique’ du corps” (1974), in Lygia Clark (Barcelona),p. 315; Fédida, Par où commence le corps humain, retour sur la regression (Paris: PUF, 2000), pp. 113–14.— that would translate into the evolution of her Objetos relacionais into Estruturação do self. Clark even identified the precise connections between her artistic experiments and the phases of her treatment.4 Starting in 1972, she taught a class called “The Gesture of Communication” at the Centre Saint Charles of the Sorbonne, Paris, with two three-hour sessions a week for some thirty students between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-seven in each group. This is also when she discovered the fundamentally therapeutic dimension of her work for the participants, with her most important propositions, such as Baba antropofágica(Anthropophagic slobber, 1973) and Canibalismo (Cannibalism, 1973), Rede de elástico (Elastic net, 1974), and Relaxação (Relaxation, 1974–75).

Lygia Clark, Rede de elástico (Elastic net), 1973. Elastic bands. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

This evolution fits with the logic of Clark’s conception of art, influenced, of course, by the views of her time. Art had indeed appeared to her from the start as a personal therapy. Evoking the possibility of working in a clinic in 1971, she exclaimed in a letter to Oiticica, “For someone like me who made art in order to get out of the hospital, ending up there is incredible!”4Clark, letter to Oiticica, March 31, 1971, in Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 276. However, later that year, while alluding to her crises and the “sick child” within her, she recognized the regressive risk in the work, to which she had to react.5“I think that the house is my body and within it there is a sick child.” Clark, letter of August 22, 1971, p. 281. The idea of the sick child is typical of the psychoanalysis of the 1970s. Serge Leclaire, a specialist in psychosis, would make it famous in his 1975 work On tue un enfant (Paris: Point Essais, Editions du Seuil, 1981). “I was paying too much attention to this aspect of my work, which has to do with psychology or rather psychiatry in regression. . . . I will leave pathology to whoever is interested.”6Ibid., pp. 281–82.

Furthermore, she was living in an atmosphere permeated with psychoanalysis, which questioned the very idea of normalcy. “Today everything is being fundamentally challenged, the anti-object, the anti-psychiatry, the anti-Oedipus, it is difficult to draw out the normality/pathology frontier,”7Clark, “On the Suppression of the Object (Notes),” p. 264. she said, at a time when she was diving into many books on the topic. Though she had no academic background in the field, she read Herbert Marcuse — who, she said, was too difficult for her — as well as Félix Guattari,8Beginning in 1971, Clark was aware of the work of Félix Guattari and Jean Oury at the Clinique de la Borde, a mecca for institutional psychotherapy in France. Rolnik gave her Guattari’s and Gilles Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus to read in 1973. Laing (the pope of antipsychiatry),9See Clark, “Mute Thought,” June 1971, in Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 271. Groddeck,10See Clark, letter of August 22, 1971, p. 282. Clark was reading Georg Groddeck’s text “Du ventre humain et de son âme,” published in Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse no. 3 (spring 1971). Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott,11See Fédida, Par où commence le corps humain, pp. 113–14. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, and doubtless Didier Anzieu. Several of these readings inspired her work and led her to deepen her research in an increasingly urgent drive to move beyond the idea of the object or, in any case, to a process of “desubstantialization,” as Thierry Davila has shrewdly noted.12Thierry Davila, “Lygia Clark, la relation thérapeutique,” in L’Art médecine, exh. cat. (Antibes: Musée Picasso, and Paris: RMN, 1999), p. 194.

Clark’s proposition Baba antropofágica (Anthropophagic slobber), 1973. Thread. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

Winnicott and Anzieu seem to be the two analytical thinkers who influenced Clark most profoundly — Winnicott certainly and Anzieu in all probability — and with striking conceptual proximity. Indeed, as of 1970 she titled some of her works “Structuring of the Self,” a term taken directly from Winnicott, and she would name the sensory objects she used in her later therapies in 1976 “relational objects” after his concept of the transitional object. A great observer of mother-child relationships and the transitional space they define, Winnicott developed the idea of the self as first and foremost corporeal, and stressed the importance of making art in order to remain in touch with the primitive self. In his 1971 book Playing and Reality(translated into French in 1975), he described the transitional object — teddy bear, piece of cloth, thread, etc. — which, like a bridge, helped move the child from the inside to the outside, from fusion with the mother to the “capacity to be alone.”13D. W. Winnicott, Jeu et réalité: l’espace potential(Paris: Gallimard Nrf, 1975). Play, the fundamental cultural experience, is located in the potential space between the self and the outside, thanks to bodily experiences. That line of thought, which resonated with Clark’s experience in the 1960s, could not help but enthrall her, if only because it confirmed and helped to strengthen her own intuitions. Her Baba antropofágica act, designed with the Sorbonne students in 1973, seems to owe the most to Winnicott’s thought, using thread as the exemplar of the transitional object: “A person lies down on the floor. Around him young people who are kneeling down put different colored reels of thread in their mouths. . . .The thread comes out full of saliva.”14Clark, letter to Oiticica, July 6, 1974, p. 288. This thread falls on the body of the person lying down and the group disperses to break up the drool-covered thread, in a dialectic between the inside and the outside, the self-space and the collective body.

In an unpublished note from 1972 conserved in the family archives, Clark also evokes her reading of an issue of Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, a magazine edited by J.-B. Pontalis, whose editorial board included Anzieu and André Green.15“Destins du cannibalisme,” Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse no. 6 (Fall 1972). Titled “Destins du cannibalisme” (Destinies of cannibalism), the issue included texts by Fédida, Anzieu, Masud Khan (a disciple of Winnicott), and Green, as well as Abraham and Torok. Anzieu described the oral fantasy of the group (“The group feeds us, the group eats us”), while Fédida, in his piece “Le Cannibale mélancolique” (The melancholy cannibal), analyzed the fantasy of incorporation from Klein’s theories. There is an undeniable correspondence between those texts and Clark’s act Canibalismo, in which “a group eats, blindfolded, from the belly of a young person lying down.” Clark took notes on Abraham and Torok’s essay “Introjecter-incorporer. Deuil ou mélancolie” (Introjection–incorporation: Mourning or melancholy), which captured her interest.16The essay appears in English in Serge Lebovici and Daniel Widlocher, eds., Psychoanalysis in France (New York: International Universities Press, 1980), pp. 3–16. She copied the following passage on the subject of the fantasy of incorporation: “Introducing into the body, retaining or expelling an object from it — in whole or in part — or a thing, acquiring, keeping, losing, just so many variations on a fantasy, which hold within them, in the exemplary form of appropriation (or feigned disappropriation) the mark of a fundamental intrapsychic situation: the one created by the reality of a loss suffered by the psyche.” Psychoanalysts note that the fantasy of incorporation avoids the painful effort of working through, and enacts a sort of magical healing by incorporation. It is precisely this “magic,” a term Guy Brett used in discussing Clark’s work, that she was trying to usher in with Canibalismo.17Brett, “The Proposal of Lygia Clark,” in Catherine de Zegher, ed., Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), p. 419.

However, as Clark experienced psychoanalytical ideas first-hand, she continued to reflect on the risk of undergoing regression and of having her art veer into pathology. Her nuanced analysis is a testament both to deep reflection and to a distance that allowed her to experience up close the fantasies described by psychoanalysis without exposing her own issues. Fédida described how Clark conducted both her artistic research and her analysis with a critical eye toward psychoanalysts like Klein and Winnicott; she was only interested in their “movement-acts.”18According to Fédida, in Clark’s works there is no psychological representation, only movement-acts, characterized by the “instantaneity of a transformation.” Fédida, Par où commence le corps humain, p. 115.

Clark’s proposition A casa é o corpo. Penetração, ovulação, germinação, expulsão (The house is the body. Penetration, ovulation, germination, expulsion), in use at the Venice Biennale, 1968. Mixed media. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association, Rio de Janeiro

Reflecting on the relationships between art and pathology in the mid-1970s, Clark also criticized what she qualified as “fashionableness”: “— The artist living out his pathology in public, whether by burning her own body, like Gina Pane, or illustrating the object like an American who stretches out on the ground and considers himself ‘bridge.’ — The artist exposing his own pathology as a ‘work of art,’ which aroused a great scandal in the Venice Biennale when an artist hired a Mongoloid for this.”19This must be Gino De Dominicis, whose installation at the 1972 Venice Biennale, Seconda soluzione di immortalità (L’Universo e immobile)(Second solution of immortality [The universe is immobile]), featured a young man with Down syndrome seated on a chair in the corner of a room. Clark, “On the Suppression of the Object (Notes),” p. 264. The idea of the object allowed her to deepen her critique against the artist using his or her own body as an object without moving beyond the subject-object dialectic. She thus challenges the artist’s romantic stance as embodied by Pane, “who still needs an object, even if she is the object, in order to deny it.”20Ibid., p. 265. It is precisely this crucial distinction she made in the early 1970s — between the subject who takes himself to be his own object and the subject who incorporates the object in order to make it disappear, thus becoming the object of his own sensations21See Clark, letter to Oiticica, August 10, 1971, in Lygia Clark (Barcelona), p. 279. — that lies at the heart of the sensory environment Clark presented at the Venice Biennale in 1968, A casa é o corpo(The house is the body). In this installation viewers pushed through rubber bands into a dark room full of balls and strings through which they had to forge a path. Then in a second space filled with light, they found themselves in a tent, a sort of matrix space made of plastic with balls rolling on the ground. After a new dive into darkness with new balls and strings, they reached the exit, facing a fun house mirror. This progression through the installation allowed the viewer to experience a female internal state, in a process of generation and birth, as indicated by Clark’s subtitle: Penetração, ovulação, germinação, expulsão (Penetration, ovulation, germination, expulsion). However, one of the essential parts of this work, which marked a decisive break, was that it incorporated the viewer — him- or herself a whole being — into a living whole, dissolving the borders between subject and object. The human being thus became the “living structure of a biological and cellular architecture” in a fantasy of rebirth and fusion with an overarching vital principle.22Clark, “L’homme, structure vivante d’une architecture biologique et circulaire,” Robho no. 5–6 (1971).

This is the second 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. Read the first section here and the third and final section here.

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