"The University Studio: Oiticica, Rhodislandia, and Peripheral Strategies in Art Making," by Grace Kelly


"The University Studio: Oiticica, Rhodislandia, and Peripheral Strategies in Art Making," by Grace Kelly

The students hovered around the small man, his Portuguese accent lilting as he showed them the space they would be making art in. The room was divided into cubicles with flossy white cloth and a mellow orange light that pulsated, creating an embryonic space. Outside, the cold, damp winds of November breezed through the coastal town of Kingston, Rhode Island. Helio Oiticica, a native of Brazil, was out of his element, and not just because of the weather. It was 1971 and he was creating a collaborative exhibition with art students at the University of Rhode Island, then a backwater state school where potato farmers and Italian immigrants sent their kids. The exhibition was called Rhodislandia:contact, an exhibition that faded with time, its location and incomplete documentation diminishing its historical remembrance.

Oiticica is now a household name in the world of art history. Recently rediscovered, much has been written on his works, often concerning color and kinetics. He is defined as a radical who was forced to leave Brazil to make his environmental art, and his greatest works are often cited as being Tropicalia and Parangoles—-flashy, Brazil-centric pieces that conjure up images of sweaty favelas and of mangoes rotting in the steaming air of Rio. These flashy works have overshadowed Rhodislandia, which has never more than briefly mentioned. It is thus evident that color, kinetics, and the usual context in which Oiticica is discussed do not do justice to Rhodislandia. Indeed, Rhodislandia begs a different set of questions and a different approach.

 Oiticica was, first and foremost, an artist in the time of radical art-making and art-pedagogy. Amidst his contemporaries were Guy Debord, John Latham, and Fluxus. He spent time in London, Paris and New York, places where radical ideas were being created and exchanged, much of them attempting to de-stabilize conventional art institutions such as the museum and the gallery. The ‘spectacle’, as defined by Debord, had seeped into the very walls of the museum that had for centuries been filled with an anesthetic, Kantian, autonomous-art.

 Oiticica was not oblivious to this dialectic, and became engaged in combatting the spectacle. A unique response to this was manifested in his University activities, particularly Rhodislandia. I will examine Rhodislandia in the context of Oiticica’s interactions in the United States and London, and specifically his work with the university as a place of art-making, pedagogy and anti-institutionalization. To do this, I will use photographs and Oiticica’s own essays and reflections on his other university works to contextualize this particular piece. Oiticica’s goals at URI were not to simply make art-for-arts-sake or to incarnate theories of color in physical form. Rather, I will argue, he was attempting to break art free of the spectacle by engaging students in a peripheral setting.

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  • HAAARCH!!! 2015
  • Undergraduate Work