This review of ‘Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space’ was published at thisistomorrow, January 2012
On entry, the first retrospective of Brazilian artist, and founding member of Neo-Concretism, Lygia Pape (1927 – 2004; pronounced wee-gee-ah pap-eh) is a thoroughly consuming experience. ‘Eat Me’ (1975), a large projection covering the space directly opposite the Serpentine gallery’s main entrance, depicts a succession of giant mouths – rouge lipped and large enough to swallow the viewer – in close up, 70s saturated colour. Inside these fleshy grottos, tongues teasingly reveal jelly like substances, bubbling mucus, and slow emissions of grey smoke, while a lipsticked female mouth simulates cunilingus with something juicy, red and pink. In this inescapable oral fixation writ large: monstrous but unthreatening, sleazy and yet not conventionally pornographic, ‘Eat Me’ offers a playfully engaging entrance into the sensual side of Pape’s world.
Pape’s beginnings as an artist influenced by constructivism and European Concretism are well presented. Different formulations from the artist’s various ‘Livros’ (Books) populate the east gallery space, the largest of which is ‘Livro de tempo’ (Book of Time 1961 – 1963) a collection of 365 wood blocks, sculpted into unique colour and shape variations of geometric abstraction. In the west gallery a large number of woodcut prints, all produced in 1958, reveal a decorative sensibility – perhaps inevitable for an artist dealing with geometry and repetition –, but it is the participatory nature of Pape’s later works, pitted against the climate of political oppression in 60s Brazil, that are the most involving. What a shame this aspect of her work is presented through documentation and video, rather than possible re-enactment. Her series of ‘Espacos imantados’ (Magnetized Spaces), street performances she staged spanning 1982 – 1995, are presented via a meagre series of four black and white photographs; and videos of performances like ‘O ovo’ (The Egg 1967) are replayed via DVDs on four monitors in the south gallery.
Despite the pedestrian presentation of these works, ‘Tteia 1, c’ (Web 1976-2002/2011) is an extraordinary installation that unites the sensual, participatory and formal interests across Pape’s works. Its lines of golden thread, pulled taught like harp strings installed between the ceiling and floor, create striated beams that become animated by artificial light, appearing and disappearing, as you circle the darkened north gallery. The effect created is that of seeing an invisible entity play the work; its strings are seemingly plucked by nothingness, leaving the viewer to construct a phantom aleatory accompaniment of cascading tones. Alongside the wall size ‘Eat Me’, ‘Tteia 1’ stands out like a beacon of affectivity in this muted retrospective, not quite up to the task of covering, and enlivening Pape’s unique world.