Roberto Cabot – A Rebel Against Purity

By Noemi Smolik

Years before his stay in New York, where he would be confronted with the painting of the abstract Expressionists and the incipient Concept and Minimal Art movement, the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica constructed in 1967 the installation "Tropicália" in Rio de Janeiro’s Museum de Arte Moderna. Aspiring to "inform every last detail of the installation with Brazilian elements in an extremely ambitious attempt to forge a language which belongs to us” and adopting the conceptual strategy and minimalistic approach to space, Oiticica re-scenarized two huts based on the Brazilian Favelas, the so-called "Penetráveis", which translates roughly as "penetrable". They are surrounded by sand, tropical plants and parrots which serve as semantic references to the reality of everyday life in the Tropics. Printed on a monochrome surface across the top of a wall in the smaller of the two huts, which are fashioned from fabric and wood, are the words: "A Pureza é um mito" - Purity is a Myth. The larger hut houses a television set placed at the end of a labyrinthine corridor.

With this installation Oiticica succeeded in juxtaposing two pictorial concepts: The mythical, purity-evoking concept of abstract art in Western Modernity – divested of referential and associative perspectives, and consequently elevated above all elements of popular and daily culture, and the visual image, laden with references and associations to the quotidian, as manifested in the self-made huts and the TV set. "In truth", states Oiticica, "I set out with Tropicália to transform the myth of the interracial ‘melting pot’ into reality – we are all simultaneously black, Indian, white – our culture has nothing to do with the European, despite having been brutally oppressed by it to the present day".

Almost 40 years later the Brazilian Roberto Cabot constructed a room in Cologne which echoes Oiticica’s appeal for a cross-fertilisation and mixing of the cultures with everyday life. Nothing characterises better European Modernity, this apogee of Western Cartesian thought, than the principle of the rectangular grid - as evinced in the works of Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd or the architect Oswald Mathias Ungers. Embodying the great European achievement of uncompromising rationality, the principle of the grid is absolute and eternal. Yet paradoxically this mode of thought fails to identify the danger visually evoked by the grid; namely, the danger of becoming imprisoned by the rational.

Mondrian’s static and, uncompromisingly rigid grid is transformed by Roberto Cabot into an elastic net which expands and contracts as it unfolds like a wave in a never-ending undulating flowing motion across the walls of the room. This net neither lends structure to the room not renders it finite. Like a spider’s web, single filaments spread over the walls, conveying the illusion of spatial depth where none is, and obfuscating depth where it exists. These lines generate a space which is neither static not finite. Just as in daily life, these spaces flow into each other, changing direction unexpectedly. Illusion dominates the space; a network camera linked to the computer and the Internet captures the viewers, and then throws the captured image onto the wall in the foyer, ensuring that the viewers see themselves only as they depart. But where is the camera located? And in what room does it capture the viewers? The real, experiential space becomes virtual, and the virtual space expands the real one; they too flow into each other. Participating in this game of illusions is the camera, a technical device invented to elucidate the world and deconstruct it into its individual components.

Among the canons of European Modernity during the 1960s and 1970s is the injunction that objets d’art should no longer be manufactured by hand, but, in accordance with the technological standards of the time, must be produced industrially using a technical device, be it a camera or a machine. The self-made artefacts, such as Oiticica’s huts were adjudged to be outmoded and inferior to the industrially manufactured boxes of the North American artist Donald Judd. As such, Oiticica’s huts also constitute a rebellion against this perspective which is dominated by Western modernity. Subsequent to his initial pictorial essays, Cabot also turned to the machine of his day, the computer. After some years spent exploring the virtual realm, he took up the brush again without, however, entirely renouncing the computer. Here too he embarked upon a path of the mutual interpenetration and cross-fertilisation of manual skills with the technological in order to facilitate new, unexpected experiences.

Since the days of Clement Greenberg, the North American art critic, who mercilessly combated any form of illusion in art, modern painters have striven to banish the illusionary from their canvasses. The surfaces of the paintings were reduced to two dimensions, the third, the illusionary dimension of depth, vanished altogether. The objective: surface in its purest form; the monochrome image its purest realisation. As early as 1967 Oiticica juxtaposed this with a daily reality contaminated by illusion. Cabot too opens his painting surface once more to the illusionary dimension of depth. All his lines cast shadows, and in this way expand the existing surface into an imaginary depth. Into a depth, which presupposes sources of light; which – who could doubt it – also is an illusion.