The text below is not exactly an interview, nor is it an essay. Upon being invited to write about Lydia Okumura’s oeuvre, I thought that interviewing her might be the most interesting approach to take, considering she has been living in New York for several years now, and her voice hasn’t been heard that often around these parts. Moreover, the existing writings on her work mostly cover her Brazilian period, her early conceptual output, and her seminal, though relatively short-lived stint with trio Equipe3, and do not delve into her later productions. And so I suggested an interview to Lydia, to which she agreed, but on receiving the file with the answers to my first questions, which had just arrived in my email from a presumably freezing-cold New York in the final days of 2016, I was faced with a free-flowing, distinctive text that made clear that a “conventional” interview would ultimately fall short of saying all there is to be said about her work. Just as, even today, Lydia Okumura’s work remains experimental and hard to pin down, this text evolved into a hybrid state, in an attempt to honor the artist’s speaking style and her lighthearted thinking. More so than a Q&A, the paragraphs below are to be regarded as sentences in a horizontal, free-form conversation which, in this respect, is more in keeping with her working partnerships of the 70s.
In the way they deal with a space at once tangible and hypothetical (or utopian), Lydia Okumura’s early 1970s installations, and the sketches thereof, might be traced back to iconic works of art from the second half of the 20th century in Brazil (and more pointedly Rio de Janeiro), like Cildo Meireles’ Cantos series (1967-68), Antonio Dias’ Do it Yourself: Freedom Territory (1968), or some of Carlos Zilio’s works on paper from those same years. On the other hand, her oeuvre, both solo and with the Equipe3 collective (alongside Genilson Soares and Francisco Iñarra) is mostly viewed through the prism of São Paulo art, more specifically from the orbit of MAC-USP, then under the direction of Walter Zanini.
I must confess that I knew nothing of Rio, and even São Paulo is by now an unknown world. Years ago, I saw work by Antonio Dias in São Paulo, work on handmade paper from India, with an inlaid + carved on the upper left corner, and other derived forms. I just saw a picture of an installation with those same + signs, this time printed on the floor, and it reminded me of my own piece “1.000.000 mm3,” at the 1972 National Biennial of São Paulo, in which I printed sentences on the floor and carried string across the 2nd floor of the building [the Antonio Dias piece Lydia makes mention of is Do it Yourself: Freedom Territory]. In the 60s there was a great chasm between Rio and São Paulo. I would hear anecdotes: that Rio de Janeiro critics never wrote about anything other than Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, for instance. Perhaps in response to that, artists in São Paulo would gather at city square Praça da República to spread the news about vernissages, salon events, etc. Perhaps that dearth of information afforded me the freedom to develop my own form of expression after my first solo exhibition, in 1968. I was only vaguely acquainted with Prof. Zanini by the time my work was featured in the JAC, in 1971 [Jovem Arte Contemporânea - Young Contemporary Art, an annual exhibit held by MAC-USP], but I recall that in 1972, in his first Art History lesson at FAAP, he asked the class which of us considered becoming artists, and I was the only one who raised my hand! A few days later I was invited to participate in the MAC’s “9º Aniversário” (9th Anniversary) event, which was due in 2 days! So I came up with the saying: “Faça alguma coisa antes do término do 3285º dia” (Do something before the 3285th day is through), which I printed in offset on white paper, folded into a napkin-like triangle and handed out to the crowd at the night of the event, and later the action got mentioned as a highlight in the Museum’s commemorative printout.
The installation, entitled Pontos de vista, is arguably a career highlight of Equipe3’s, for in it the three artists managed to retain their individual poetics, whilst directly responding to one another’s work. The decision to show a photographic portrayal beside the installation evinces the importance they imparted to their chosen modus operandi. In a way, they thus created an artwork at once collectively and individually made, something they had already hinted at in the piece created for the 1972 JAC, Incluir os excluídos, which saw them collaborate with a number of artist friends to execute work by artists (Jannis Kounellis, Jacques Castex, Daniel Buren, Érika Steinberg, Sérvulo Esmeraldo, and Arthur Luiz Piza) who hadn’t made it into the shortlist because they weren’t there on the day of the space allotment draw. Even though political issues were not openly addressed, it’s worth noting that these pieces were created in a context that was deeply marked by dictatorship (those years’ Biennials were characterized by a major boycott from international artists in response to the crackdown atmosphere in Brazil), one where offering new “points of view” and working to “include the excluded” were affirmative, explicit gestures. In 1974, shortly after the Biennial, Lydia relocates to New York with a student visa from the Pratt Graphics Center, and apart from a few subsequent joint exhibitions, the Equipe3 adventure comes to an end.
In New York City, 1974, as a student of the Pratt Graphics Center, I used two-dimensional techniques, and I printed “multi-dimensional” images, or installations in complex situations. I had the chance to create installations at institutions, galleries, and in residencies, but while surviving and getting the loft where I lived in order, I also created numerous works on paper, especially the plans for potential installations in empty spaces, which could also work as part of those same installations, shown as a group. During those years in New York, I had the chance to be in several group exhibitions, and I always thought it was fantastic that critics would write without personally knowing the artists; their nationalities or where they’d come from didn’t matter.
At first it doesn’t seem unsurprising that in New York (the place where conceptual art had been born a few years earlier), Lydia’s output grew more physical, with increasing experimentation with architectural space and its particularities, and the development of two-dimensional forms in space. These were avenues she’d begun exploring in her previous output, but which now took center stage in her work. The use of stretched-out string, which had been featured before in Pontos de vista, grew recurrent, as did her use of complex architectural spaces such as corners, protrusions, or niches. At the birthplace of conceptual art, Lydia’s work ultimately proves closer to minimalism and the work of the likes of a Sol Lewitt or a Fred Sandback.
In New York City, 1974 I took a photo of a corner where I had stretched out some string using push-pins, at the junction of two walls, with 3 lines descending to the floor to create the illusion of a pyramid. The floor was wooden, in a Broadway loft where I lived for 6 months. The following year in Caracas, I also created two pieces using string, and that year I also created a scale model out of foam-board, and I stretched out black elastic cord from wall to wall, and then I took photographs, taking advantage of the elasticity of the string, hanging in the air to create shadows, or flush with the walls, until I achieved the illusion of a full cube. In 1976, at an exhibit at Indiana University, I improvised a cube in a small corner using only string; in 1979 I used a rope to make a line/shadow at a corner of Nobe Gallery. Later on, in Tokyo, at the Ginzakaigakan Gallery, I stretched out some string, at a distance of approximately 25 cm from the walls¸ in order to project shadows onto the four walls of the gallery. In 1980, I did something similar at the Pratt Institute in New York, and in 1981 at the PS1; in 1983 at the São Paulo Art Biennial, and the following year at the MAM.... All of this is to try to remember when I first saw Fred Sandback’s work for the first time, but I’m not sure. It could have been the late 1970s, or even the 80s, but in truth I must have seen his work 3 or 4 times at most. I barely even went to galleries at all it seems... The Pratt Graphics Center was a hub for artists of different nationalities: Malaysia, Mexico, Japan, Canada, and the USA. The grant was given in exchange for helping out at the office once a week, by processing the mail and taking it to the post office, for instance. There I met Ryo Watanabe, who lived in the same building as Sol Lewitt, and other Japanese artists who’d begun producing Sol’s works. In 1976 I had the opportunity to work for him, executing a wall drawing in the lobby of the School of Visual Arts in Chelsea. The wall had already been painted black and grid-patterned with graphite; my job was to draw straight lines, some continuous and some broken, in white chalk, using a ruler and a compass. There was this corner at the top of a staircase that I couldn’t reach, I was about 20cm shy of it, so Sol climbed up the stairs and finished the line in 2 seconds. When Sol asked me what I did for a living and where I lived, I told him that I was also an artist, that I lived near Franklin Furnace, and I made some remark about the generation of artists such as himself who influenced the new generation. To my surprise, he rang my doorbell one day, and saw my works on paper, some of which were still in progress. In the late 80s, as the art system changed, I, too, underwent major change in my life. I had to endure the gentrification of the Tribeca neighborhood, lost the loft that I lived in, had to find a full-time job to earn a living, separated my house from my studio, and worked on my art at night and on weekends. Not being in touch with the institutions, I delved into a realm of intimate dialogue with my own painting, something I hadn’t had the chance to do in my youth, and which proved a much-needed meditative practice. Unlike installation work, for which I depended on the institutions, painting revolves entirely around one’s intention and physical state, reflecting each and every condition, and it’s like a mirror to the soul.
On occasion of one of her biggest showings, at MAM São Paulo, 1984, Lydia created a large amount of new work as she continued to experiment with geometric shapes and assorted materials, but what struck her the most was the experience of seeing the exhibition through the eyes of a group of children she had seen working at the park as “flanelinhas” (watching over parked cars).
In watching the barefoot kids who I let in the museum, I realized that I make art for people to see, simple as that. I believe that as he reflects on himself, the observer realizes his own presence. The minimal, the geometric, the environmental are all strategies. The artist chooses his form of expression and seeks how best to express each idea. I think conceptual art arose from the apathy of the merely decorative, of the fake, and from a repudiation of the values about which a stand had to be taken. An idea, a truth, a piece of knowledge begets a sentence; energy requires a form of expression, and it forms a language. Today, the world already interprets itself through quantum energy, but what has changed is the realization of the truth Buddha had explained as early as 3000 years ago, that this physical world is an illusion, that it doesn’t exist, that it’s temporary. The artist can help with the observation of inner things, in addition to the physical, the psychological, the thoughts. The work of art allows a needed pause for this (self)reflection. Geometry is an intelligent type of drawing, one that can help express the concept of multi-dimensionality, an aspect of the truth of life.