An artist trained in Rio de Janeiro’s experimental environment in the 1950s, Hélio Oiticica has always sought to break the limits of traditional languages in order to deepen the art experience as an integral part of collective life. Oiticica lived in New York during the dictatorship’s most violent years, those after Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) promulgation in December 1968. Back in Brazil in 1978, he witnessed the “slow, gradual and safe” dictatorship distensão [decompression] shortcomings and contradictions, which the then-president General Ernesto Geisel promised. In an interview after his return, the artist spoke about the sadness of realizing he could no longer meet many of the people he befriended in Rio’s favelas and samba parties in the mid-1960s. He attributed these absences to the State’s systematic annihilation of part of the population: “Do you know what I found? There is a genocide project, because most of the people I knew in Mangueira were either imprisoned or murdered.”
Shaken by the brutal execution of yet another of his friends in the following year, Oiticica wrote a letter to photographer Martine Barrat describing a “parangolé-area” called A Ronda da Morte [The Death Watch]. Similar to a black circus tent, it would be an inviting environment with strobe lights and music playing inside for people to come in and dance. While the party would go on inside the tent, horseback men emulating a police patrol would surround it. The music would encapsulate the imminent risk from the outside, a direct allusion to the state of surveillance and violence that persisted despite the apparent daily life normality.
Amid a contemporary context in which news like those that shook Oiticica are repeated with alarming frequency in Brazil and worldwide, A Ronda da Morte was planned to occur for the first time at the 34th Bienal in 2020. Yet, while the Covid-19 pandemic forbade its realization, it did not diminish its relevance. A Ronda da Morte – as well as the impossibility of making it happen – continues to synthesize the perversity of simulating normality while genocides are happening. But it also highlights that historical flows and dynamics are not enclosed in the periodization we find in books. Likewise, works that past Bienals already displayed are now re-presented because the present allows revisiting or transforming their original meaning. The past lives in the present, constituting challenges and inspiring struggles that will be fundamental for building the yet-to-come