The red-room was a square chamber, very seldom slept in, I might say never, indeed, unless when a chance influx of visitors at Gateshead Hall rendered it necessary to turn to account all the accommodation it contained: yet it was one of the largest and stateliest chambers in the mansion. A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre; the two large windows, with their blinds always drawn down, were half shrouded in festoons and falls of similar drapery; the carpet was red; the table at the foot of the bed was covered with a crimson cloth; the walls were a soft fawn colour with a blush of pink in it; the wardrobe, the toilet-table, the chairs were of darkly polished old mahogany. Out of these deep surrounding shades rose high, and glared white, the piled-up mattresses and pillows of the bed, spread with a snowy Marseilles counterpane. Scarcely less prominent was an ample cushioned easy-chair near the head of the bed, also white, with a footstool before it; and looking, as I thought, like a pale throne.
This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchen; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered. The house-maid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and the furniture a week’s quiet dust: and Mrs. Reed herself, at far intervals, visited it to review the contents of a certain secret drawer in the wardrobe, where were stored divers parchments, her jewel-casket, and a miniature of her deceased husband; and in those last words lies the secret of the red-room–the spell which kept it so lonely in spite of its grandeur.
Mr. Reed had been dead nine years: it was in this chamber he breathed his last; here he lay in state; hence his coffin was borne by the undertaker’s men; and, since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion.
From Jane Eyre by Charlote Brontë
‘I like dealing with paradigmatic things’, Cildo Meireles has said, ‘material things that are recognized by the public in their everyday lives, things that are at the same time matter and symbol. Money, for example.’ From the blatant exhibition, on a pedestal, of a wad of banknotes secured with rubber bands, Money Tree 1969, to the gold thread and gold nails inserted, respectively, into a great mass of straw in Fio (Thread) 1990–5 and plain wooden crates in Ouro e Paus (Gold and Wood) 1982–95, the conundrums of value have continued to fascinate Meireles. Money Tree ‘points towards the problem of the value of the art object and the discrepancy between use-value and exchange-value’. It consists of 100 one-Cruzeiro notes and was offered for sale for twenty times that amount. One wonders what it would fetch today; in inﬂationary Brazil at the time it was made, Meireles joked, money was the cheapest material. Much later, for Occasion 2004, the artist contrived a scenario in which the public would be faced by money in the most direct way. This ensured that our attention would be drawn away from speculative thoughts about the art object, and back to ourselves. We encountered a small, elegant, open receptacle containing new banknotes in the centre of a brightly lit room lined with three big mirrors on three of the walls,producing endless recession images. One of the mirrors was two-way. Viewers reacted in various different ways to the presence of the naked cash, and then, leaving the room and looking back through the two-way mirror, saw other people where they themselves had been a moment before, becoming voyeurs. As a last clandestine ﬂing, Meireles became an ironic counterfeiter, printing a large number of bills – Zero Cruzeiro 1974 and Zero Dollar 1978– the latter with the help of the designer/engraver João Bosco Renaud. Reducing ofﬁcial value to zero, the subversive Cruzeiro notes are embellished with the portraits, not of some illustrious ﬁgure of the Brazilian pantheon, but of two individuals effectively excluded fromBrazilian society, whose civil rights are minimal: a Kraô Indian on one face and the inmate of a mental asylum on the other (Meireles knew both these men).
Cildo Meireles: On the nature of things by Guy Brett and Vicente Todolí. Click to read more
Cildo Meireles was born in Rio in 1948 and grew up in a time of oppression and social turmoil. Thus he began his career as an artist by making subtle protest pieces challenging Brazil’s military dictatorship. Later on he became known for his sumptuous large-scale installations which are a roller coaster to the senses. In his installations Meireles allows the audience to interact with the artwork, hold it, feel it beneath their feet, hear it, smell it, and taste it.
In his installation, Volatile, Meireles uses scent to cause fear. Volatile consists of a darkened room, divided in half by a wall, whose floor is covered in a thick layer of talcum powder. The smell of gas permeates the air, or rather T-butyl-mercaptan, the scent artificially added to natural gas so that deadly leaks can be detected. Around the corner, at the end of the adjacent room, sits a single candle lit up and creating an eerie and faint glow across the room. The scent of gas in itself causes panic in the viewers but the addition of fire creates an even greater sense of fear and tension, the room is volatile and could explode any minute. Meireles transforms the spectator into an active participant and subject of the wicked game, associating perversity and seduction within the same object. Meireles admits that he enjoys playing with people’s fears, saying that “when you have fear, your senses become heightened. You become more attentive to your environment.”
Meireles’ initial idea for Volatile was to have a candle in a bell jar inside a space filled with gas. Meireles liked the idea of giving the power of existence to the viewer. Let them answer the question ‘to be or not to be’. As he explained it, “it’s as if I had hung the hammer of reason and you, the spectator, made your decision”. But eventually the idea progressed to this final version where the true degree of danger involved is removed and the power is transferred to Meireles.
In this final version, visitors are instructed to remove their shoes and socks, roll up their trousers and proceed to open the door and enter the dark room (only four people are allowed in the room at one time). The dry powder feels cold, sludgy, and even wet against the skin, and walking through it gives the surreal sensation of walking on a cloud or across the moon. The stimulation of multiple senses allows a heightened sense of self awareness and deeper connection with one’s environment. Our senses are in conflict, the smell of gas instills fear while the exciting feeling of the talcum generates pleasure. Although many people consider Volatile to be in solidarity with the Jews, referring to the gas chambers of the concentration camps, Meireles himself does not see it in tragic terms. To him it is an entirely pleasurable experience, like walking in the clouds, and, as he describes it, “an attempt to associate sensation and emotion, producing an almost instantaneous link.”