More than three decades after creating the artwork Divisor [Divider] (1967), Brazilian artist lygia pape narrated its origins with a story:
At the end of my street, which is a dead end, there is a little creek, a small hill and a little favela [favelinha]. … I opened [Divisor] on the slope, spread it on the ground, where there were no objects interfering. It was very beautiful with the projection of the forest on it. Gradually children from the favela were coming to jump on top of the cloth, slipping on it, they found it fantastic playing, until one lifted a corner of the cloth and found a slit, stuck his head through it and immediately the whole group did it. And they started down the slope, all with their little heads stuffed into the Divisor. The structure itself led to this experimentation and to the realization of the work.1
This story is in keeping with many critical accounts of Divisor, in which the work serves as both metaphor for and microcosm of a liberatory collectivity. Children's play evokes both the erotics of Brazilian Carnaval and the political potential of a protest march. Materially, Divisor is a panel of white cloth perforated with numerous slits. According to Pape's retrospective account, the work began as a blank canvas or blank screen, with shadows of trees projected as images upon it. However, Divisor enacts something slightly different than an anti-compositional recourse to indexicality, or a disruption to the purity of the modernist monochrome. The [End Page 521] aim of Divisor is precisely not to reflect the world around it. Instead, as Pape's story continues, the work was activated by children from a favela.
A film of Divisor from circa 1970 affirms Pape's narrative. It begins with the white sheet lying on the ground, with tree shadows falling upon it. Then, for
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[End Page 522] several minutes, children play with the cloth, creating sculptural forms. After some time, the artist herself appears. There is a cut in the film, and then the sheet appears lying flat on the ground again, with children gathered around it. Another cut, and the children are seen within the work, their heads poking through the sheet. After yet another cut, a long shot reveals a group of adults organizing the children, and the film continues with the children animating Divisor and descending the favela hill. Coalescing around the cloth, guided by the structure of the object, the undirected play of the children is soon transformed into collective and purposeful action: a procession down the hill. Even as contemporary re-stagings of Divisor often proclaim its participatory affinities to some generic, spontaneous urban social movement, Pape herself advanced a narrative driven by its stage-managed presentation in the medium of film. And by producing a seemingly authoritative film version in a particular site, this narrative of spontaneity becomes an origin story rooted in that site.
Repudiating the white cube of the gallery in favor of public space, Divisor provides the structure for a sort of public intimacy. "Lygia Pape's 1968 Divisor (Divider) … encapsulates the aspirations of many communes and collective demonstrations," reads one art historical account.2 Or, for another art historian: by "relocating Divisor to the streets, Pape displaces sensorial heightening to the public space in the guise of the latter's 'eroticization,' that is, of the charting and mobilization of its nonrepressive aspects."3 Such critical accounts view Divisor as a Beuysian social sculpture in which "every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor or architect of the social organism."4 In the words of one Brazilian art critic, with Divisor, "every individual subjectivity exercises the right to equality."5 Most exhibition images of Divisor emphasize this playful and emancipatory quality, with groups of people—often children—marching or processing through streets or museum plazas. Yet in Pape's account above, and in the film of Divisor that her memory echoes, the logic of the artwork is inextricable not from "the streets," but from...