Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits: The Coca-Cola Project
Circulating Commodities, Circulating Information
Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil was crippled by a military dictatorship that heavily controlled media and communication. Throughout the dictatorship’s most repressive period, artist Cildo Meireles attempted to challenge this censorship by creating art that sent subversive messages. He did so by inserting his work into a system of consumerist goods—reusable Coca-Cola bottles and Brazil’s printed currency. Paradoxically, this insertion made use of a powerful “ideological circuit” similar to the one that his art contradicted. The work Insertions into Ideological Circuits (1970) demonstrates and intervenes with the essential role that commodities play in circulating and shaping information.
In order for his work to be as widely received as possible, Meireles had no choice but to come up with a “clandestine tactic to bypass officially controlled modes of communication” (Dezeuze). Therefore, his medium of choice was a system of commodity circulation: glass Coca-Cola bottles that were filled, consumed, and returned to the factory, repeating this cycle indefinitely. On these bottles, Meireles wrote rebellious political statements, such as “Yankees Go Home!” and “Down with the Dictatorship” in a white font, his intent being “to register informations and critical opinions on bottles and return them to circulation” (Manchester).
These bottles were valuable on various levels. First, their monetary value meant that would be reused even with the controversial messages that Meireles attached. Secondly, they were valuable because of their widespread circulation. Most critically, the bottles themselves were valuable media. The messages would be fully visible when the bottles were filled; as the Coke was consumed, the messages would disappear. Only when the bottle was refilled would it reappear, emphasizing the fundamental role that commodities played in spreading messages and ideas. In this work, the Coca-Cola liquid itself symbolizes the greater commodity system. The existence of the liquid allows the message to be received; without it, the message may exist but cannot be read. Overall, the glass bottles and soda allowed Meireles to circulate his cryptic, anti-authoritarian messages.
The use of Coca-Cola, rather than another reusable consumer good, is significant. The soda was—and still is—frequently enjoyed in Latin America and around the world. Its U.S. roots, however, made it an international symbol of imperialist consumerism, particularly in the 20th century. However, it seems as if Meireles did not care about the Coke brand or logo itself. It is not the specific quality, taste, or recipe of Coke that add value to his conceptual art process—it is the brand’s widespread circulation and omnipresence. By defacing Coke bottles to make “mobile graffiti,” Meireles’s messages supersede the Coke brand, reducing the bottles to vehicles for his messages’ widespread circulation (Manchester).
However, the reason that Coca-Cola was circulated so widely in the first place—and, therefore, the reason that Meireles was able to successfully convey his messages with its bottles—was the brand’s imperialistic nature and capitalistic tendencies. Consequently, when he vested his messages in Coca-Cola bottles, he inserted them into a system of capitalism and imperialism. Here lies the paradox: though Coca-Cola bottles were originally chosen because they allowed Meireles to rebel against the dominant political system, the bottles inserted his messages to another powerful ideological system. This demonstrates that no messages, ideologies, or seditious works of art were fully independent of the greater political and social structures at play in Brazil and illustrates how commodities were critical in disseminating such structures.
By employing a dominant ideological system to circulate marginal ideas, Meireles’s Insertions took advantage of “how powerful ideological mechanisms circulate[d] in society as commodities and information” (Carvalho). On a broader level, the commodity system allowed Meireles to create a unique type of Pop Art that could “go beyond the viewer in the gallery or museum, and extend to a wider public who may [have been] unaware of their contact with art” (Manchester). Overall, Meireles made use of the fact that consumerism in Brazil was critical in communicating messages and information by inserting anti-government ideas into this ideological circuit.
Carvalho, Denise. “Cildo Meireles: New Museum of Contemporary Art”. Sculpture 19.10 (2000): 74. Web. 13 April 2015.
Manchester, Elizabeth. “Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project 1970”. Tate, 2006. Web. 14 April 2015.
Dezeuze, Anna. "Cildo Meireles." Artforum International 47.8 (2009): 182. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 April 2015.