Laura Lima and the art of political suspension (an interview)


Maria do Carmo de Pontes  -  November 27, 2018

After the successful show at Fondazione Prada and in preparation to her busy 2019 we sat down with artist Laura Lima to talk about art and politics.

Brazilian artist Laura Lima, born in Governador Valadares in 1971, is undoubtedly a pillar of her own generation. Like many colleagues of hers at the moment is concerned about the future of her own country and of the artistic scene that in the past years, also thanks to the government, went through a extraordinarily flourishing time. We met her while she is working on her solo show that will open at Tanya Bonakdar in New York next February, a prelude to her participation in the fourteenth edition of Sharjah Biennial, and her significant contribution to Mies van der Rohe house in Krefeld, Germany, in occasion of Bauhaus’ 100th anniversary.

You have a BA in Philosophy. When did you decide to become an artist?

I come from the countryside where it’s very common that you grow up without having any contact with contemporary art. When I was 19 years old I traveled to London, and saw an exhibition there which I thought was pretty weird, but in a good way. At the same time my brother – who I grew up with and was very close to – was experiencing a mental problem. I was actually studying law at that time.

Were you studying In your hometown of Governador Valadares?

No, I was already in Rio, where I moved when I was 16. But the structure of being someone from Governador Valadares was still present in me, as it had only been three years since the move. I was going through that moment in life when you have to figure out what you want, and I realized that I was not interested in law itself, but rather in its philosophical aspects. My brother was a milestone in this process. Because of his illness he was completely redoing the way that he was dealing with reason within language and symbols, and he abruptly changed the way that he was speaking. In a certain way it was fascinating – even if, of course, an extremely sad thing. So I’ve started studying philosophy as I was not interested at all in fine arts then. I wanted to know about the history of art, but I was not interested in practicing.

And while you were reading Philosophy, you also attended the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro.

Exactly. There I realised that actually I loved to produce art, although it was seeing my friends moving from one piece to the other what really inspired me.

Was that the turning point, when you decided that you wanted to be an artist?

At that time I thought that I was getting crazy. Because of my brother’s mental illness and his issues with language I started questioning my own sanity too. It isn’t immediately clear that someone you are so close to is changing so drastically. The person wakes up and it’s someone else, within the same body. That’s why I started to develop an interest in language, without academic ambitions, but trying to study Wittgenstein and the philosophers who were dealing with this matter. Although in a more hedonistic, or dilettante way, I also approached phenomenology. My artistic practice was somehow linked to all of this, without however being a proper illustration. It was everything the same time.

Was that towards the end of the 1990s?

No, it was at the beginning of the 1990s. I was 21 years old and I was already producing. However I would say I started doing what is nowadays my work a couple of years later, at 23, when I was able to join ideas and notes. That’s when I realized that man is equal to flesh, and woman is equal to flesh as well.

Can you tell us more about your ‘MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh’ equation? It’s something that has been popping in your work since 1995. And it’s a body of works that takes several forms, like a woman sleeping under the influence of drugs (MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh – Doped, 1997), or a man and a woman in a hammock (MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = FLESH – Hammock + Hair, 1997/2010), or a guy trying to pull a giant architecture, or columns or a landscape (MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh – Puller [Columns], 1998/1999/2002).

The idea comes from some writing exercises I was doing at that time even though I would pinpoint the real beginning of MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh in 1994, in occasion of an exhibition I took part to at Ipanema beach, where I decided to bring a cow to stroll along the beach. From that moment on I developed a group of works in which there are living beings, humans and animals, involved, albeit not in a performative way. There is a slight difference between the verb ‘perfom’ in English and in Portuguese. Whereas in the former it can be used easily in the latter this verb is really connected to an art situation. I also realised I was dealing a lot with the idea of matter. The flesh is matter, both as a thing and as a problem, thus – I apology for the pun – it is an equation of problems. I’ve started to pay attention to materiality as such, and to produce works where I would give a precise set of instructions to execute, rather than rehearsing. When I was talking to institutions, galleries or places where I was going to exhibit these pieces, I would make clear that my work wasn’t a performance, and that I didn’t want it to be shown only on the day of the opening. My piece, even if living beings were involved, like in pulling something, or cutting, or sleeping, or whatever they were doing, were a matter to me. In response they would look at me – I was so young -, and I could see they were thinking ‘this girl is really crazy!’. But I would insist. ‘I want my work to be shown from the first until the last day of the exhibition. Like this photograph on the wall, or that sculpture over there. Mine are not performances’. And they would argue that they couldn’t afford it, or suggest to put a video after the first day, and I would say, ‘I won’t do that! I’m discussing the matter. I cannot perform this in a video’. It was a very funny moment, yet very stressful at the same time. I was determined and I’m glad about it, because curators gradually started to pay attention to what I was saying and doing.

What kind of instructions do you give to those who are conducting the work? Are you very precise about what you want, or can they take certain liberties?

Most of the works are very simple and so are the tasks. I always explain to them very patiently the concept of the work. The person is indeed instrumental to the piece, and somehow he/she will take care of it. I really like to work with people who are new to dance or theatre, compared to those who can already act as it’s very difficult to take out all their layers of knowledge. If I tell them, for instance, please just cut this pile of something’, they will do things that don’t belong to the work. I’m very precise, and I don’t want anybody changing the work. Moreover I know that if they are vibrant matter and feel part of the work, the result is different. People are unique, and that’s fabulous. For example, in the work where women were given soporific pills (MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh – Doped, 1997), some of them slept for six hours, whereas others only for a couple of hours and moved a lot. Some were drooling in the sleep. Another example refers to the piece where pullers had to pull the landscape, columns or giant architectures (MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh – Puller [Columns], 1998/1999/2002). Some men were really strong, even if they didn’t look like that. Looking at the piece they had to move, you wondered how they could do it; I told them to try, even to sweat a little, and most important to breath. I wasn’t interested in wearing them out; on the contrary, part of the instructions was indeed to pay attention to their level of energy while pulling that specific landscape into the gallery.

Do you ever perform yourself?

Never.

What about animals? You obviously have much less control over what they will do. You can’t really communicate with them through a verbal language. It’s more about setting a situation and opening up to the unexpected.

Well, in some ways they can be predictable. In most situations I work with domesticated animals, not wild animals, though even these latter ones can somehow be predictable. Of course, when I work with domesticated animals, I explain the piece to their owners. I believe that unpredictable things can happen both with animals and with people. For example, concerning the work in which two men, with their heads connected by a hood fight until exhaustion (MAN = flesh/ WOMAN = flesh – Marra, 1996), at some point I realised that I had to create a whole schedule of men fighting without knowing each other, making sure that this wouldn’t turn into a sort of dance. But if I had to think about something unpredictable that happens with animals, I wouldn’t know what to say. I recognized it by looking at the behaviour of the chickens in the piece Gala Chicken (2004), The piece was there, chickens adorned with colorful feathers from Brasil Carnival Costumes. But since the first time I noticed that the chicken were attracted, also sexually, by their coop-mates’ new ornamentation. Thus, I started a discussion around the matter of gender, even if just as a side note. Also the cocks didn’t want any of the hens without the carnival costume. It was looking only for the flamboyant ones.

I remember another time with animals that was pretty funny. It happened with a goat, at KW in Berlin, during an exhibition that I did with Jens Hoffmann in 2001. We were redoing some historical pieces, and I chose the Yoko Ono Cut Piece. But before I could tell Jens that I was grateful he invited me but that I didn’t do performances he pointed out that he was a curator project. So I decided to accept and to go for Yoko Ono Cut Piece because despite being on the scene the artist is quite passive while waiting for the public to cut her dress. I redid this happening, putting a goat with a dress in the place of Yoko. While the public was coming and cutting the goat’s dress it started to poo. A lot. So there are things happening that can’t be controlled, and this impossibility of absolute control is part of the very same discussion.

One of your most recent works, that has been showed at Fondazione Prada in Milan, and at Luisa Strina gallery recently, is exactly the re-enactment of an animal, the sculpture of a bird. Does it move as well?

Actually it is static, although your question is absolutely correct. In fact after the sculpture of a gigantic bird arrived to the venue, I moved it around for several days. The bird lost some feathers, which are spread on the floor, thus giving the impression that it moves. The exhibition at Prada was called ‘Horse Takes King’, after a movement in chess. But you never really say ‘Horse takes King’, but rather ‘check-mate’ or ‘check’. The whole show suggests a battle. The sculpture above mentioned was created in collaboration with Brazilian artist José Carlos Garcia, who is really good at constructing big works. Even if not so evident, geometry is an intrinsic aspect of my work. In my piece called ‘Flight’ I worked with dozens of small living birds on an environment with sculptures and paintings. The first time I thought about this work was when I was sitting somewhere close to a bonsai tree and a tiny bird came about. Looking at that, I thought immediately about geometry. I noticed how the tiny bird became gigantic in comparison to that tree. Then one day, after being invited to the Fondazione Prada for the show, I woke up and I envisioned a gigantic bird…

Talking about collaborations with other artists, can you tell us how the gallery A Gentil Carioca came into being?

That was a long time ago, in 2003. Brasil was going through a specific economic moment, actually quite similar to the one we are living now, in terms of the importance that people are giving to culture. I was joking with a friend the other day that in the last fifteen years we had a kind of ‘belle-époque’ moment; we had money to do exhibitions, money for culture and so on. Now we don’t have any, and it was a very similar case back in 2003. The other two partners are Marcio Botner and Ernesto Neto. Marcio is a close friend, as we studied together at Parque Lage, and already back then, in 1994, he would say how one day he would be my marchand – we really used that word! – as my works were ‘crazy’ and nobody would ever understand. Then we lost contact as I started working with some galleries in Sao Paulo and he got married. One day though I went to visit him in his studio, which is where the gallery is now. Very naturally we picked up from where we left, without exactly knowing what it was going to be. The only thing we were certain is that we didn’t want any money from the government. So the idea was to sell art and producing exhibitions with the revenue generated by that. And that’s what we still do. So he invited Neto to become a partner. We were those kind of artists who liked to do independent projects and connect other artists. It has always been very political for us; selling art is a very political business.

It’s interesting how you mentioned the dark period we had in the past, but it seems that things are going to get even darker from 2019 onward, in Brazil. Is that somehow influencing your current practice, or even your near future plans, as in shaping a new body of work?

I always say that doing art is political. Even if you are discussing the history of art. When someone is in the studio mixing pigments, albeit in a very different way, is still doing politics with the history of art. I’m not talking about politics itself. So it’s impossible not to pay attention,or not to be touched by what is going on. Depending on the artist, and on what he/she is developing in the research, he/she will probably balance the quality of the discussion. I was with Fernanda (Gomes) the other day and we were talking about we feel about this. I told her that I don’t feel depressed, but angry and this feeling will probably somehow appear in my work. I can explain why I was doing a certain thing or the other in my work by making reference to what was happening, politically and historically speaking, at the time. What is happening will surely touch us, perhaps not necessarily our artistic practice, but the way of being an artist and having a voice. With regards the political situation, I don’t know what exactly is going to happen because we are in a sort of suspension. The calm before the storm.

What are you working on at the moment?

I was going to have an exhibition in November in Rio, but I cancelled it. I can’t really say what I’m doing now as at the moment i’m thinking about so many different project…amidst confusion and suspension. I show a lot abroad but recently I had some projects also here in Brazil, after a long time; this year in particular I showed at Pivô and at the Pinacoteca. I wondereed wheter this moment of uncertainty in my country will change what I show here and wha I show abroad. But I don’t think so, as I’ve always taken into account the global political situation. That’s why I decided to take part to the project ‘Slight Agitation’ at the Fondazione Prada, a super fancy place that shows what artists are thinking now. As previously said, I wanted to suggest a battle and naming the show ‘Horse Takes King’ in a country that’s currently rather right-wing was an intentional move. For me it’s impossible not to think about politics, even if in the case of the Sharaj Biennial where i’m going to exhibit a piece of mine the situation is a bit different, as it’s part of the Arab countries. Their culture which is conservative but also thousands of years old means that you can’t really arrive there and pretend to know what is better. Rather it has to be more of an encounter. Thus I’m doing a piece which is actually very abstract, which will consist of black panels moving together in the streets, – Women in the Emirates dress in black. So far we are considering the technique and the mechanism of construction; maybe something will change along the way. The work is called Massive Kinship or Promenade and it’s very subtle. We don’t speak of this in a very clear way, but it is this trespassing somehow. I think the curator is mad to invite me because I work with people and in this case it’d be rather complicated considering that you have to totally separate men and women. However, I came to this piece that is somehow touching the point. It could work, without necessarily saying ‘I am right!’.

Your works often respond to the environment as well. Do you have to be there, feel the place, experience the atmosphere, the architecture and so on before you can plan what you are going to do?

Yes, this has always been part of my way of doing things. If I can, I really like to go and see the place with my own eyes. Some works may already be there, so I can adapt. For example last March I took part with one my pieces to an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, but I didn’t go there personally. They showed me everything via webcam. The work that we agreed to exhibit is a piece that I’m well familiar with, and I knew it could work. But most of the time I like visiting. Once the curator and I decide which work to show, I adapt the piece to the new place trying to keep the essence of it. So new pieces keep emerging inside other pieces. I know that in the future, when I’m not here anymore, people will have to study my work, and adapt the same piece in different ways. People will really need to see the space and imagine the way I would do that piece in a given location.