When entering the Casa França-Brasil, a former customhouse at the old Rio de Janeiro city port, for Laura Lima’s recent exhibition ‘Grande’, one immediately found oneself approaching an apparently anarchic workspace. Through awkwardly arranged shelves, erected between the building’s neo-classical Doric columns, a large number of work-in-progress situations could be identified. There were open books, paper rolls, boxes, maps, work gloves, bottles, pans, wood boards, files, rubber tires, paper objects, clay piles, textiles, half-finished ceramic sculptures, a large variety of tools and many other objects, not only laid out on work benches and shelves but also suspended from the ceiling, floatingly occupying the space as if the laws of gravity didn’t really apply here. And there was a man, dressed in a black, short-sleeved tuxedo and top hat; at times, he was sculpting in clay or building something before moving on to arbitrarily arrange and rearrange other objects; at others he was simply wandering through the space. His field of action seemed to be quite carefully organized in two zones: one of production, labour and, to a certain degree, order; and another of chaos, madness and decay. O mágico nu (The Naked Magician, 2008/10) clearly provoked a reading of the situation as a representation of an artistic process, balanced between creation and destruction, reflection and pause, affirmation and uncertainty. If this reading substituted the magician for the artist, from his bare arms we could clearly see that there were no tricks at play, hidden up his sleeves.
The work’s baffling beauty, though, was constituted in dialogue with the second piece in the exhibition, occupying the opposite site of the large dome-like hall. In a giant hammock, a naked man and woman reclined. She had artificially lengthened pubic hair and he had extended eyebrows, both subtly masked. The two occupied one common space, but it would seem wrong to describe them as a couple. The man and the woman were simply representing human flesh, without any other layered evocation.
Homem=carne/mulher=carne – Pelos + Rede (man=flesh/woman=flesh – Hair + Hammock, 1996/2010), is part of a body of works that Lima has been experimenting with since 1995, when she first used the formula as an expression of equality that turns living beings into raw material for sculptures. With these works, Lima instructs human bodies to execute a certain action, mostly equipped with specific utensils or costumes, or shaped by architectonic elements. In Marra (Fighting, 1996), for example, two naked men push each other with their hands, their heads stuck into one common hood. And in Dopada (Drugged, 1997), a woman in a white dress takes a strong soporific drug and sleeps for hours on the gallery floor, with her head connected to the gallery architecture through a long woven net. In Baixo (Flat, 1997–2010), part of the Rio de Janeiro exhibition, a person lies beneath a radically dropped ceiling next to a lamp, a body oppressed by the architectural space it inhabits.
Lima’s actions have little connection to performances, their nature is sculptural and continual, and there lies their irritating quality. There are no narrative moments, no excuses offered through scripts, no progress or closure. In Pelos + Rede, the man and the woman are evidently told to either rest or observe the magician and visitors to the exhibition, with attentive but indifferent facial expressions. This directness is what one senses when wandering between the magician and the two nudes in the hammock, a void charged by non-verbal dialogue, which seems to embrace the visitor. Who is the creator? Who watches? Who is the object? These are issues that have been repeatedly examined in art practice since the beginning of the 20th century, and which Lima gives a close and comprehensive cross-questioning. The final work in Lima’s exhibition was titled Escolha (Choice, 2010), a completely dark room, closed off by corridors of heavy textile curtains. Cautiously moving into the darkness, one is reminded of one’s own fear of getting lost, the question of what might be encountered and whether the air or what we touch are actual sensations or pure imagination.
First published in Issue 141