Luiz Roque and Prem Sahib at Mendes Wood DM, Brussels
by João Laia
The third exhibition at the Brussels venue of São Paulo’s Mendes Wood DM is a joint presentation by Luiz Roque and Prem Sahib. Both artists explore a number of overlapping interests, even if emerging in different contexts: Roque has been working in São Paulo for the last decade, and Sahib was born and raised in London. First and foremost, their practices are inscribed in a queer imaginary. If Sahib draws from narratives belonging to male gay spaces–such as saunas or sex clubs, Roque looks into Brazilian society as an environment of miscegenation—where ethnic, gender, and social distinctions are often blurred. The artists’ strategies fictionalize sensual choreographies, which analyze the tension between body and space. The intersection of their work throughout the house vigorously builds a close-knit, yet ghostly scenario.
Introducing the show, the staircase hallway is the only location where both practices are shown side by side. A sculpture by Sahib floats in mid-air, surrounded by a photograph and a video by Roque. Sahib’s Brotherhood (2017) is made out of two rings, whose slight touch enacts a highly-styled relationship or subtle dance between two materials: stainless steel and black rubber. In the context of Sahib’s universe—charged by different gay cultural elements—the two circles are reminiscent of cock rings, their magnified presence monumentalizing the intimate gear, while also reframing it in surreality. The otherworldly features of Brotherhood find an echo in Roque’s MODERN (2014). The video establishes another dialogue, now between Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure and a Leigh Bowery-inspired moving figure. Fully covered in latex, the de-subjectified dancing body projects a post-gender identity, which is also found in the sexual ambiguity of Moore’s sculpture. The one-legged dancer circles the reclining figure, seducing it back to life; the muffled sound of house music embodying the sensual friction between stillness and motion.
The sound spreads to the room on the right. A carpeted floor reminds us of the house’s domestic past and signals Sahib’s ongoing analysis of the way architecture influences human behavior. If the carpet might be seen as a nod to a typically British notion of domestic environment, its color subverts such familiarity and reframes the space, contaminating it with the dark tonalities of indoor gay cruising sites. A circular, silver-lined opening invites us to physically penetrate a wall with our arm. Referencing a glory hole, Flesh Tunnel (2017) offers an interactive experience that both frustrates and rewards the visitor, allowing the building to be fisted but denying the possibility of touch. This absence of a palpable body mirrors the dynamics activated by Brotherhood and also Possession (2017), a set of vitrines displaying tracksuit bottoms and boxer shorts. Facing Flesh Tunnel and symmetrically placed over a fireplace, Helix II (2017) expands the idea of penetration by piercing a neo-classical plaster medallion with a number of polished steel elements. Like in Flesh Tunnel, here Sahib’s interest in architecture points towards an understanding of the building as a body, occupying the place of the missing figures alluded to by Possession or Brotherhood and interacting with them.
In the upstairs lobby, Roque’s S (2017) is displayed in a square, built-in screen. The black and white video portrays a number of androgynous figures adorned by shiny clothing, jewelry, and makeup. They inhabit an underground world of train carriages and tunnels, while performing a ritualistic choreography. Their movements combine breakdance and voguing, two iconic dances that originate in different black American communities. This fusion of references casts a post-apocalyptic utopian scenario that prefigures Roque’s interest in queer as an emancipated state of hybridization. The wall-inserted screen and the recurrent presence of tunnels and arcades in the video echo Sahib’s wall penetrations, while the potent corporeality of the dancing figures contrasts with the poetic absence of bodies downstairs—all informed by erotic desire.
To the room on the left of S, a waist-high, white-tiled wall directs movement towards either sides of the room. On the other side, the wall is prolonged onto a tiled floor, where a number of items such as socks, duvets, some foliage and a polished steel ring are placed. Facing a church through the windows, Hester (2017) is reminiscent of a large industrial church genuflexion chair, while the association of the exhibition’s title (Heron) with the object/props bring forth the image of a nest. Combining the intimacy of religious and sexual activities, Sahib playfully teases normative conceptions, while exploring the overlap of blessing and guilt enacted in gay sex. On the opposite room, Roque premieres Rio de Janeiro (2017). Bypassing the usual postcard treatment given to the city, Rio is seen through a dark hue and emptied of people. The exception is a black figure strolling around Burle Marx’s Flamengo Park where the Modern Art Museum of Rio is located. The ambiguous character stops under a tree while the building starts to burn. The re-enactment of the 1978 fire—which destroyed a large part of the collection and led to an abandonment of the iconic museum for decades—points out the artist’s continued investigation into the lingering presence of modernism.
While respecting each artist’s individuality, the show creates a stimulating discourse out of the continuities and ruptures between the two—as seen, for example, in the correspondence between Roque’s interest for Modernism and Sahib’s approximation to minimalism; or in the contrasting dialogue between the stillness and absent presence of Sahib’s bodies and the voluptuous corporeality and movement of Roque’s characters. The early 20th century house where the gallery is located is an apt setting for such a stage-like ambience populated by specters. The screeching of the wooden floors is not only a sign of the importance of architecture, materiality, and space in the artists’ practice but also a reminder of one’s own body in motion amidst their characters and narratives. By designing a sensual, lived choreography, the exhibition queers reality: questioning, subverting, and updating artistic, historical, and social dynamics.