Paths to a Certain Place: Laura Lima
Brazilian-born artist Laura Lima takes us to a tour of A Room and a Half, her latest solo show currently on view at the CCA Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. In this commentary, she gives an insight of her exhibition-making process, talking about the importance of location, geometry and light, also highlighting her interest in the perception of the viewer, the act of making choices, and the ways bodies move in an exhibition space.
For an exhibition like A Room and a Half the most important thing to know is that I always visit the location first. I’m not talking about something like the term “site-specific” but something a bit more intricated in my practice. I think about the specific architecture of a museum, and the ways people move inside that museum: if they come in from the right or the left, if the building has a particular height, or if it is long and horizontal or if there are rooms outside of the main structure. At the Ujazdowski Castle this was very important.
Something else, which also happens in the studio, are the games you play with perspective, how you arrive at certain ideas, what is possible to actually construct. I also consider costs, how I can bring something overseas from Brazil and so on. I really think about how I can construct a work in the country I am going to. Negotiation is important. If I am going to work with a lot of people, they need to be paid, I want the participants to be of a certain caliber.
I usually play a lot with the system of navigation inside of my exhibition for the viewer. The architecture of the Ujazdowski Castle is like a huge corridor where a wall can determine where you cross to a new room or stop and see a whole room. I would also consider the first room an image in itself, a kind of salon, and then you have an arm coming from the wall with a glass Martini and also an arm with a glass of whiskey, and there are very fragile things. If you look inside of the glasses, the ice is melting and then you cross the room and see a strange hand cleaning a white surface with a white cloth, so it’s kind of monochromatic the whole room. The salon is filled with curtains in different positions than people usually hang them, and you can find some secrets behind the curtains if you pay attention. In this huge salon that is full of light people can see lots of different works of mine, and all of these things play off of one another. The salon, with the smells and strange situations: people drinking, people cleaning, or a piece of art like Fumoir. It is a piece on the boundary of being a piece but also serving you, making your cigars, which is the way that this piece works. But if you look at the curtains, you see that some are pulled a bit up so they could be flying like smoke, something may come out from behind a window. And also the windows because they are opened, they can breathe if there is wind. So it’s the first sign that we are also working from outside. The whole work is made of fragile material: ice melting, people. You can also think about the smoke. Smoke is a symbol of diffusion, of what you perceive or of what you get from a piece of art, so smoke is a kind of sculpture that comes in the air and spreads all the time. Like the ice is melting, the participants are changing positions or maybe one day you don’t see all of them, and the next time you do.
Another thing that for me is very important besides the architecture, that I changed and people may not necessarily notice, is that the whole wall is constructed on a diagonal. People just think it is just the wall of the museum, so the geometry there is important. The perception of light is something I was working with a lot for this exhibition. The first room has lots of light, but when you enter the second part of the exhibition, where there is this empty room where you can only see some black things on the floor, they are feathers; or you can choose to go to your left to this room that has a bit of light that also seems to be empty, you have this immediately estranging experience of light, because the room is completely empty. You make choices, to go see the bird, see what is in the next room, because you don’t know what is there: you have decisions to make. If you decide to see the bird you have to take your time, because the work changes depending on the time of day or the season. Over the three months of the exhibition the light will change. The light also grants a certain solemnity to the piece because there is a carcass there, symbolically speaking. It’s the light that comes from the landscape, or the light that comes from the city, the light that comes from the different weather of the day, so sometimes the room will be very dark or if you go in the morning or noon you can have a little bit more light.
I mentioned notions of moving from country to country because in this last piece, the Bird, came from Brazil. We decided to bring it in our luggage. Just think of the whole path a work of art may take to get to a certain place—this is a migration. This bird flew from Brazil with us. It arrived and migrated to a new place and stayed there. We didn’t want to rely on any of the shipping methods normally used for art, therefore, there is a political aspect surrounding the movement of this bird.
When we arrived with the bird we changed its position many times in the two rooms, so all the feathers that you see are the feathers that fell off the bird; in certain terms, if I am playing with people in the exhibition, conceptually, I was also doing this with the other artist, the co-author of that piece, Zé Carlos Garcia. Moving the bird, the carcass, in a way that to the bird would be agonizing before the moment that finally it stays in one position and you can see the traces. The traces of feathers falling from the bird. We didn’t stage the feathers in a certain way, they are there because of how the bird moved, both in the castle and in its own migration.
The other room, the fourth room, seems empty, but what is important is observing the viewers. Watching how these domesticated bodies interact with the exhibition. Sitting, standing, looking up and down, looking at a wall with a painting—our bodies have particular ways of moving in an exhibition space. Because of the light and our trained bodies the viewer has to change these habits to actually see anything. The viewer has to look at the floor, and this can be surprising. Down on the floor is the hand trying to reach a set of keys. In fact, this is the work, a hand trying to reach a set of keys. It comes up from the floor, you don’t know if there is another part of the house, you have to use your imagination to think about the other side of the wall. When I first did this work the viewers started to give the keys back and this became somehow a part of the history of the piece but also part of the piece in itself. The viewers must play with their own anxiety because the anxiety is in both places, coming from the other part of the wall, a hand trying to reach the keys, but also the anxiety of someone seeing that maybe someone has the power to give back the keys, but they don’t. The viewer could just watch the piece instead of participating, this idea of giving back, it’s not just a joke, “oh I have this possibility to help so I will help,” but the characteristics of the viewers is also something vital to the piece. Depending on where it is shown, people react in different ways. Mostly they try to help because they cannot face the anxiety of seeing someone trying to reach a set of keys. But it is up to them if they decide to help, it’s about people: the work in itself is just a hand trying to reach a set of keys.
Another thing about the architecture is also the perception of the viewer. For example, there are some people that visit this place where I’m now showing, who know the architecture. If people know the floor plan of those four rooms in the exhibition, they will likely have a different perception than those who see the space for the first time. They won’t know there are several walls I constructed there myself that completely change it; in fact, it is much bigger than what you see. There is a part that you don’t see in the exhibition, what is happening behind the walls, so this is why it is titled A Room and a Half, because this is the room you don’t see: there are big rooms where those people switch all the time behind the walls. I work with people from the place; I also consider the institution I’m working with as a body, so I have to give instructions about the exhibition to the institution and the institution has to respond. I give the instructions and then I leave sometimes. I play a joke that I’m an artist who “is not present” with the participants, so, they can understand they are the ones to take care of it after my instructions and I take off on the second or third day of the exhibition, leaving them and the institution to take care of the work; the participants must also make a commitment where they understand that they are a very important part of the work—they are responding to the tasks, the tasks are very simple, the institution has to manage the relationships if they are going to take care of the exhibition.
When I give the instructions to the participants I really want them to engage, I want them to understand that they matter, that they are one of the parts that complete the piece. There is no hierarchy about the flesh, the matter that constructs the image. So the institution must be engaged because I play with the viewer. There are other pieces of art behind the walls. If you are a curious viewer you may look, you can try and discover another piece of art. I’ve been working a lot with perception because a piece can change a lot depending on where I am showing it, but perception changes things even more. There are many works in this exhibition that cannot be found on the map. This is also part of it. The institution has to know this, and also the participants have to know. Last year in São Paulo, in my gallery, Galeria Luisa Strina. I constructed a whole piece of art, full of information, and then I covered it with a cloth and tied it up with thread and cords, making it a huge block, and then left it for cats to scratch. When you look at the piece you only see the wrapped thing with cords with strange marks and some dust. You don’t understand what it is exactly because there are parts that you don’t see. The idea of what’s hidden is fascinating. What you don’t know about a piece of art and how you come to look at a work in a particular way. If you look at a Michelangelo you don’t know exactly what happened with that piece, how it was constructed, et cetera. You just see what is there in that situation, in this placement of the exhibition, so I also very much like to play with that.
The rooms I created at the castle have lots of secrets and these secrets play with the viewer and also with the institution as a body. Of course I have some pieces where you can see the whole participant, but these parts of people are very important. I would say that one of the first important pieces of this kind that I made was Candelabro Diogenes. In this earlier work you can see an arm coming from the wall holding a lamp and it’s very inspired by Diogenes the cynic, the nihilist, in ancient history. This philosopher walked during the day with a torch, fire, and people asked him why he had the torch during the day because he could see and didn’t need it. He said was looking for the idea of humanity. So the first sketches I made of some of my works, in which there are hands coming from all different places, come from this notion. If the question is there the question remains, because you don’t have the whole body, so you don’t have the whole answer.
And with this idea about Diogenes, you can walk across a corridor and find an exhibition full of light. There are many works but there is one work in itself, the salon, full of light and then you don’t have any more light, just a room that seems to be empty. So there are many things that surround the construction of the exhibition that may not be there. The viewer has to navigate in the first salon until discovering the other rooms and this ancient play with dark and light remains so relevant.
Diogenes was an inspiration for this exhibition in Poland and if you look at my work you see that I construct this equation, “Men=Flesh, Woman=Flesh.” Working with living beings is always risky, it is a fragile, political thing. I also make this equation and transform it into something with no hierarchy. Humans are subject to the same conditions as animals. So living beings, living things being flesh. Sometimes, in some pieces, I work to construct a piece with animals with “Men=Flesh, Woman=Flesh” this equation that I return to. I keep talking about the flesh, that’s why I don’t see it as a performance, why I don’t talk about the experience of each part, even if the parts have an experience, even if when I give instructions we are talking about bodies, the commitment they have to have, I am also talking about the condition of humanity as animals as well, as living matter.
Born in 1971, Laura Lima grew up in Brazil’s countryside region of Governador Valadares. While still very young, Lima moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she is currently based. The artist received a BA in Philosophy from the State University of Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s and also studied art the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro. In 1999, she founded the Organism RhR (Representative hyphen Representative) and served as its first bureaucratic administrator. As such, Lima created a glossary and an archive of the activities of the group, including ideas such as a philosophy of nothing, the non-functional, emptiness, and failure. Laura Lima is the 2014 recipient of BACA, Bonnefanten Award for Contemporary Arts, the Netherlands; and in 2006, Lima was awarded the Marcantonio Vilaça Prize. The artist was also nominated for the Francophone Prize 2011, and Hans Nefkens Prize 2012. Solo exhibitions of Lima’s work have been presented in venues around the world such as Museu de Arte da Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Argentina; MUAC, Mexico City, Mexico; Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland; Casa França Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Fundação Eva Klabin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden; Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, The Netherlands; SMK-National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark and CCA, U-jazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland.
at CCA Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
until 1 October 2017