The Art of “Viventes”: an Interview with Laura Lima

On the occasion of her solo show at Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, I’ve interviewed Brazilian artist Laura Lima to learn more about her project, her art and practice and her own vision on São Paulo art scene.
by Mara Sartore
July 24, 2018
Mara Sartore
Lima Laura

Let’s start from “Alfaiataria”( “Tailorshop“), the exhibition currently being shown at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. The development of this project involved you engaging with local tailors from the Bom Retiro neighbourhood. Could you tell us about the creative process behind the project?

“Tailorshop” was first conceived in 2014 for an exhibition at the Bonnefantenmuseum, in Maastricht, Netherlands. A discussion into painting and portraits and their context is very present in this work. I inaugurated the museum in Netherlands when it was practically empty and the exhibition was being assembled from the moment the portraits were ready, one by one in its time, during the course of the 3 months, by the hands of local tailors working in a temporary tailors installed in the last room of this museum. In this work, the public follows every detail of the construction and if they return to visit the museum, they will always find something new or to reveal itself. The tailors follow the designs I leave as guidelines for each “vestment portrait” they make for the frames. To explain the process, I simply work as a “fashion designer” and they make and solve with their expertise the designs I offer, but in fact, instead of making even anthropomorphic clothes, they make these “clothes” for the frames with which I also determine the shape and colour, and that are always abstract and geometric, and the fabrics chosen also speak about them.

The Pinacoteca is a traditional institution, which was once a Licée of Arts and Crafts, and also because of its surroundings of textile tradition, this work ended up creating a dialogue between the place and surroundings. After some research we came across excellent professionals, both male and female teachers, because the profession is also changing, it’s not essentially male anymore. The portraits are of people I know or have known, of historical figures who do not reveal themselves by their whole name, but only their first name, or also of imaginary figures. I have never met a Crisóstomo, but I have already done his portrait. While Angela, who could be the portrait of an angel is Angela Davis, the philosopher of the Black Panthers. Or it could be any Angela. But not everything I deliver, we must preserve this mystery, a sort of divine gossip. What is the artist talking about? The frame reveals itself in parts depending on the portrait or it hides completely, both the front and back of this work reveals many details although the painting remains two-dimensional. In the moment they are made and before they are to be hung in a museum, the visitor sees their back. But for Pinacoteca, I decided to leave a trainel specially designed for the place, showing everything, still in storage, suggesting the coming of the exhibition, as if it is all simple and purely process. I also like the audience to feel curious, but also slightly intrusive and uncomfortable in disturbing the concentration of tailors. Not everything is delivered.

In this exhibition, as well as in many of yours projects, your focus is on the “viventes”, you’re interested in the participatory acts and the everyday experience. Could you tell us about this side of your practice? What tools do you use in order to engage with the public?

It is not participatory art as understood in the 60s and 70s. The “participation” of people in my work is given as matter, the people who are part receive direct instruction and are part of the work, without rehearsal. The artwork does not exist without the people, it’s not a work waiting for the public to happen and to be “activated”. There is a rougher skin that separates these two ideas. Thinking the living as matter can dialogue with other formal issues. Some people associate my production more with a Brazilian sculptural tradition. It may even be a bias. However, it would not fit to say performance-sculpture. I am not interested in the experience of the one who participates (so it’s not like the 60s / 70s), even that being a person participating of the artwork, there is an experience. The living matter that composes the image is only matter, there is no hierarchy between objects (other matters) and the living (people = flesh). Like this we also say that it’s not performance. These nomenclatures (or the act of avoiding certain standard nomenclatures) I have dealt with since the 90s, when I started. Even that I find peers elsewhere discussing the same thing, we still have to develop a broader and more critical text that can respond to these proposed categories at a new time. Lisette Lagnado once called them “instauration,” basing herself on this word invented by Tunga to describe his own work which, according to him, was between the performance and the installation leaving traces. It’s worth thinking that Brazilian art is willing to invent and experiment with concepts that have not yet been fully absorbed and understood, by the internal critical time in its cataloging, much less by the external criticism. Yet, it’s an art with a vast history which has been inventing concepts for decades.

Moving to Italy, you’re the fourth and last recipient of Slight Agitation chapters at Fondazione Prada in Milan. Could you tell us about this collaboration? What about the making of the exhibition? Did you feel comfortable with the Cisterna exhibition space?

I was invited by the curator Elvira Dyangani Ose, one of the mentors of the Slight Agitation project designed for the Fondazione Prada’s Cistern. Elvira had seen my work for the first time when I did the exhibition “Naked Magician” at the Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm 4 years ago. We planned the exhibition for 2017. But for many issues in producing the project, we delayed to 2018 and combined an extended period that would cover the whole summer, which was something that interested me, mainly because of one of the artworks was made with astronomers. It was interesting to mature the idea that begins with a research into Pataphysics – the science of imaginary solutions and the laws that regulate exceptions. The questions of the absurdity of existence surround my work, like people pulling giant architectures, projects of exhibitions that navigate over water, etc. Facing tricky architectures is a bit like ‘killing Saturn’. But this becomes an incredible adrenaline to solve spaces like that of Cisterna, for example. I’m already accustomed to this type of invitation.

The space called Cisterna in Fondazione Prada is composed of three very vertical volumes. The verticality there ended up being a choice of work. The exhibition is suggested as a battle or game with the title “Horse takes King”, which would be a chess move, an animal (horse) threatening the status quo (king). In the first volume, a sculpture of a “Bird” (2015) of gigantic proportions dropped on the ground – made in co-authorship with the artist Zé Carlos Garcia – suggests that he struggled until he died. In the middle of the space, the work “Pendulum” (2018), an abstract painting little known of Dali of 1928, “Pescador ao Sol” (to say, a landscape), is hung in a Foucault’s Pendulum. The pendulum is a vertical mathematical and philosophical constant, it is not the pendulum that rotates within an environment, but the earth, that is, the floor of the exhibition space, here also understood as a “board.” The visitor looks at the painting swinging, a change from the contemplative idea. How to look at a moving painting if we are trained to the immobility of this instant with gravity acting on us? Time passes throughout the day, the floor (I mean, the earth) rotates, not the painting that just swings. They are questions of perspective. There is still a third work in this “battle”, “Telescope” (2018), a structure of labyrinthine scaffolding and with stairs that lead to nowhere or to the highest point of the place where there is a telescope pointed to the sky. In this route, the visitor can find astronomy classes taught by real astronomers and questions of recent astronomy. The astronomer will take his visitors students to the top, where the telescope is. The light of day, because it is summer and the night comes late, blinds the telescope, or as we say, turns the day into night.

Along with Ernesto Neto and Marcio Botner, you’re co-founder and adviser of A Gentil Carioca, an artist run gallery in Rio de Janeiro. Could you tell us about this initiative and the projects you’re currently working on?

The idea of having an art gallery in Rio when we opened 15 years ago had a political purpose and still has. And although most of our artists are from Rio, we did our first exhibition with an artist from Paraiba, Fabiano Gonper and our first buyer was Antônio Dias, another artist. It’s a very symbolic thing for us from Gentil, as we affectionately call the place. We have always wanted to incorporate other projects that would give way to local production and we ended up doing various non-profit works that also define the gallery as the Gentil Wall, the Aldeia for meetings and conversations, the education t-shirts, the crossroad projects etc. In fact, it is in the energy of this crossroad between the two gallery buildings in the popular Saara Center of Rio de Janeiro that much happens and we learn without stopping and know many other languages. We are the only commercial gallery managed by artists to participate in national and international fairs like ArtRio, SPArte, Basel, Miami Basel, Frieze, Artíssima, Fiac etc in the world, I think this is crazy, but it is real. Gentil has a very peculiar project, that has already led us to talk about her in several places. I am very proud and emotional to have built this space with Marcio and Neto and have learned and shared so many ideas with them and with the artists who helped build this story with us.

You live and work in Rio de Janeiro but are linked to São Paulo for different reasons and projects you have worked on. Could you tell us how is the contemporary art scene in these cities and the main differences between them?

I’m from Minas Gerais and I moved to Rio de Janeiro as a teenager. I started my first experiences at the Visual Arts School of Parque Lage in Rio de Janeiro, but my first major exhibition was the Antarctic Arts with Folha in 1996, a very special project that visited artists from all over Brazil. Soon after, I would participate in the 24th São Paulo Biennial, of “Antropofagia”, and the city of São Paulo adopted me once and for all. There are many legends between one city and another that complement each other; example: how to explain so many Brazilian female artists from Minas Gerais in the visual arts of Brazil? And the artists from Recife? And the discovery of so many others in other states of Brazil? Let’s hear the legends and pay close attention to them all! There is no dichotomy, nor paradigm between Rio and São Paulo, I walk with flip flops in both.

My Art Guides likes to recommend to its readers unique places to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected to contemporary art, in your opinion, what are the absolutely unmissable places, landmarks and spots in São Paulo?

I love the Ibirapuera Park, the MAM and its Marquise which is also incredible to see the diversity of groups that frequent this spot. I love riding the subway randomly by SP and getting off at Paulista with no direction. The MASP is amazing and that central void with the fairs. I love the Liberdade neighbourhood, walk randomly and go to the open fairs there to buy all kinds of cups. The Republic Square and the various sebum of books near the Sé Cathedral are awesome too. The Copan and the Pivô, a space run by Fernanda Brenner. I love to see all the programming of the galleries and museums that always work hard on the projects, although Brazil is in a difficult economic time with a reactionary curve, all art spaces are united facing this situation with phenomenal intelligence. Finally, I would say that you should not miss an art gallery called Superfície, directed by Gustavo Nóbrega, who has made a very important rescue of Brazilian visual poets of the 20th century, never shown before; the gallery Sé, directed by Maria Montero and the Auroras, directed by Ricardo Kugelmas who has special projects and is located in a house from the 50’s.

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