Renata Lucas

Read our feature on the Rio-based artist who makes subtle changes to public space in order to sketch links between the urban fabric and political/economic power

By Oliver Basciano

The Museum of the Diagonal Man, 2014. Commissioned as part of the artist’s 2013 Absolut Art Award winning project. Photo: Roberto Chamorro. Courtesy the artist and Absolut The Museum of the Diagonal Man, 2014. Commissioned as part of the artist’s 2013 Absolut Art Award winning project. Photo: Roberto Chamorro. Courtesy the artist and Absolut Kunst-Werke (Cabeça e cauda de cavalo), 2010 (installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin). Photo: Uwe Walter. Courtesy the artist Cruzamento, 2003 (installation view, Rio de Janeiro). Photo: Beto Felício. © the artist. Courtesy Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo, A Gentil Carioca, Rio de Janeiro, and Neugerriemschneider, Berlin

‘All materialization is provisional: cutting, bending, tearing, coating: construction has acquired a new softness, like tailoring’

– Rem Koolhaas, ‘Junkspace’, 2001

Gamboa had been a typical Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood: bearing architectural remnants of a faded colonial past, noisy with music and the calls of hawkers plying their trade, abundant in graffiti. The announcement, however, that the area – near the city’s historic port – would be the site of the athletes’s village for the 2016 Olympics has brought the theatre of regeneration to the streets. The former police building, port superintendant’s office and the bus station have been redeveloped under one undulating roof to become the new Museu de Arte do Rio; five steel-and-glass towers backed by Donald Trump are planned for the port area; swathes of once public land have been given over to private developers in preparation for the global spectacle. The changes in this area have been accelerated by the Olympics, but the story is a familiar one the world over, regardless of the particular stimulus at play here. The effects of the capitalist narrative – hoardings, wrecking balls, marketing suites and civic masterplans – are universally recognisable, from Berlin to Melbourne, Oslo to Singapore.

In September last year the streets of Gamboa also hosted a project by Renata Lucas, the latest instalment of the Rio-based artist’s year-long series The Museum of the Diagonal Man (2014). Like many of Lucas’s interventions into public space over the last 15 years, the individual (otherwise untitled) elements of this project sketched links between the urban fabric and politicaleconomic power. In some cases, the criticism was overt: for example, a turntable embedded in the concrete floor outside a warehouse, a record spinning and the muffled sound of one looped line from Sinal Fechado, a 1970s lament by Chico Buarque, coming through the exterior wall. The lyric – in translation, “I vanished in the dust of the streets” – in this context felt like it should be a rallying cry for locals displaced by the Olympic development.

Renata Lucas The Museum of the Diagonal Man from April 2015 Feature

The Museum of the Diagonal Man, 2014. Commissioned as part of the artist’s 2013 Absolut Art Award winning project. Photo: Roberto Chamorro. Courtesy the artist and Absolut

Other interventions proved harder to differentiate from the existing urban fabric (no map or interpretation was provided). When pushed, a graffiti’d but otherwise anonymous section of the external wall of a disused warehouse swung on a central pivot to reveal a secret entrance. In another work, mimicking the white paint that had been applied to the former bare concrete bus station in the development of the Museu de Arte do Rio – a manner of signifying the building’s new sophistication, the artist says – Lucas painted three columns of a nearby office block white, leaving the rest as they were. She also made the museum the object of her attention by employing, like Baker Street Irregulars, a group of hawkers whose trade had otherwise mostly been stopped by the clean-up operation in the area; Lucas had them selling lenticular prints in which the image moves from a vision of the old bus station building to its new cultural role. If her use of the museum motif shows that she is not oblivious to the fact that art is one the biggest instruments of gentrification, used by local government and developers alike, it’s a fact Lucas has been at pains to acknowledge before. With Atlas, a 2006 exhibition at Galeria Millan Antonio, São Paulo, she satirised the trend for commercial galleries to take over previously industrial and light-industrial spaces, inviting a bodyshop from across the street to annex the space, painting the gallery façade to complement the repair shop’s own exterior.

If a city in the throes of regeneration is a perfect picture of late capitalism’s ideological health – as capital moves from the public to the private spheres, and the rich appropriate space from the poor – then Lucas’s public works can be seen not only as commentary but also as attempts to disturb the scenario. Perhaps the most effective audience for her acts of insurrection, therefore, is the unwary one – the surprised passerby who can see something is amiss, but can’t immediately explain that ‘something’ with the label of art. Lucas does undertake gallery shows, in which, ironically, she will often require the active participation of the viewer: her exhibition at Galeria Luisa Strina last year involved multiple movable internal walls that the public were invited to push and pull around, a callback to one of her most famous and mostoften shown installations, Falha (Failure, 2003), in which gallerygoers can reconfigure sections of hinged plywood floorboards. But often when asked to exhibit in an institutional or commercial gallery setting Lucas will take her work outside the confines of the building – outside, that is, the space ordained by society for the spectacle of art, in which the history of Conceptualism has readied visitors for the odd, or the everyday made odd.

Renata Lucas Cruzamento from April 2015 Feature

Cruzamento, 2003 (installation view, Rio de Janeiro). Photo: Beto Felício. © the artist. Courtesy Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo, A Gentil Carioca, Rio de Janeiro, and Neugerriemschneider, Berlin

During Tate Modern’s 2007 exhibition The World as a Stage, for example, Lucas’s work was situated on a strip of green space outside the museum, where she planted an unruly mass of trees, countering the neat rows of existing birches. Regular visitors would recognise these trees, titled The Forest (2007), as a new addition, but even the dayvisitors and tourists might have registered a feeling of discombobulation over the irritatingly messy planting in this otherwise formal landscape. It was a neat burlesque of the themes of The World as a Stage, in which many of the works inside the building (Sweeney Tate, 2007, for example, a recreated barber shop by Mario Ybarra Jr., or Rotating Labyrinth, 2007, an architectural mirror installation by Jeppe Hein) flaunted a theatricality which the viewer, in turn, was prepared for by the very fact of their presence in a gallery. Encountering Lucas’s out-of-place planting, visitors became engaged in the ‘fictional’ space of art, long before they were expecting it. Confusion as a means of radical co-option of space and public attention is a leitmotif for the artist. Take the early work Cruzamento (Crossing, 2003), for example, in which Lucas hijacked a crossroad in Rio by laying swathes of plywood over the asphalt. While not exactly constituting a plaza, the material led to uncertainty amongst motorists and pedestrians alike concerning whom this space now belonged to. People strayed from the pavement into the middle of the intersection; cars slowed, unsure of the right of way.

Such interventions obviously have an art-historical pedigree. A work for Lucas’s 2010 solo exhibition at KW Institute in Berlin, in which the artist shifted the paving stones outside the gallery to create a glitch in the surface (as if, as the artist described it at the time ‘the terrain had been rotated 7.5 degrees counterclockwise’) recalls Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural ‘collages’ – Circus, or Caribbean Orange (1978), for example, in which the American artist shifted whole sections of a building next to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. One can also trace a lineage within the context of the twentieth-century Brazilian avant-garde. Lucas’s method of disturbing the day-to-day activities of the public is akin to the work of Artur Barrio, particularly the older artist’s series from the 1970s Situação (Situation) in which he left bundles of bones, blood and excrement on street corners of affluent areas in an attempt to shock those encountering them out of their acceptance of the political status quo.

Renata Lucas Kunst-Werke April 2015 Feature

Kunst-Werke (Cabeça e cauda de cavalo), 2010 (installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin). Photo: Uwe Walter. Courtesy the artist

Yet despite their heritage Lucas’s works feel particularly pertinent to contemporary times. Matta-Clark and Barrio were working prior to Francis Fukuyama’s arguable ‘end of history’ (that is, the American political scientist’s 1989 assertion of the total triumph of neoliberal capitalism) and, in their very different ways, were looking at destruction (the former’s destruction of buildings; in Barrio’s case the use of ghastly materials as emblematic of the destruction of life) as a means of anarchism. Like Rem Koolhaas’s description of architecture under late capitalism, Lucas’s modest yet vastly more unheimlich incisions into the urban fabric can perhaps be thought of instead as hacks to the socio-political matrix – purposeful, disorientating attempts to puncture the apparently inescapable veneer of capitalist realism. In this manner – as with her movable gallery works – she leaves the effect of her work in the hands of the viewer, challenging us to take the moments of discombobulation she provides as an impetus to enact more lasting change. 

A solo exhibition of work by Renata Lucas opens for Gallery Weekend Berlin at Neugerriemschneider (2–30 May).

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.