PRINT Summer 2009


Renata Lucas, Cruzamento (Crossing), 2003, wood. Installation view, intersection of Rua dois de Dezembro and Praia do Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro, 2003.

TO CREATE HER WORK Cruzamento (Crossing), first realized in 2003 in Rio de Janeiro and reprised in São Paulo in 2004, artist Renata Lucas repaves a busy intersection with plywood—a seemingly simple gesture with complex ramifications. Layered on top of the asphalt, the wood, with its anomalous color and texture, claims a new territory for form and geometry: A curious shape—a cross or a plus sign, but one that is more curvilinear than angular—literally emerges, relief-like, from the street. The curbs that define the shape’s contours now read as negative space, while the two overlapping flows of traffic seem to draw, in two broad lines, a perpetual “crossing” that has a distinct metaphoric register. Giving form to the abstract notions of convergence and flux, Cruzamento appears almost an emblem for the possibility of transformation—one superimposed on, and coexistent with, our petrochemical-fueled system.

With its strangely oscillating presence, its vacillation between the concrete and the allegorical, Cruzamento warrants a look at a key theorist of liminality who is rarely invoked these days. “Art is neither an impression of objectivity concerning nature nor an expression of subjectivity concerning the spirit,” writes philosopher and theologian Martin Buber. “It results from and manifests the relationship between substantia humana and substantia rerum [human substance and the substance of things], the in-between acquiring form.” Buber’s influence has faded in recent decades, but, as the foregoing passage from the 1951 essay “Urdistanz und Beziehung” (Distance and Relation) may suggest, his theory of “the dialogue” and its relation to art retains critical potential. Conceiving human existence as a reciprocal relation—the I-Thou relation, in his famous phrase—as opposed to a state of isolation within a field of objectivizing forces, he urged his readers to explore what he called the “real third.” This real third may be understood as a metaphysical entity, yet it is also an actual structure that is no less immanent for being immaterial. It emerges between two people, accessible to both but proper to neither. Analogously, art might be said to emerge at the site of a real third—this one generated in the space between substantia human and substantia rerum.

The formulation provides an intriguing frame for a consideration of Lucas’s work. Certainly, one way to characterize her practice would be to say that she creates sites at which the in-between acquires form. Born in 1971 in the midsize Brazilian city of Ribeirão Preto and based in São Paulo—and with outings, most recently, at REDCAT in Los Angeles, the Biennale of Sydney, and, later this month, the Venice Biennale—she is forging a new vocabulary for site-specific practice by exploring the critical implications of reciprocity, in the process opening up new insights into the properties and possibilities of the built environment. From the start, Lucas’s works, which proceed from careful observation of the uses and functions of their sites, have evinced her propensity for deceptive simplicity. In her 2002 installation Mau gênio (Evil Genius), for example, she installed an elevated wooden floor, supported by an armature of metal scaffolding, in an enormous room at the Museu de Arte da Pampulha in Brazil. It was a provisional and precarious-looking structure that utterly reconfigured the experience of the space, from the quality of the light to the acoustics to visitors’ sense of proximity to one another.

But it was with Cruzamento that her concerns and strategies elegantly coalesced. By projecting an imaginary or metaphoric situation onto a real one, the work embodies the ultimate contradiction of representational form. From its inception at a given location, the piece, the actual streets’ second skin, possesses multiple situational properties, giving shape simultaneously to what is taking place and to what may (or may not) take place—a space of potential. This territory in the middle of the road establishes communicability among heterogeneous elements and scales (not only passersby, cars, motorists, and architecture but also more abstract functions such as infrastructure and “the city” as such). Even though the eye sees a delimited zone, in actuality the work inserts another rhythm into urban time. In essence, it functions as a stage, a space where “acting” is possible precisely because of the discontinuity created by a divided space (stage/offstage). It is the simultaneity of these discrete zones that distinguishes theatrical representation and makes it difficult to enclose the theatrical within the stable structure of an artwork. The city itself could be understood in the same way, as a continuum of twinned spaces where functions and phenomena are distinct yet inseparable—a situation defined by structural interpenetration and constructive flexibility.

Here, a look at the work of Hélio Oiticica—whose practice is probably the most relevant antecedent to Lucas’s—may highlight some of Cruzamento’s implications. Oiticica’s “Area Bólides,” created for his famous 1969 installation Eden at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, offer some particularly compelling points of comparison. These works look something like sandboxes; they’re divided into two sections, one filled with sand and the other with straw. Their wooden borders are respectively painted bright orange and bright yellow, so as to visually delimit what the artist called the “acting field”—a predetermined space in which spectators can take off their shoes, lie down, dance, or do whatever they desire. As Oiticica put it, the idea was that each person could “create his own sensations from [the acting field], but without conditioning him to that and the other sensation.” When viewers act on the “Area Bólides,” then, they are to search for internally generated meanings, rather than attempt to apprehend external ones. Cruzamento employs a similar material and structural logic, but the acting field potentially expands to encompass the entire city, and the object of intervention is no longer the psychology of the self, but that of public space.

 Renata Lucas, Matemática rápida (Quick Mathematics), 2006, concrete, lampposts, plant beds, trees. Installation view, Rua Brigadeiro Galvão, São Paulo. From the 27th Bienal de São Paulo.

The Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, himself a theorist of public space, once wrote that it is a forgotten truth that diversity is attainable only through unity, unity only through diversity. In other words, binaries like large and small, many and few, part and whole, should not be viewed as mutually exclusive alternatives. If we are to devise a humane, creative way of governing multiplicity, we need to conceive a mode of thought that would allow us to arrive at the singular through the plural and vice versa. But the very fact that what might most accurately be called habitat planning is arbitrarily split into two disciplines—architecture and urbanism—demonstrates that the determinist mind has not yet opened itself to this way of thinking or to the transformation of the design process it would entail. Lucas’s projects productively interpret the notion of false alternatives in urban planning and design. For her 2007 work Resident, for instance, she nullified the categories of interior and exterior, private and public, by rendering the facade of London’s Gasworks gallery strangely porous. She replaced the building’s institutional facade with a brick one that blended into the surrounding architecture and yet seemed to be turning itself inside out: It folded itself inward, creating a cranny in which a radiator was installed, warming the surrounding air. The radiator was an uncharacteristically surrealist touch; Lucas’s recent interventions have typically been less immediately apparent. The critical valence of such subtlety was particularly evident in Matemática rápida (Quick Mathematics), a piece conceived for the 2006 Bienal de São Paulo. Like Cruzamento, Matemática rápida dealt with a basic element of urban life: For the length of a city block, Lucas installed a sidewalk on top of the existing one, complete with streetlights and tiny plots of shrubbery. Instead of rendering this modification starkly visible by creating an oppositional dynamic, as she did in Cruzamento with its interplay of positive and negative space, Lucas here deals in twinned phenomena and the tension between them. Her sidewalk is not simply a double of the original: It’s a transitional or in-between space—a space that is not quite there, a strange and flickering terrain where the conflicting polarities that are present in any city become coterminous. This is not a site for generic interaction with architecture or the built environment; it is a stage for productive interplay between substantia humana and substantia rerum. Here it’s tempting to extrapolate from Buber’s theory of the dialogue (that gives way to a real third) a more Habermasian conception of communicative action and its arena, the lifeworld: the space of mutually maintained assumptions, ideas, and values. If this space could be seen as a continuum or pool of the kinds of binary reciprocities Buber describes, then we might also call Lucas’s works lifeworld positions. They force reflection on the assumptions, ideas, and values that govern a situation, on the systems that pervade them, on what maintains them—not just architecture but language, image, habits—and, finally, on how they might be modified and even, perhaps, decolonized.

Chus Martínez is chief curator of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.