Los Angeles

Renata Lucas


Renata Lucas works on an institutional scale and with unmistakable institutional ambition, but like that of certain other Brazilian artists whose work has gained both critical traction and market currency in the US over the past decade—Cildo Meireles and Hélio Oiticica, for example—some of Lucas’s most provocative work is, owing to its benignly threatening nature, completely untenable in the context of a major American museum. Her lighthearted but persuasive brand of institutional critique does not, therefore, operate from within the museum, but instead refuses to enter that economy; Falha (Failure), 2003/2007, shown recently at REDCAT, is a signal example of this strategy. This is not to suggest that Lucas’s installation is a deadly serious undertaking—quite the contrary. The artist’s insistence on empowering the viewer through direct interaction with her materials leads to an irresistibly rambunctious encounter that throws into sharp relief the deadening effects of conventional institutional installation and emphasizes our limited (not to mention staid) conception of phenomenology in a museum setting.

Falha is a floor-bound modular installation composed entirely of plywood boards. Each unit is made up of two sections hinged at the center and outfitted with a metal handle so that the pairs of panels can be shifted from the horizontal all the way to an acute, rather precarious-looking vertical orientation. Since gallery goers are invited to tug, push, and pull the boards into any configuration permitted by the dimensions of the gallery, there can be no definitive incarnation of Falha, only a fugitive, whimsical horizon line likely to change with the arrival of the next visitor.

In fact, the installation’s mutability is of central importance since, as a dormant object, Lucas’s installation manifests an obstinate lack of visual appeal. While the chance meeting of plywood boards occasion- ally yields a geometric passage of passing formal interest, as a static object, Falha is nothing short of tedious. But this is not to say the work lacks critical teeth; far from it. The absence of conventional formal allure makes apparent Lucas’s conviction that Falha is not an object for passive observation but one activated through intense, multi-sensory involvement. By rejecting simple looking as an adequate form of engagement, Lucas effectively proposes Falha as an experience that demands and absorbs one’s complete intellectual and physical attention. Visuality, then, is not only an act of looking but also an act of doing. Though Lucas is clearly heir to the theoretical apparatus and formal vocabulary of Minimalism, her interests do not lie with the phenomenology of perception but rather with what might be called the phenomenology of action.

As Griselda Pollock argued almost twenty years ago, the phenomenological encounter is not predicated on sight alone but engages or implies all our senses. Lucas’s Falha goes beyond implication or suggestion to provide an experience that is vigorous, visceral, and multifariously immersive. The crashing and screeching of wood, and the real threat of pinched fingers and crushed toes, both contribute vitally to this effect, but also present such an obvious hazard to the viewer that to become part of an institutional collection in this country, Falha would, one suspects, have to be policed and tamed to the point that the work as installed and experienced here would effectively cease to be. Institutional critique indeed.

Christopher Bedford