Renata Lucas, desague (drains), 2015, asphalt, cast iron, steel, stainless steel, PVC, water, 3 1/8 × 17 3/8 × 20 7/8".

Renata Lucas, desague (drains), 2015, asphalt, cast iron, steel, stainless steel, PVC, water, 3 1/8 × 17 3/8 × 20 7/8".

Renata Lucas

Renata Lucas, desague (drains), 2015, asphalt, cast iron, steel, stainless steel, PVC, water, 3 1/8 × 17 3/8 × 20 7/8".

A few years ago, Renata Lucas was asked what she thinks art is for. She replied, “Perhaps it’s one of the few things left that allows us to declare that we don’t fit the given standards.” Her own investigation of those given standards operates in the field of urbanism—more specifically that of metropolitan architecture. Studying the relationship between public squares and private spaces, the intricate workings of traffic hubs, or the ways in which sidewalks form trajectories of experience and social life, she deftly devises ways to break prevailing architectural and social molds, often with minimal means.

What, one might ask, are today’s urbanistic standards? Since the days of functionalism, and perhaps even before then, planners have mainly been concerned with the city’s smooth operation. Formal choices, the quality of the materials, the layout of streets and squares, the organization of public life: Everything is subordinated to the optimization of a rationally structured process. Infrastructural systems—for example, water or energy supplies—are subject to a particularly rigid logic, and so, in preparing her recent sculptural installation in Berlin, fontes e sequestros (fountains and sequestrations), 2015, Lucas decided to focus on the city’s water mains.

As she traced their course through the urban landscape, Lucas was struck by the public fountains they supply. She selected three of these and made models of them, out of which she then assembled a six-basin hybrid fountain in the gallery’s courtyard. The oldest of the three fountains Lucas used, the Triton Fountain in Berlin’s Tiergarten district, dates from 1888; Alt-Tempelhof’s Eva Fountain was set up in 1927; and the most recent, titled Dance of Youth, was installed in Marzahn, in then East Berlin, in 1984. Lucas’s resulting sculpture thus merges three round basins from different places and moments in history; the statues that grace the originals are absent. Nested together, the elements now form a new fountain, with basins of various depths, already stained with algae. The fountain’s discharge was routed to a conduit that connected to three drains embedded in the gallery’s floor; they run at different depths owing to the different surface layers that accumulated over time—beneath today’s asphalt cover, a layer of concrete rests on old asphalt—and in that sense, the drainage system tells its own story.

The drains serve no recognizable purpose, emphasizing that an intentional lack of function is the defining quality of Lucas’s urban interventions. Much has been written about social critique and the relation between public and private spaces in Lucas’s art, and with good reason. But what sets her works apart from many others that address similar issues is the fundamental absurdity of her interventions, which is rooted in her refusal to make them conform to the functionalist aspirations of urban architecture. Consider Cruzamento (Crossing), an early work from 2003, for which she paved a busy intersection in Rio de Janeiro with plywood panels—an unsuitable material, as it turned out, because neighbors complained that the panels added to the noise of the traffic, which led to the boards’ removal. For Resident, 2007, she mounted a radiator to the facade of a former gasworks, a seemingly meaningless gesture that was nonetheless subversively functional in its own way: It reminded the viewer that playfulness and mischievous humor have their place and help make life, especially in the city, worth living. In this regard, Lucas’s work recalls the art of Hélio Oiticica, in which such moments of lighthearted folly figured prominently. His practice of undermining given standards with humorous subversion lives on in Lucas’s smart and impish interventions.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.