BY Renata Lucas AND Ela Bittencourt in Opinion | 10 DEC 21
Featured in
Issue 223

Renata Lucas’s Moveable Cityscapes

The artist recounts constructing transitory interventions in the face of inflexible bureaucracy

BY Renata Lucas AND Ela Bittencourt in Opinion | 10 DEC 21

Since my work interacts with, and often alters, public spaces, it requires adaptability and commitment from curators, directors and institutional teams, plus a willingness to communicate with local residents and the government departments managing public spaces. As a result, on many occasions, I’ve had to rethink my projects.

In 2010, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, the curators and I debated for months about opening a passage between the museum’s courtyard, a private apartment building and an Orthodox Jewish centre, allowing for these three communities to communicate. When we realized that the museum’s wall was impenetrable, I created a mobile platform, Kunst-Werke (Cabeça E Cauda De Cavalo) (2010), which was activated when you pushed the wall. Walking on the platform created the sensation of crossing the boundary between the museum and its community.

Renata Lucas, Kunst-Werke (Cabeça e cauda de cavalo), 2010. Courtesy: the artist, KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Schering Stiftung; photograph: Uwe Walter

When I first visited Dia Art Foundation in New York in my mid-20s, I was fascinated by how the museum spread across different sites, each space symbiotic with the works on display. I admired this nomadic enterprise. To my mind, Dia’s original approach to buying and selling real estate as needed, while the city was still affordable, embodied modern thinking in all its contradictions. By opening a space in Beacon in 2003, Dia had created a successful, conventional museum and seemed to abandon its willingness to experiment. So, in 2015, when Jessica Morgan, Dia’s director, commissioned a work from me, I knew I wanted to rediscover Dia’s freshness and novelty, as in Ferreira Gullar’s ‘Poema enterrado’ (Buried Poem, 1960), by uncovering layer after layer, regressing in order to ‘rejuvenate!’. 

Morgan had rejected her predecessor’s plan to demolish Dia’s existing buildings on 22nd Street and raise a new one by a star architect. She preferred to renovate and preserve the space’s simplicity. But, by then, Chelsea had become a playground for the rich: Hauser & Wirth had moved into Dia’s most iconic building, and the shadow cast by Norman Foster’s huge residential tower at 551 West 21st Street had swallowed up what was left of the terrace where once stood Dan Graham’s beautiful Rooftop Urban Park Project (1991–2004).

Dan Graham, Rooftop Urban Park Project,1991, installation view, Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Courtesy: the artist and Dia Art Foundation

Recalling the vast unoccupied deserts of the American West – where part of the production sustained by Dia took place – I proposed to build that void in the city by invoking the rancher Riobaldo from João Guimarães Rosa’s novel Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1956): the sertão is within. This idea guided my entire project, entitled The Devil in the Street, in the Middle of a Whirlwind.

Firstly, I drew a circle from the pavement outside Dia to encompass the street and the five trees that comprise part of Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks (1982). My intention was to slightly shift the contents of this circle, so that the space would appear to have rotated a few degrees counter-clockwise, twisting the Manhattan grid. Simultaneously, I planned to transpose two of the Dia buildings’ edges onto the facades of industrial spaces in outer boroughs not yet altered by real-estate speculation. Placed diagonally across the street from one another, these two edges would create an imaginary internal volume – a hypothetical Dia, stripped of interiority, open to and traversed by the outside world. The foundation’s characteristic signage would feature on the surrounding buildings, and the transitory nature of the project would prevail. Unfortunately, Dia failed to communicate with the warehouse owners at my proposed sites and the project had to be reconsidered.

Five years of hard work, delays and reformulations engendered countless new chapters. My most recent concept centred on the three 22nd Street properties. Taking advantage of the renovation that was scheduled for 2019–20, I proposed installing railings along the three buildings and reinstating the old facades, which would slide open and shut according to the weather, reshuffling their temporalities. The building’s interior floor would be replicated on the outside so that, when fully reopened, the area would act as a public square.

Faced with inflexible regulations, Dia’s and my ideas diverged. I originally wanted to build a fiction with elements of the gallery’s surroundings: reflecting not only the current situation that affected Dia and other institutions, but also the overall lack of understanding that the timing of proposals for urban space should reflect that cities are spaces of speculation in permanent dispute. Very different from the mineral swiftness of salt deserts.

As told to Ela Bittencourt

This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 under the headline  ‘Permanent Dispute.

Main image and thumbnail: Renata Lucas, Kunst-Werke (Cabeça e cauda de cavalo), 2010. Courtesy: the artist, KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Schering Stiftung; photograph: Uwe Walter

Renata Lucas is an artist. She lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.