“There is always pain.” Artist Roberta Lima on the deconstruction of pre-established norms, privilege and political aesthetics.
Roberta Lima has touched many people with her controversial work. As a queer, multidisciplinary artist, she uses her own body and architectural designs to open up a feminist discourse.
Her origins lie in Brazil, however, she has been living and working in Austria ever since 2002. PW-Magazine met her at donaufestival in Krems to discuss her queer practices and to talk about her upcoming artist residence project in the Philippines.
Your installation at donaufestival is called ‘Queer Way’. How has growing up in Brazil affected your work?
Although people have this idea about Brazil being quite liberal, I come from a very disciplined society, where many preconceptions concerning the body still adhere. If you’re too small, too big, too fat or too slim, you’re considered sick. All these categorizations are almost entirely based on anatomy. At the time I lived in Brazil, there was no such thing as queer and I didn’t fit in any binaries. Coming to Vienna and going into the discipline of performance was a process of freedom for me. There’s a big heritage to be found in the context of queer and feminist culture here. I’m thinking about the performances of VALIE EXPORT, but also male dominated areas like the Viennese Actionism. I just landed in the right place. I’m something else, and that’s pretty much what the work in Krems is about.
Your work is about the deconstruction of pre-established norms.
Exactly! But how am I supposed to criticize something if I don’t contextualize? How am I supposed to tell you something about body discipline if I come from a privileged, white, middle-class, Brazilian family? Who am I to talk about the body that suffers? I can share stories about being bullied for my physical appearance. But I didn’t live on the street, I don’t come from the favelas. The struggle I have with my body is very personal. And if I want to debate it on a theoretical or artistic level, I think I don’t have the authority to do so, unless I contextualize it.
I can also address the migrant body, but do so in terms of space. I’ll talk about being a migrant living in Vienna and all the other struggles that we have to go through. But if I compare myself to every other human being coming here to seek for asylum, I consider myself to be very privileged. Do I have the right to talk about migration? Who has the authority to talk in the name of other people anyways? For me it was important to go through a process of understanding and debating these things but at the end of the day, I obviously confronted myself with my own body.
A lot of times, your work deals with destruction, whether you use your own body or physical objects.
You might say destruction, but I actually see it as a form of transformation. The body and objects always get a new meaning depending on the context. Repositioning things is what I’ve been doing for the last 14 years – starting with the body and more recently coming back to architecture.
The last time I was at donaufestival in 2008 was one of the last times I used body modification with needles. I adapted these kinds of subculture processes to say something else. These needles are more than just adornments. I’m doing art. I’m talking about feminism, space, postcolonial and post-conceptual practices. I’m not using it just as pure aesthetics. It was aestheticized and yes, I like to create beauty. I’ve been criticized that my work is not political because it’s too aesthetic. But I think it’s political precisely for that reason.
With body modification the objective was to take advantage of a subculture as a tool, like we do with pop or even philosophy. The elements of blood and pain caught attention. But what I wanted to talk about was something else. It wasn’t about pain. Pain is always there, no matter what you do. It was about transforming preconceived ideas of performance.
In ‘Queer Way’, you didn’t use any of these tools. Did people react differently to this performance compared to the one in 2008?
When I stopped with body modification, people were confused. They didn’t associate my newer works with what I used to do. I like to play with these expectations and especially with their withdrawal. People come to a performance expecting something and are therefore exposing their desires. At first noone wants to see blood but at the end of the day, if there’s no blood, everyone is disappointed. This pleasure they got from me getting hurt made me realize that I don’t even need to visualize the pain – it’s already there.
But exposing your body is really intense, too. I was cut open and I literally felt I was exposing myself too much. It’s less about the pain in terms of exhaustion because as long there is a body, there’s going to be pain. In ‚Queer Way‘ I used architecture instead of my body but it’s the same concept. First I stage discipline and then I set it free with the feminist gesture.
You have a strong connection to the Philippines, can you tell us about your project over there?
Yes, I’m offering an artist residence on Siargao Island. It’s called Tracing New Ways and we’re giving people a space to make art. It’s about others, not myself. That was also a topic in my dissertation. Artists talk so much about social space and architecture, but building a real house for someone else is just an amazing experience.
What we need is someone who is enthusiastic. We need help.
How do you select the most eligible candidate for the program?
I’m not doing it myself. It’s a jury of three experts and they will be choosing the person. First of all, it’s important that the candidate can afford the ticket. I’m offering the house, my experience and everything else.
I gave up my own apartment to do this – that’s why I’m really passionate about it. I’m hoping that there is someone out there who believes in my project and can afford a ticket to go there. That’s the first prerequisite.
The second would be that the person has a minimum of two years experience in the field. We can’t have thousands of people applying.
And above all, my biggest wish would be that the person wants to contribute something to the community – whatever it is. We have over 4000 square meters of space so they can leave a sculpture, photograph or any kind of artwork. It’s so cheap to produce art there and the community can really profit from it.
Besides this project, do you often work with other artists?
Yes, but I call it collaborating instead of working. Especially in the art scene, people often say that somebody executes something for them. They see it as a service. Let’s take photographers for example. Sometimes you take pictures for an artist and it’s just a job. For me it’s a collaboration. I could not do this without them. And I know that they couldn’t to it without me either – I think that’s beautiful.