Renata Lucas’s “Museum of the Diagonal Man” Comes to Rio de Janeiro

Renata Lucas has taken to the streets of Rio, cutting doors into walls.

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Renata Lucas, "Museum of the Diagonal Man," (2014). Photograph: Roberto Chamorro. Courtesy of the artist and Absolut.
Renata Lucas, "Museum of the Diagonal Man," (2014). Photograph: Roberto Chamorro. Courtesy of the artist and Absolut.
Renata Lucas, "Museum of the Diagonal Man" (2014). Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic.
Renata Lucas, "Museum of the Diagonal Man" (2014). Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic.
Renata Lucas, "Museum of the Diagonal Man," (2014). Photograph: Roberto Chamorro. Courtesy of the artist and Absolut.
Renata Lucas, "Museum of the Diagonal Man" (2014). Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic.
Renata Lucas. "Museum of the Diagonal Man" (2014). Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic
View from the Rio Art Museum of the ongoing redevelopment of the harbor. Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic

One afternoon in early September, Brazilian artist Renata Lucas was standing on a street in Rio de Janeiro, near the harbor—a formerly derelict area that’s undergoing revitalization—and looking up at the Modernist building of the Rio Art Museum. “My plan was to create a kind of museum,” she said, “another museum, constructed on air, that happens while everybody sleeps.”

Lucas, who was wearing a blue floral dress and silver Havaianas flip-flops, was speaking at the launch of her project in Rio, a series of interventions she did in and around the harbor neighborhood as the recipient of the 2013 Absolut Art Award. Her interventions, which are part of a larger global series called the “Museum of the Diagonal Man,” are subtle modifications of existing structures aimed at challenging notions of public and private space, commingling interiors with exteriors and creating tension between the past and the present in ways she hopes will have a transformative effect on the viewer.

If you look at the Rio Art Museum, which opened this past year, it’s hard to believe that before it was a sleek white-painted home to works of fine art it was the Mariano Procópio bus station, a dismal building the walls of which were covered in small brown tiles. But the change has altered the area. The street vendors, or “camelos,” who used to sell their wares out front became intimidated by the museum’s austere new look and fled in search of more nebulous pastures. “If you look across the street, you’ll see a lot of camelos,” Lucas said.

But the day we visited, there was one camelo with a small wooden stand. Lucas walked up to a street vendor. He was selling lenticular images—the kind of 3-D photos you’d see of Christ in shops on the way to the Vatican, but these showed the white museum building from one angle and its macabre former state as a bus station from another. Lucas had created the image and had hired the camelo to stand there and sell them. She was bummed, but also curious, about the exodus of vendors. So she has hired several of them to set up shop in the area. Around the corner, where Lucas has painted part of a municipal building white (as a coy nod to the white museum facade and its effects), she also planted a street vendor. But the vendors are not the only ones having trouble transitioning to the neighborhood’s metamorphosis.

“When you walk here, you always see someone looking for a bus-stop,” Lucas said. “They start to [line up] here and there. It’s like when you lose your arm and you still feel it somehow–[phantom] pain. There’s a choreography of displacement.”

Displacement, of the Gordon Matta-Clark tradition, is Lucas’s calling card. For her 2001 show Barravento, in São Paulo, within the walls of the gallery, she created a replica of the space from plywood panels joined by hinges so the walls could be bent and folded by visitors to create a more individualized area in the fixed space of the gallery. For Atlas, a project she completed in 2006, she tore down a wall of São Paulo’s Milan Antonio Gallery and opened it to the neighbor’s yard and then re-drew property lines with a green fence. And in 2007, for Visitor, Lucas gave the Tate Modern’s neat rectangular flowerbeds an unruly appearance by planting ferns, mushrooms, and tall woolly trees.

“They call it Porto Maravilha, or ‘Marvelous Harbor,'” Lucas said about the area’s redevelopment plan, which is partly in preparation for the city’s hosting of the 2016 Olympics, and notes that the harbor is where slaves first arrived in Brazil. She was standing on a corner, pointing at a newly-built one-story building sitting on a vacant lot, which serves as a sales office for the condominium that will soon be constructed on the site. “The plan is to demolish a large number of warehouses around here and construct skyscrapers,” she said.

In front of the building, a vendor sold popcorn from a mobile glass-and-steel stand, a Lucas-intervention. The stand brought an eccentric addition to the otherwise empty corner, but also seemed oddly out of place there—a layer of recent history that stood as a quiet but somewhat uncomfortable reminder of the area’s less-sleek former state. But Lucas is cognizant of the many times this area of the city has changed over time and will change again. “You go to the laundry and it became a bar,” she said. “You go to the bar and it became a bank.”

Those who know Lucas say that her projects are as much about her unfulfilled vision as they are about the finished product—like the time she envisioned transforming a Venice canal into a street for her contribution to the 53rd Venice Biennale. “You have an idea and you have this reality,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t meet. It’s very platonic.”

Even her finished products feel intentionally incomplete. In a warehouse abutting Avenida Rodrigues Alves, one of Rio’s central thoroughfares, Lucas had transformed the space by cutting rectangular shapes out of them. With the hefty cement rectangular cut-outs, she created slowly-rotating doors that opened up a diagonal passageway through the space, which at the moment was being used as a parking garage. When one of the doors is rotated 180 degrees, a segment of the exterior graffiti-covered wall—half of a cartoon image of a skull with a terrifying smile and a protruding eyeball—fits in seamlessly with the interior wall.

We stepped through one of the rotating doors and crossed the heavily trafficked Avenida Rodrigues Alves, where, on one side of the road, the Perimetral overpass (until recently, one of the city’s central arteries) was being razed before our eyes leaving a domino-row of mammoth concrete supports and scattered orange traffic cones. At the other side, Lucas jumped up on a concrete embankment, put her ear to the metal door of a large warehouse and smiled. Embedded in the concrete under the door was a record spinning on a turntable. The door to the warehouse was locked, but if you put your ear to the door, you could hear a sound; it was the line of a song, the lyrics of which were frustratingly unclear, caught in a loop. “It’s Chico Buarque’s ‘Sinal Fechado,’” she said. She gave the translation, “I vanished in the dust of the streets.”

A few feet away, another one of Lucas’s camelos had set up a stand. He was selling records by Madonna, Cindy Lauper, and Simple Minds.

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