In Laura Lima’s current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Miami — the Brazilian artist’s first solo museum show in the US — a braided rope of blue industrial nylon snakes through the building’s massive atrium, looping around its white columns and beams to form an imposing, tangled web. Twelve inches around at one end, it gradually slims towards its tail, which reaches into a large, mouse hole-shaped gap in one wall, out of which poke a pair of bare legs. The limbs, on any day of the exhibition’s run (through October), belong to a rotating roster of anonymous female performers, making for a startling and strange flash of flesh in the sanitized space. It’s impossible for visitors to tell exactly where the rope goes, but two participants claim Lima misled them and pressured them to vaginally penetrate themselves with it as part of the installation. Both, after signing written agreements to participate as temporary contractors, have ceased involvement; the one young woman who went through with the task describes the experience “as a form of abuse” that left her feeling “inhuman, and so defenseless.”
A performance artist herself, she was the very first up: when The Inverse opened on June 3, while a crowd observed and Instagrammed her legs, she lay alone and in tears in the hidden, private room behind the wall. The rope then rested by her side, but prior to the official start of her shift, she had inserted it into herself — under the strict command of Lima, she alleges. Exhibitions Manager Kerri Kneer had just left the room, after telling the woman (from here on, “Performer A,” as she has requested to remain anonymous) that Lima was “on edge,” adding that it was “a big night.” When Lima entered, she asked if Performer A was wearing underwear and replied, “Perfect” when she said she was not. Lima made her change into a beige dress to match her skin tone, complete with a sewn-on flap meant to cover her genitals as she lay down. Lima also placed a finger cot on the rope and handed her lubricant, telling her the penetration wouldn’t hurt.
“I felt so lost and alone,” Performer A told Hyperallergic. “I was hoping for someone to enter the room and speak to Laura. … Laura handed me the lube and said, ‘OK, now put it inside of you. I will be waiting for you on the other end of the wall. … Don’t worry, you are safe. I’m watching you, and no one can see.’
“But I wasn’t safe,” Performer A said. “I felt like I had no choice, and I also felt completely responsible for it because I didn’t say no. I inserted the rope. I laid down, and she adjusted my legs and opened them. She whispered through the hole, ‘Good, now everyone can see you.’ I started to cry. Something changed; I wasn’t the same. I was waiting for her to leave so I could remove the rope because there was so much discomfort. I peered through the opening, and once she left, I pulled it out and hid it by the side of my leg.
“My shift was three hours long. The longest hours I have ever endured.”
Performer A says she did not mind people snapping photographs of her legs. But as she lay on the ground that night, uncertain whether her dress’ flap was covering her entirely, she counted three times that visitors touched her feet and asked for her name. A security guard, she said, managed to deal with only one incident, but no one was permanently stationed at the hole. The museum now has a sign next to it that reads, “Please respect the safety and privacy of artwork participant,” but no such notice stood nearby on opening night.
Both Lima and the museum deny that Performer A faced any pressures to insert the rope. In a statement to the Miami New Times, Lima said she was “surprised to hear of this complaint. [Performer A] was very enthusiastic and, in her words, ‘committed to the piece.'” An ICA Miami representative told Hyperallergic that the insertion “was not a requirement of the work. Each participant has the freedom to decide how she will perform the work and has been explicitly told this during the preparatory meetings.” The process leading up to opening night involved group discussions with Lima and museum staff, as well as one-on-one conversations to inform potential performers of what was expected of them.
“Lima’s work as a whole considers architecture and the body as a network of relationships,” the ICA Miami spokesperson said. “In this particular work, sculpture, architecture, and the body become interconnected. Lima intends for viewers to question the distinctions and points of origin between these elements, thereby creating a complex visual experience.
“Through the participant’s freedom to choose how to engage with the piece, [The Inverse] builds upon a historic tradition of installation and performance art that highlights the body’s role in shaping discourses on power and viewership.”
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The museum’s own call for performers, distributed to a network of artists and art world professionals specializing in performance, notes that the sole requirement for the $15-an-hour job is that participants “remain relaxed over the course of a four-hour period and engage passively with the sculpture, which will be attached to them, at their comfort.”
Lima’s accompanying statement is slightly more specific, and while it stresses the importance of participation with the work, it suggests that some physical connection to the rope is paramount to meeting her expectations. She describes that the rope “finds the body of the participant and enter[s] it subtly” and continues:
Comfort and engagement are very important in this piece. The body is still and calmed, relaxed. The coupling between the rope and the participant will be made directly by the participant. This work is about its material construction and the architectures involved, the body is just lying, relaxed, completing the power of this image.
Ideally: This piece wouldn’t be complete if it not where [sic] for this participation. So your commitment to the piece is vital to its survival.
At the first meeting of the selected women on May 25, however, Lima made it clear she wanted them to insert the rope into their bodies, according to artist Kayla Delacerda. Delacerda, who had thought the job would be an easy way to earn money — requiring her to merely lie down during four-hour shifts occurring least at three times a week — told Hyperallergic that she had asked why they couldn’t simply sit on the rope if no one could see into the room. Kneer, present with the exhibition’s curator Alex Gartenfeld, apparently did not have a response; Lima allegedly replied, “That’s where the power of the piece lies.” The artist then shared an anecdote from one of her performances of “Doped/Dopada,” which called for a woman to sleep on the floor of a gallery after ingesting a sleeping pill. One hired performer, as Delacerda recounted, said she could easily feign sleeping, but Lima “fought her on the fact that she had to — must — take the pill because the pill was the catalyst of the piece.
“She made it clear to us that we didn’t have to participate in the piece,” Delacerda said. “That she understands if we didn’t want to do it, but that if we were going to do it the only way was to insert the rope. So the museum’s statement about how ‘Laura’s work empowers the performer to make decisions about how they will participate’ is false because to Lima the only two options are that you put it in, or you’re not hired.”
Delacerda described feeling uncomfortable after the meeting but signed and returned a work contract as its rules gave her complete control over her participation. It reads, in part:
The primary activity of the Contractor’s participation is to lie down amidst the installation with certain physical objects simulating entry into the Contractor’s body. ICA Miami and the Artist do not require or recommend the placement of certain physical objects in the Contractor’s body and any decision by the Contractor to do so is made entirely by the Contractor’s own free will.
Performer A also noted that Kneer had told her and another performer that despite anything Lima said, they had no obligation to insert the rope. She and Delacerda both told Hyperallergic that they questioned whether the museum and Lima were on the same page and that they suspect ICA Miami’s staff faced pressure from Lima.
“I think that the museum staff want the participants to do whatever they want when the artist is not present,” Delacerda said. “But they weren’t going to be honest about that in front of Lima or look like they are subverting her. And they aren’t going to make her look like she’s imposing her will on people, which is what she was doing.” Delacerda added that she heard from a staff member that Lima is dealing with a compromise, as the artist originally intended for the women performing in The Inverse to be naked.
When Delacerda left the museum, a friend who worked there relayed via text a message from Kneer saying that she, Delacerda, would not have to insert the rope during her shifts. Delacerda wondered why Kneer had not told her that in front of Lima; a few days later, she emailed Kneer to inform her she was dropping out of the project. ICA Miami found another woman to replace her: Performer A. After Delacerda heard what happened on opening night, she believed Lima was just “leveraging the women involved for her own artistic satisfaction.
“[In meetings] Lima kept on saying, ‘We are not going to be there making sure you put it in, watching you, or touching you,” Delacerda said. “But knowing now [Lima] made sure she was present (and alone) with the first performer … I know that it was a lie, something said to comfort us.”
Performer A ended her participation after three subsequent shifts, saying she could not stop crying while lying in the room. She rejected an offer to speak with ICA Miami Director Ellen Salpeter about her experience, expecting it to be fruitless and emotionally damaging.
The Inverse will continue as planned, with four women now involved in the work. The museum says no additional contractors have left, nor is it aware that any have participated in the same manner Performer A did on opening night — although, as Miami New Times reported, condoms meant to cover the rope remain available “in case the performers elect to use them.” Delacerda says these remaining women treat the installation and the job “as a joke” and believes Lima and the museum are exploiting them.
Performer A, who says she has now forgiven Lima, told Hyperallergic that she would like to stop The Inverse but does not know how. Even if she wanted to, she would not be able to sue, having waived that right in her signed contract.
“But I don’t know if [stopping the exhibition] will give me closure,” she said. “I just want a sincere apology from the staff of the museum and the artist. Art museums do not have a license to condone sexual violations.”