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Installation view of Laura Lima, ‘The Inverse’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA) (all photos by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, courtesy of the artist and ICA Miami)

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.”

Installation view of Laura Lima, ‘The Inverse’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA) (click to enlarge)

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.”

Laura Lima @icamiami #LauraLima#brazilian#theinverse

A photo posted by @ama.valle on

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.”

Laura Lima (center) at the opening night of her installation at ICA Miami. Congratulations!

A photo posted by ICA Miami (@icamiami) on

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.

Installation view of Laura Lima, ‘The Inverse’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA)

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.”

Installation view of Laura Lima, ‘The Inverse’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA)

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.”

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

40 replies on “Performers in ICA Miami Show Claim They Were Pressured to Penetrate Themselves with Rope”

  1. Wow! I got an F in 3D Structures in 1973 for precisely this piece. Well, I didn’t force any women to degrade themselves as part of my effort. Maybe if I had I would have gotten a better grade.

    1. Wow. One, the piece wouldn’t exist if the performers just said no. Maybe that is how you stop the show. Two, I have major doubts about the quality of the work. For example, why make the person anonymous? Why only legs showing? Why use women and not men if it is truly about architecture. The concept as described, is intriguing, but the end product is not. Lima seems to have forgotten that using humans, in particular, women, creates an emotional dialog that cannot be ignored. I would say her work failed.

  2. This is so terribly disturbing and sad. A ludicrous act of arrogance and selfish ambition of the artist. There is something seriously wrong in an art piece if anything in the manner of a sexual violation is forced in order to achieve its purpose. Horrific Laura Lima

  3. I am sorry, but I am so not buying this. I mean, sad enough that this is considered *art* in the first place, but now with the added thrill of “I was raped with a rope!”, it goes right over the edge into the ludicrous. You’re going to tell me these women were *pressured* into doing this? That they were so weak-willed that they couldnt just laugh in Laura’s face and walk away?

    This is one of those stories that makes a mockery of women who have *really* been violated, sorry.

    1. Shame on you seanmartin and HypGnotist. Your attitudes are exactly what women have been fighting for decades and are still struggling with today: the idea that if they are “raped,” they are just making it up for attention or that they brought it on themselves,and somehow “asked for it.” We know from the millions of domestically abused and/or date raped women that it is not so easy to “just say no” when you may be in desperate circumstances, needing money or fearing the repercussions of resisting, regardless of whether that fear is perceived or actual. Sure ladies, just laugh in your husband’s face and walk away!This performance piece is no less serious than date rape, workplace harassment, or domestic abuse. An emotional abuser can be every bit as harmful as a physical abuser, maybe even more so, because psychological effects are infinitely more difficult to “get over it in time” than physical wounds. We know this! This is common knowledge (I thought). Go join your “good ol’ boys” back in the 50’s where you belong.

      1. Oh please. This “art piece” has nothing to do with rape and has *everything* to do with an “artist” looking to get PR. Rail all you wish, but this thing is an insult to the countless *genuine* victims of rape. For you to pretend otherwise is just absurd.

    2. Let’s say they were very “weak-willed”. Does that make it okay to take advantage of them? I am guessing the call for performers didn’t say that they were to engage in penetration. For that very reason alone, the request that they penetrate themselves with a rope is unethical to say to least. Imagine the “weak-willed” person getting dressed, driving to the museum and expecting to get paid for a three hour gig and then told it was something else entirely. It is this person’s fault that they felt intimidated?

      1. okay, let’s think about this for a moment. You bring in a bunch of “performers” who have been inviited for the purpose of participating in an art project. You tell them, “Hey, as part of this, you’re gonne f*** yourself with a piece of rope.”

        Maybe Laura intended that to be part of it, but right there you’re making one really serious statement about how weak-willed women allow themselves to be raped. That’s beyond unethical. It’s pointedly absurd. What, they were locked in these little cubbies and then told to do something that no one can see?

        So putting it all together: a bunch of women are “intimidated” into being raped by a domineering “empowered” woman no less, n a room that’s away from view of everyone (except, I guess the “artist”, who apparently had to keep tabs on her minions somehow), with a piece of flaccid rope. I’m sure there’s a point there, but it’s such a bizarre one that I cannot accept that anyone involved — whether “artist” or “performer” — could not see the inherent farce that is this piece.

        1. I agree completely with your last paragraph. The piece is indeed a farce. If her intimidation was part of the installation, I would think that Laura could have portrayed that a little better and would have certainly stated that as part of her defense.
          As for your statement, “you’re making one really serious statement about how weak-willed women allow themselves to be raped,” I suppose I am. I am not saying all or most women are weak-willed, but those who are stand a better chance of being taken advantage of.
          How do I know this? I remember being 20 years old, emotionally immature for my age and completely intimidated by those in authority. Maybe I would have said no if I were in the situation as these women, but I also can see my younger self not wanting to get on the wrong side of a famous artist—someone I aspired to be.
          My point is that being insecure is not a crime in itself and realizing something is terribly wrong “after the point of no return” is a valid stance. It took much of my adult life to understand this, but I stand firm on my belief.

          1. And, to ask a question that may be hackneyed but I think is really important/interesting in this case: what if the artist had been a man?

        2. I do agree that for the artist to insist on something that the viewer will not even see, that only those behind-the-scenes would even know it happened, indeed, what is the point? Does the artist get some sort of satisfaction in the mere act of control, or validation that the piece is somehow more important because she added a sexual element to it? And, if the sexual situation is important to the piece, why not just sculpt a realistic looking body and hook it up permanently? Really, does it add anything that the piece is “performed” by a live person, in the actual flesh, so to speak?

  4. In which delegated performance again enthusiastically models late capitalism: the privileged artist leverages her power; the performers are exploited. The whole thing is repugnant even without the bodily coercion. At least Santiago Sierra makes his revolting exchanges overt and, at least initially, critical. Do your own work, Laura Lima.

    1. TTTT, I”m actually starting to wonder how you “coerce” volunteers into doing something so straight up absurd.

  5. Laura Lima is the evil weaver in The Emperor’s New Clothes. This exhibition is a farce and the venue is enabling Lima’s theft. Architecture is a shelter…not a violator. Lima’s philosophy is shallow and elementary at best.

  6. it’s enough that so many have bought into the idea that any sort of body mortification is somehow a great artistic expression, but at least performers in that genre have chosen to enact these things upon themselves. As beckly commented, this piece is just an appalling example of the power over others, and there is nothing ironic in its exploitation. Lima has traded creativity for celebrity, and has lost her moral compass in the process.

    1. If this installation is indicative of her art, she has traded very little because she has very little to offer. “Contemporary art” has become a catchall label ascribed for seemingly talentless people. The ICA has chosen to feature works that appeal to effete snobs who believe they are on the cutting edge of art and know good art from non art. I would have said bad art but “bad art is still art. Non art is an endeavor to try to fool people into thinking it is art — a condescending attitude.

      As far as someone having power over another, especially in this case, that power is not taken, it is given to another. This example is a far cry fro rape. It may be considered pornographic, but how did Ms. Lima have power over the subject? This problem could have been solved with a “fu**k you” Ms. Lima. Under the law, this in no way could be considered coercion. There was no threat of implied force or actual force.

      I know many women may see it differently, but crying rape takes away from actual forcible rape under coercion. This isn’t the Mafia where refusal would bring a broken knee cap. Why would the “victim”feel she was coerced? I assume she wasn’t a child who was being taken advantage of.

      1. there are many ways to coerce someone other than physical violence. Telling someone they’ve signed a contract and that they are under a legal obligation, making someone feel uneducated or stupid because they don’t understand ‘the work’, treating someone like a servant and as if their opinions don’t matter, excluding someone if they don’t do what you want, gaslighting someone etc etc. I disagree with your statement about power… power is structurally apportioned here between the employer and the employee. the employer IS in a position of power. Trying to argue that everyone should have the sass to say ‘fuck you’ is a very individualistic response to a structural imbalance. Sure, some people can, but having a strong personality is not the answer to abusive practices.
        I do agree with you though that this is just very bad art. I was giving the artist the benefit of the doubt that she had previously done something of merit

  7. Well the road to hell is paved with good intentions, isn’t it? I realize that everyone was trying to get this right ethically and I imagine Laura Lima is feeling misconstrued and unfairly attacked. But the bottom line is that a young woman was sent mixed messages about expectations for sexual engagement with an art work. And that’s a setup for trauma and misunderstandings. It bewilders me that the many feminist performance artists experienced with public penetration with foreign objects were not recruited. Laura Lima’s work is supposed to be about interconnectednes, respect for all living beings, and confronting modes of oppression. That message has been lost. As with all sexual exploitation stories, it comes down to he said, she said. And I’m sure Laura Lima has her own version of events. Nevertheless, expectations should have been crystal clear and consistent instead of shifting depending on who was or wasn’t in the room. The team implementing this project was clearly not on the same page as the artist. I’m not sure what their risk management strategy was. But now a young woman is hurt and the artist and institutions reputation is stained. Hopefully, we can learn some lessons as a community from this sad course of events. Can we respect young women enough to be consistent and clear? I realize that life is messy and that misunderstandings happen. But we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to high standards and to stick to the values of the art we produce in our business dealings and management style. They are only your values if you stick to them.

    1. I doubt that any of “the many performance artists experienced with public penetration with foreign objects” (which sounds like a great subject for a wikipedia edit) would be willing to do this for $15 an hour.

      1. Yeah Liz… I agree that $15 per hour isn’t enough… performance artists deserve to get paid more…and sometimes actually so… Hell I’ve gotten paid more per hour by Dixon place when I’ve done performance art as a drag queen art critic… So this project was paying at undermarket rates…. there’s a ton of people I know that would have loved to do this… Although they’ve got kids to feed…. And would have needed to get paid more… As many of us know, performence art is psychically draining and emotionally demanding… Especially when you are taking on public penetration…. Such a topic for an edit… I’m unclear why underpaying and sending mixed messages to a relatively young performance artists that have never enraged in penetration like this is a formula for success…

  8. I hope that the performers (especially performer A) have spoken to lawyers in addition to the press! Even if Lima and the museum behaved correctly, and the performers simply misunderstood (I am being generous here), the lack of consideration for each performer’s well being (i.e. no sign at the opening, no dedicated security guard, no advocate in the room with them at all times, etc.) is a gross oversight.

    This could have been avoided.

  9. So ridiculous! I think the artist should sue the performers who weren’t forced to do a thing, but are pretending they were raped, as I’m sure she didn’t want this kind of negative press. Fantastic installation too! Great work, and the performers will get over it in time. If something is uncomfortable, MOVE! No one was holding a gun to their heads.

    1. Shame on you seanmartin and HypGnotist. Your attitudes are exactly what women have been fighting for decades and are still struggling with today: the idea that if they are “raped,” they are just making it up for attention or that they brought it on themselves,and somehow “asked for it.” We know from the millions of domestically abused and/or date raped women that it is not so easy to “just say no” when you may be in desperate circumstances, needing money or fearing the repercussions of resisting, regardless of whether that fear is perceived or actual. This performance piece is no less serious than date rape, workplace harassment, or domestic abuse. An emotional abuser can be every bit as harmful as a physical abuser, maybe even more so, because psychological effects are infinitely more difficult to “get over it in time” than physical wounds. We know this! This is common knowledge (I thought). Go join your “good ol’ boys” back in the 50’s where you belong.

    2. Really?? What exactly is so fantastic about about a bunch of tangled rope disappearing between the legs of a young girl/woman lying in a mouse hole?
      I’m sorry, but even w/o the alleged or true, claim of being sexually violated by this predator, this is sorely LAME!
      Art, Ha! That’s funny. Oh right; it must be “ironic art? or contemporary art?” Again… NOT ART! Trash. No talent masquerading as an “Artist”.

  10. The performer is not claiming she was raped, she is saying that she was coerced as a result of a power imbalance. The museum and artist are both in a position of power and when they asked the performers to do this sexual act they had a responsibility and obligation to care for the physical and emotional well-being of the performers. Both entities failed them. It’s not a black and white question of legality, it’s about people in power taking responsibility for their actions.

    1. The performer is suddenly unable to say no? Tell me, what does *that* say about rape culture right there?

      1. What a person the ability to say doesn’t give another person the right to coerce. Your statement is in the same context as, “Did you see what she was wearing, she was asking for it.”

        1. Uh, no. Not at all. Apparently, being a volunteer in this means you have to be so weak that you’d go along with anything. I”m afraid that just made its way back to you.

          1. Just checked to see if you are always this contrary in your comments. Nope, you are intelligent and astute.
            I am not making generalizations like you are. I am saying that if a participant felt violated because she felt intimidated into doing something she did not want to do, the fault is not hers.
            Now stop with your twisting of words just to have the last word in the argument.

          2. Bullcrap. Of course you are. you’re purposely ignoring the inevitable FACT that you’d have to be seriously weak in the head to go along with this nonsense. And nothing *you*, in your generalized way, will change that, bubba.

            And funny how later in the comments, you actually agree with me. Now you dont, because you’re so caught up in being “right”. Got it.

  11. Gee kiddies, sexual harassment in the art market? Who’d think anything like sexual harassment in the art market ever ever happens? Sexual harassment is the soul of American art

  12. It’s pretty much low hanging fruit when it comes to any artist –, and damn it ..a woman artist using younger women “volunteers'” in any way that intimidates them sexually. Her implied goals of penetration could have been met via suggestion as seen in the photos. No, they weren’t exactly forced yet the grey areas of Lima’s concept are ripe for exploitation and that alone suffices for the work to be deeply questioned, questionable.

  13. maybe it comes down to whether or not the sexual act is central to the job description. I would imagine that someone hired as a stripper could not claim sexual harassment when their employer asks them to strip. But if you’re hired for a not sexual job and then told to perform sexual acts or endure sexual advances by your superiors or coworkers as a condition of employment ~ that is clearly sexual harassment and illegal.

    Class seems to play a role here too ~ in that it might be reasonable for a professional dancer or performer in the art world to be shocked by such propositions. But then also we should acknowledge that they generally accept lower wages because they are offest by connections and resume building. Turning down jobs can have negative effects on freelance performers.

    This job clearly has very unusual requirements. I would not think a typical trained performer in the arts would expect to encounter such a request. I don’t know the law, but I think that even strippers should not be expected to insert things in themselves. regardless, the artist certainly would need a permit it think. and the whole thing strikes me as crossing in to the realm of prostitution.

  14. There’s nothing “artistic” about this installation, it’s theory or the use of a live model. Pure artsy fartsy bullshit. The museum aught to be ashamed of itself for being so hoaxed into showing this pitiful mess. Also, I put nothing passed the “artist” as far as pressuring the performer to penetrate herself with the rope. Get this artist and mess out of the country and back to where ever she came from.

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