lagoa rasa

Lagoa rasais a very shallow lake on the volcanic island of São Miguel in the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic. Only three hectares large, Lagoa Rasa lies between other lakes that are set amidst more rugged terrain, forming a well-preserved ensemble fairly well known to hikers. 

Sara da Silva Santos’ enchanting title, lagoa rasa, transported the public to a summery, aquatic, perhaps even a bit exotic imaginary realm. At Yverdon-les-Bains, just a stone’s throw from the shores of a lake, exhibition-goers, just back from vacation, could stroll across a white and ochre floor like sand, imagining themselves floating on air cushions, and slip-slide across the multicolored painted spots and little waves evenly spaced on the floor, giving themselves up to the horizontal rhythms of the exhibition. Never before has floating parquet lived up to its name so well. 

But attentive viewers might have noticed a few odd things about the installation too, anomalies likely to tip them off about a different side of the artist’s intentions, not in keeping with an evocation of pretty shorelines : problems connecting up the patterns across the floorboards, sometimes even mismatched colors, gaps, a sudden break in the installation in the middle of the room, sculptures open on one side, the stairs curiously covered with parquet, parts of the floor showing signs of wear and tear, to employ the standard term used in a property inventory. 

This was indeed no fancy pool deck flooring. It was more like the cut-price linoleum used to refloor an interior in a hurry, with no time for niceties, before renting out the property. And indeed the most damaged portions of it were actually taken from the floor of the artist’s Geneva studio. Back in mid-2016, she’d decided to cover her 19 m2 studio with this material, and began experimenting with various methods of horizontal painting. She developed a multi-step process that led to the enlargement of the floor space, superimposing patterned layers and gradually producing an increasingly intricate and complex floor composition that fully incorporates the viewer’s path into its overall concept. Some sections are thickly painted and unavoidable, whereas others are left virtually empty, as if to provide some breathing space. Does the viewer really dare to venture into this space? It’s a choice one has to make freely, says the artist. Some won’t dare to, others will jump over the colored spots and parasites to avoid soiling them, and others, especially kids, will tread all over the place without any scruples at all. 

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Sara a lot over the past few years, and I know the issues involved in her work, which go far beyond producing a physical experience, however inviting or perfect it may be. Her interests lie in both formal research and in a sociopolitical approach to artistic endeavor, as may be said of other Portuguese artists of her generation, who employ “a form of satirical melancholy,” as she puts it, “with strong visual choices (either highly aesthetic or almost casual looking), to raise economic and social issues”. 

Formally speaking, her work is based on the history of painting as well as post-digital practices. For years, she made use of the gray and white checkerboard grids of Photoshop’s transparent backgrounds as a pictorial motif (alluding to the standard grid used by painters and, by extension, to the overall history of painting). She also has a predilection for immersive forms. It was the total environments of Alex Da Corte, specifically his Taut Eye Tau, presented at the Lyon Biennale in 2015, that suggested to her the idea of “a painting that doubles as a floor”. 

When asked about her artistic influences in general, Sara describes an extended family that includes painters like Laura Owens as well as artists who work in installation, such as Da Corte, Verena Dengler and Anthea Hamilton, in photo- graphy and video, and even in post-internet art. But she also cites fellow artists of her own cohort: David Knuckey, Laure Marville, Léonie Vannay and Mathias Pfund. Like her, they studied at HEAD (Haute école d’art et de design – Genève ), and some have even shared studio space with her. “They’re important not only because I like their work, but also because we compare notes a lot about our artistic processes and experiences”, she explains. “These exchanges are vital because sometimes it’s hard to get to know the ways of a largely compartmentalized art world.” 

And to do justice to the full panoply of Sara’s cultural and intellectual landscape, there’s her family of authors in addition to the artists who’ve influenced her. Some are adherents of feminist thought, like Mona Chollet, Silvia Federici and Elisabeth Lebovici. Some write about political theory or geography, sociology or urban studies. And some are artists and art theorists like Hito Steyerl, Frances Stark and Lili Reynaud Dewar. 

In 2018, in her last year at HEAD-Geneva, she decided to write her Master’s thesis not on an aesthetic subject, but on a topic of spatial, social and political import. État des lieux (“Inventory Map”) (1) looks into the spatial and material working conditions of young artists in present-day French-speaking Switzerland. Interweaving her personal experience with the history of the Geneva squats, mixing political reflection with an imaginary exploration of the studio as a mythical place, her thesis includes a set of interviews in which a score of young artists discuss both economic and spatial aspects of their occupation. 

Naturally, connecting up these two different dimensions, the political and the formal, is a crucial problem for Sara da Silva Santos. As it should be for the rest of the art world, which all too readily divides up the practices of socially or politically “engaged” artists and curators, and of those pigeonholed as “formalists”, into two specialized, watertight spheres. Needless to say, not much good comes of this crude compartmentalization: it gives rise on the one hand to ultra-photogenic booths at art fairs where the forms of modernism are replayed and recycled ad nauseam, which end up all looking alike, and, on the other hand, to barren biennales where art is approached only from a documentary, militant or identity-based angle. And when some propose a third way, calling for ”a process of invention that is not centered on merely giving form to an investigation, but strives to create an artistic ”object“ beyond commentary” (2), the law of specialization usually prevails, even within art institutions.

In the case of lagoa rasa, the formal and the political mix and mesh on this scuffed, painted floor. While the floating parquet serves as the support for a painting that opens out horizontally, there is nothing neutral about this floor: it is charged with the artist’s personal experience, the history of her practice, as well as with her research on artists’ studios, against the backdrop of socioeconomic reflections on an increasingly precarious profession. 

Back in November 2014, Sara’s installation at a studio in the Geneva district of Pâquis (the same studio whose floor she was to cover two years later) represented a turning point in her work. After months of fruitless research, she ended up subletting what she describes as a ”hybrid space – neither an apartment nor a studio, neither an official nor an informal arrangement –“ in a residential building under renovation. She promised in writing not to live there, but soon realized how strange the situation was, since she was the only one in the building using an apartment as a studio. After discussing it with her new neighbors and reading up on the housing crisis and the history of urban planning in Geneva, she became conscious of her own precarious situation (even describing it as ”illegitimate“), but also of her share of responsibility, as an artist, for the transformation of urban space. This is directly reflected in the installation by the figure of the parasite that would have covered every available inch of space. ”I’ve never before spread out so much“, she observes amusedly, gazing at her 160 m2 installation. Inner-city space has clearly become a luxury nowadays. 

Thus, following her prior research into the material properties of canvas, Sara da Silva Santos came up with a new support for her painting by covering the badly worn 19 m2 floor space of a live-in studio with cut-price parquet. She has even recently experimented with the use of inflatable mattresses, whose gray plastic surface serves as a background for her paintings (3). But she has also imbued these works with a political and economic dimension that is there to stay, for this flexible, transportable medium holds not only the paintings that cover it, layer by layer, but also the social context underlying them, that of a liberal and inegalitarian society.

This inaugural gesture has also paved the way for a conceptual approach, for she now faces new challenges concerning methods of dismantling, storing, presenting and marketing the piece. The painting on the floor, for example, has been stored in sections of ten adjacent numbered boards. But how is she to recreate an installation out of these sections? Should she retain some visual transitions that are stronger than others? Or leave it all to chance? Could any portion of the floor, holding, as it does, the sedimentary layers of the work’s history, stand – or rather lie – alone as a work unto itself? Or would it have to be sufficiently ”spread out“ as well? And what does this material overlap of domestic and professional space signify? Does it mean artists can never go home and stop working? Or, on the contrary, that they never actually work, because their activity eludes the constraints of time and space that capitalism imposes on workers? 

To begin drafting an answer to these larger questions, we need to get back to the symbolic value of the pictorial forms produced by the artist. Many of her paintings could be described as paradoxical camouflage: ”camouflage“ for their forms, which carry allusions to activism and its sartorial attributes (as confirmed by the title of one of her works, How Not To Be Seen, borrowed from both Hito Steyerl and a Monty Python sketch), and ”paradoxical“ because the explosions of color and gesture of which they are composed pursue a diametrically opposed aim, seeking maximum visibility. This camouflage, variants of which can be found in her work since her Phasma project in 2012, reminds us how smoothly workspaces, as well as exhibition spaces, can change function in a neo-liberal world: apartments “camouflaged” as studios, factories as museums (4) (or schools), in a strange form of institutional science fiction fueled by property speculation. And yet it concomitantly evokes the history of serious pictorial expressionism (which was likewise first painted on the floor), though its palette has been singularly renewed in her works. The idea of ”expression“, moreover, immediately resonates with political echoes in those works.

”When abstract expressionists explored the terrain of the canvas,” writes Martha Rosler,“ and Pollock created something of a disorientation map by putting his unstretched canvases on the floor, few observers and doubtless fewer painters would have acknowledged a relationship between their concerns and real estate, let alone transnational capital flows.“ (5) Roughly the same could be said of the floor sculptures of Carl Andre, who, worlds away from these sociopolitical considerations, viewed horizontality from a purely formal angle as a “more efficient distribution of matter than verticality” #footnote (6). Lastly, let us not forget that, in the fine arts, horizontality has traditionally mirrored reactionary discourse on femininity: women lying languidly, stretched out, offered up, objectified, their bodies turned into exposed landscapes, lands to be coveted, conquered and occupied. Weren’t 19th-century French courtesans known as grandes horizontales

By proposing a horizontality saturated with socioeconomic and political issues, influenced in part by digital feminism Sara da Silva Santos is now turning this erotic charge into a political statement.

Jill Gasparina

translated by Eric Rosencratz & Alexander JS Craker