Absolute Presence: An Interview with Lorenzo Cardim

By Jay Hendrick on February 7, 2017
Lorenzo Cardim’s studio, photo courtesy of the artist

I met Lorenzo at his studio in Mt Rainier, MD on January 31, 2016 where we discussed trauma, the MFA, criticism, and performance.

Jay   Can you tell me about your background? For instance, I didn’t know you were a figure skater. Were you always an artist?

Lorenzo  Yeah, I always felt like an artist. I have always been involved in something creative. I’ve been making art since I was a kid. I danced, I was a competitive figure skater, and drew and painted all the time. I moved to the US from Brazil when I was 17; went to school in Philadelphia and then moved to DC a couple of years later. I spent my first ten years working on my education and getting my green card. In a way, I feel like I am just now starting out.

J  I feel a similar situation, where I am just starting out.

L Most jobs I have had somehow had some form of creative side to them—set design, costume design, event planning. I even did some weddings. Things that led to creativity but I think I was strongest in dance and skating and drawing. In grad school we did a lot of self-investigative writing about how and when we knew when we were artists and I wrote about figure skating and dance. I also came to figure skating kinda late, so I was more interested in the artistic aspects of it. I loved being on the ice, moving and playing, and in a way I felt like I was also drawing on the ice. The playfulness was my favorite part. I competed in skating ’till I was twenty-three.

J What kind of dance did you do?

L Modern, ballet. I did some flamenco. A lot of it was fun.

I did not enjoy the anxiety of competition, but I learned a lot from that. Dealing with failure was a daily practice. I guess thinking back, I was more interested in the process and working with others and being a part of a community than the competitiveness of it.

J One of the things I found interesting is that you came back to the DC area after your MFA. Can you tell me more about that?

The Harbinger. Performance at Connersmith. Washington DC 2014, photo courtesy of the artist

L Yes, my husband stayed in DC. I went to CA by myself. That was a little traumatic at first. Maybe trauma is too dramatic but I felt there was a huge cultural shock initially, it was definitely challenging. I was living in student housing because San Francisco is so expensive and had to change my routine pretty drastically to adapt. I could have gone to Chicago which would have been much closer to DC, but the program at California College of the Arts is the one I wanted. There was a lot of philosophy and theory, and the professors I wanted. I saw my husband four times in two years.

Since Graduation from my MFA was so recent, I’m still dissecting things. I’m at that stage where you feel fragile, very existential too. What am I doing? Was this worth it? Did I get what I needed? Am I thinking about this thing in the right way? But I loved the program and wish it didn’t end so quickly. I could’ve stayed in the program another year if my husband were there.

J Quite often I feel like I can never take a vacation because I can’t get away from my thoughts about my work. So how does one have a good human relationship? Is there some kind of synergy with your making that you can learn from and take into your everyday life?

L I don’t think I can ever turn it off completely either. I meditate a lot and that helps me switch focus, but most of my daily activities are related almost completely to what I’m making. I think it comes down to being present. I think about my practice all day long even when I’m watching a TV show. That is one of the investigations I have had, like with dance. During my first two years at the Corcoran many of my classmates were making political work, it makes sense with being in DC. How do I deal with me being in the world? What it means to be present? But then I realized that my identity and my body was a political site, and I started making work about that. Now, you see that in my most recent work. I got interested in carving, especially in terms of carving and using queer materials as a subversive action. I wanted to connect the history of carving to patriarchal norms; with issues of masculinity and femininity and other problematic social constructs.

But I still feel very philosophical about making. I have always been more interested in why I want to make something instead of what. I wanted to ask, “why do I want to carve?” Those were my questions, the objects came as a secondary thing.

J Is the process of carving some kind of macho gesture?

L I was more interested in the idea of the subversion of that idea. I wanted to make my thesis about role models that carve but I couldn’t find anyone. I couldn’t find a queer carver. After some research and carving a lot, I felt that it did not make me feel butch at all! I saw this as problematic history, of not having role models. I was interested in the social constructs around that media.

It was the same with embroidery regarding femininity. The history of stitching also came into the work at the same time. I like how they have so many parallels.

I stitched logs. I was reading The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine by Rozsika Parker and her analysis of this silent delicate feminized being and what it is to be a woman. I am more interested in breaking binaries. It is so divorced for me to think about being feminine or masculine. I’m so not conforming. Why does this make you masculine or feminine? I’m thinking about this group of men who decided these things, this patriarchal construct. Sorry for ranting!

Lorenzo Cardim, Trunk, wood and thread, 20x18x12″, photo courtesy of the artist


J Why the arms? These are your thesis works right?

L Some of them were made for my first year review, and others for my final thesis. I guess I was trying to create objects that reflected my philosophical questions on carving, and those shapes kept coming to mind. I was on a deadline and super stressed out. So I needed to see what to make. So I came back to the body. I was definitely looking at social media during the Michael Brown assassination, with the arms up movement. But I wasn’t just trying to imitate that, I was thinking about dance, movement, reaching, grabbing. It was a conflation of all these ideas.

Lornenzo Cardim, Sexting, wood and paint, 18x8x6", photo courtesy of the artist
Lornenzo Cardim, Sexting, wood and paint, 18 x 8 x 6″, photo courtesy of the artist

J Where you thinking about the motions of dance being similar to the motions of carving?

L Yes, I think they are very connected. Muscle memory and a type of choreography is definitely present in carving. At least I love to think that way. I was dancing with Anna Halprin during my second year in grad school and reflecting a lot of labor and the human body.

I also got the idea for several poses from one of Maida Withers’ dancers, Giselle Ruzany, by photographing her hands while she danced for me. It was part one of my grad school assignments. I wanted to capture something in that movement. Then I captured the limp wrist and other gestures. Queering the idea of carving. I carved things that a normal wood worker wouldn’t normally carve. And they are painted with nail polish and also have touches of 24 karat gold.

J The seminar is a weekly gathering at Red Dirt Studios with other residents. You had a community in San Francisco and now you have this community. How is Red Dirt?

L Red Dirt is amazing. I was lucky to have being introduced to this community by J.J. McCracken before I left, and to be able to return to it. When I was in San Francisco it was very competitive and somewhat individualistic. We were all great friends, still are, but we were all applying for the same shows and awards, so it put a lot of pressure on us.

J Did this hurt the feeling of camaraderie and friendship?

L Thinking back it was tough to see some friends feel annoyed when they didn’t get into a show or didn’t; win an award or scholarship, but we all adapted. It’s hard to look back and judge the situation in an unbiased way, we were all under a lot of stress and SF’s art scene is really intense. Having a close relationship with most of my faculty really helped. I became friends with many of them and they gave me so much support. I think most of my classmates felt the same way.

J So do you think competition is healthy?

L I think healthy competition is great, with good sportsmanship. I was a competitive figure skater for many years and one of the things I learned was good sportsmanship. Failure was everyday in skating. You competed with your best friend but you were rooting for them, and they rooted for you when it was your turn on the ice.

But grad school didn’t feel like a community in the same sense, it felt like family. Sometimes you want to strangle a family member, but they are still family. We had a lot of respect for each other in grad school. But here at Red Dirt it is a different kind of community. If someone is in need of help, everyone one jumps in. It is like that here. This is all resource. That’s Margaret Boozer’s philosophy.

J And you said your Red Dirt seminar is every week?

L Yes, every week. Margaret is amazing with helping out and helping write statements and that sort of thing. It never feels like competition here, it feels like community. I walk out of seminar every Saturday, and I feel so much better about making. And it isn’t therapy but sometimes it is. You help another fellow artist work out their ideas. And it often put things I’m making into perspective.

J It sounds like you had a good transition out of school, you had a community. How do you feel about the local DMV art happenings?

L I think the community here is growing and it’s pretty strong, particularly the performance art community. But I think DC needs more critical feedback. I don’t think our work can grow with better critique. It’d be great to have more people writing art reviews.

J What about the Trawick Prize situation. If you had ten grand what would you do? Would you find an artist and give it to them? Or would you spread it among many artists? How would you do that?

L I would do what Margaret Boozer does, she finds ways to distribute. Eventually, I want to do create something like Red Dirt, I want find a space for people to work. Creating a community.

J Is that one of your ambitions in life? That is an ambition of mine too. I want to create a cat shelter and a studio center. Maybe in the same building.

L I love that. An art studio would be a dream come true. Boozer says that the best way we can improve our communities is when we own our spaces. Because you can’t be kicked out. The reason Mt Rainier area is so successful is because many artists own their spaces.

J A little while back, I was talking to Lisa Marie Thalhammer about methods to work towards a group good. I was talking about romantic things, sexual things. Like making sex a mutual pleasure, something symmetrical not some kind of trade or economic exchange.

L Yes, inclusion not exclusion.

J Yes, it is my question, “How the hell do we get an ethical world?”

L That is my mind all the time, also why should we. I want an ethical world. Is there a way to improve on that? I think by doing things for other people. I will never stop trying to live in an ethical place and fight. I want to surround myself with good people and help people.

After eight years of Obama we get Trump? Obama’s message was not of hate. The basic thing that is in my head, is not exclusion but inclusion. Good and evil are social constructs but some things hurt people—I don’t want that. I want an agenda that doesn’t hurt people.

J Is there humor in your work?

L I think my videos are fucking funny. My performances feel serious, my performances are heavy. Some of the videos are stupid – it’s funny. It is queer. There is a message but it is humanized, you sees flaws.

For instance, in 2013 I did a piece called 27 Degrees at THEARC in Anacostia, a 27 million dollar recreational center; a community center with schools representing the Boys and Girls club, Levine School of music, the Washington Ballet and the Corcoran. I did the performance in a lot adjacent to the building. They spent seventy million and they didn’t have a pool. So I built a fake pool and had a party inviting the kids to play with me. I had plastic balls, pink flamencos and colorful drinks and I was in my swimsuit parading around and talking to people – it was 27 degrees outside, like hypothermia cold.

27 Degrees. Performance at THEARC, Washington DC 2013, photo courtesy of the artist

J So it was a critique of what they built?

L Yeah, I was just commenting on the fact that the place didn’t feel like a recreational center, but a school. There was not enough recreation or play. A place where they went to study and that was wonderful, but where were the places to play. So I thought maybe I would create a pool or basketball court—so I went with the pool, it was a more colorful idea as well.

J So being in the swimsuit in the cold weather was like an absurd thing? Does the absurd fit into some kind of social critique?

L It was done in my senior or junior year at the Corcoran so my concept was not that fully developed, but I was definitely looking at absurdist philosophy and Institutional Critique at the time. I was just thinking how funny and absurd when you think of the motto of the place. Were the developers thinking about the community and kids playing? Do they know about play? I’m sure they were but I had something to say about it.

J So maybe it was a critique about the values that go into building an efficient learning space? Because they didn’t have a pool and they didn’t have play?

L It was all classrooms and indoors. It’s a safe space where parents can come and drop their kids off. The place was key in the revitalization of the area and as they say in their wiki page, “provides underserved children and families East of the River dance classes, music instruction, fine arts, academics, recreation and other programs, including social services, mentoring, after school care and case management, as well as medical and dental care at substantially reduced cost or no cost at all.” Don’t these kids play basketball or swim? So that’s what I was thinking in my head, but if you see the performance it is funny. But in my head I have this critique, this absurdist thing.

J As an artist where does critique of an idea come in? You are critiquing the binary of masculinity with carving, critiquing the choices made by the board for education. Is critique a necessary thing for artists making? Are we critiquing?

L Not always, and I don’t think it applies to everyone but those critical thoughts pop into my head and I think it’s mostly philosophical. The why again. Why didn’t THEARC have a pool? Why should I wear these clothes? Why shouldn’t I wear make-up? Probably ’cause I don’t feel like getting shot, you know. Why can’t I wear a dress? Because dresses are really comfortable! Why not?

J Do you have any shows coming up?

L Yes, I have a short residency and two performances in San Francisco in April. I’m also a Fellow in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Sculpture Park Program in Baltimore for the entire year. It’s a great program directed by Lisa Dillin. I’m working with 7 other artists in the creation of outdoor works that will be displayed during in a 6-month long exhibition in the park starting in June.

J Eight artists doing eight different works?

L Yes, and there will be community involvement too. We are all proposing some ideas on how to include local community members in our process.

J You recently did a performance at the Newseum right? Tell me about that.

L Yeah I did. That was based on a piece I did for my second MFA thesis show last year. This was a 20 minute movement based performance where I interacted with a cellist and a singer. I created a tableau where I danced and slowly moved and interacted with a female opera singer and a male cellist to highlight the human body and voices. I was thinking of voices and how we are perceived. The cello was symbolic of the male voice; and the opera singer, and the piece she sang, symbolized my longing for a female voice. The whole thing was very experimental with lots butoh in it. I was the voice in between the two. My nails were painted red, I wore pants that moved like a skirt and used my white t-shirt as a mask at some point during the opera singer’s aria. This performance was me combining performance art with what I learned second year with Anna Halprin. It was very expressive and abstract. It was how I think of sounds and music. I guess it’s how I make music concrete and material.


As Minhas Vozes São… Performance at Newseum, Washington DC, 2016. With the participation of Edwina Chen and Adam Gonzalez

L Moving. I say dance because it is easier for people to imagine it. If I say dance there is a style or language attached to the movement. That’s why butoh, a Japanese dance, is a style I love to use in my work, the visual impact is raw and direct. Butoh performers are not concerned with how one reacts intellectually but emotionally. It was created after Hiroshima, like 10 or 15 fifteen years after they dropped the bomb. A group of artists found a way to express the way they felt about that tragedy. It was about showing the invisible body and. It relates to a lot of my research about how you express how you feel, not how you look. The body in Western culture is about athleticism and our dance styles often reflect that, like ballet, and what you look like is very important. In Eastern culture it is about how you feel. There is choreography but it isn’t idealized. It isn’t about class or status either, like ballet.

Newseum performance, photo credit Art Soirée

The experience was interesting. I wanted a silent space. The opening night was like a party though. Very festive and loud. I had to bring that to the performance myself.

J There is a thing to discuss. We talked about humor in art and not taking everything so seriously but at openings there is this sense of it being a party. And actually no one is even looking or thinking about the work. What do you think about that?

L Personally I don’t really go to the openings unless it is a friend’s. If there is a performance I will go. I usually go after the opening. Openings are often parties. That’s okay too. I don’t think it is either good or bad thing honestly. I do like DJs at openings. I like bringing music, dance, and art together. I don’t think it needs to be a solemn event to experience people’s work. I just enjoy spending a lot of time with a work and too much noise can be distracting.

J I wanted to talk more about performance, something I am curious about specifically. You talked about the fourth wall and the situation where an artist can never take a vacation because they are always thinking about their work. If a body enters the art situation, what happens to that fourth wall? Where lies the proscenium? Where is the edge of the stage? Is there an edge to the stage?

L I love the proscenium divide. I love breaking that. I love being in that thin space. A lot of my performances are in the very edge where I know the viewer is present. Some performances I have done were viewer responsive. I tend to go to this space where I don’t know where it is. I am responding to your energy and it changes the performance every time.

The Newseum was a perfect example. I performed the same piece the night before the opening. There was no one there except the curator and the videographer. It was so intense and so raw too. There was one observer there and he was crying and his energy changed the performance.

J How does that change?

L I don’t know, and not even sure if I am looking for that. I am reminded of Janine Antoni’s work a lot and her relationship with the viewer and how she loves the viewer. I feel the same way. I love performing for people. I want the viewer to be there, it is an exchange.

The why. The reason a lot of my friends are painting or sculpting and are terrified of performing for a live audience. Some feeling they have in their head, a thing about performance where they think they can’t do it. I like that question, the why. Because you are performing when you are making. Can you learn about that experience? There is something about performance that is only happening during the performance where there is no rehearsal and it ends when the performance ends. Not like painting something and putting it on a wall and walking away. It only happens when I am there in the museum, pulling my shirt up and stretching it over my face. It’s more real to me. It is happening live and hard to capture and photograph. And document. There is that one moment with me in my head. There is something there with conversations or questions.

Have you ever gone scuba diving before?

J No.

L If you ever do, you are deep below the water. It is you and your gear and your breath and the ocean. It sounds like white noise. You don’t hear anything else. If you stop breathing you die. If you pull off the equipment you die. This relationship you have is so peaceful and very intense. Being in that moment is like performing. Sorry I took so long time to get to this explanation, it’s so abstract. I felt this intensity while performing all the time. Like the performance you saw at Connersmith. It is just you! It is like as if you are painting and it’s just you and your work. No one else.

J Absolute presence?

L Yes, absolute presence.