JUNE 2019

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Berna Reale: While you laugh / Enquanto Você Ri

Berna Reale,<em> Everybody looks at the cats # 02</em>, 2018. © Berna Reale. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.
Berna Reale, Everybody looks at the cats # 02, 2018. © Berna Reale. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.

On View
Galeria Nara Roesler
April 24 – June 15, 2019
New York

Brazilian performance artist Berna Reale’s first exhibition in New York features a series of photographs and videos centered around her creation of non-binary character “Bi.” Played by Reale in a bubble-gum pink zentai suit and endowed with two pendulous foam breasts and a pair of elongated, low-hanging testicles, Bi’s curvilinear figure is a body out of bounds. Their fleshy female and male organs are comically disproportionate protuberances, grotesque in their exaggeration of some pornographic ideal. At the same time, Bi’s form represents the site of difference, serving as a contravention to the heteronormative body and archetypes of classical beauty that continue to imbue contemporary culture. But, I am not entirely convinced by Bi’s non-binary status, as it is difficult to separate the gendering of the color pink in modernity from anything but feminine. Although Bi also becomes hardly distinguishable from Reale the artist, their body nevertheless rests on the margins, indefinable by cultural norms and oppressed by prevailing socio-political conditions in Reale’s native Brazil.

Berna Reale,<em> I kneel and you pray</em>, 2019. © Berna Reale. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.
Berna Reale, I kneel and you pray, 2019. © Berna Reale. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.

In the modest gallery space, one is confronted with four large format, color photographs that dominate the walls: They are luscious art objects in vivid hues, topped with seductive panes of glassy acrylic. Bi’s form is central in each: I kneel and you pray (2019) is the most arresting of images, set in a chartreuse yellow space with a heavy curtain drawn across the background. On bended knee, head lowered ever so slightly in romantic deference, Bi offers the viewer a bouquet of bananas with the centermost fruit half-unpeeled. Taken together with Bi’s lumpy, bumpy form, the bananas are easy stand-ins for the phallus, materializing the murky territory of love and sex while scratching the surface of Yayoi Kusama’s obsessive “Accumulations” furniture series or Louise Bourgeois’s penis-like sculptures.

Berna Reale, <em>Bi Massa</em>, 2018. © Berna Reale. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.
Berna Reale, Bi Massa, 2018. © Berna Reale. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.

At times, the symbolism used in the photographs seems trite. It’s heavy (2019) places Bi in a brilliant teal room with tufted walls, weight-training with two golden dumbbells. At the ends of each dumbbell are scaled down versions of the planet Earth, and Bi strains at lifting the weight of the world(s). In Your molds don’t fit me (2019), all is gold. Bi assumes a seated power position in a chair in the corner of a large goldenrod-colored closet; their testicles are visible, but squeeze between their crossed legs while their breasts flop to the side. Clothesless hangers dangle unevenly along the closet rods, while a smattering sit on the floor. The message here is that fashion, or its relative consumerism, is empty, a void which cannot be filled. Further to this idea is Everybody looks at the cats #02 (2019) in which Bi lounges on a couch draped in a rich blue-green damask. Below, three cushions are arranged on the floor, each bearing the image of a well-dressed cat, the total of which implies a critique of bourgeois predilection for pet care and animal rights over that of humans.

More effective are Reale’s two works that employ capitalist forms of the pop culture industry, and mimic the vernacular of music videos. Each are short and easily digestible at under two minutes. Touch Yourself (2019) shows Bi in animated form, swaying in front of a bright yellow background to ear-worm worthy Brazilian funk, and the Portuguese lyrics: “My body is mine,” “Your body is yours”; “Hey there touch yourself, but don’t touch me”; “Don’t come that strong”; “Don’t talk that talk”; “Get outta here...Get outta here.” Speaking directly to forms of gender and sexual violence, Bi wags their finger at the viewer in a gesture of refusal.

The second music video, Bi Massa (2018), begins with aerial drone footage moving through the streets of Belém as the music rolls in. The song’s lyrics: “The mass is bi,” “Is mass the bi?” flip statement into question as Bi moves sensuously in an open-air clothing market. They gyrate on the cobblestones and disused tram tracks, noticeably sweating through the suit. In both live performance and video, the viewer’s gaze hits Bi’s literal blank face; while Bi can see out, no one can see in, therefore blocking and inverting the role of the viewer and the viewed.

While Reale’s works comment on the political climate in Brazil, they are also a brutal reminder that the extinguishing of rights—difference, equality, a habitable future—is a universal reality for many far beyond its borders. Marginalized bodies are the first to be caught in the political fray, instantly vulnerable to transmutations of power. In times such as these, perhaps the most effective dissent is to bravely assert one’s body of difference in the street, standing up to a bleak present and unknowable future.

Contributor

Charlene K. Lau

Charlene K. Lau is a New York-based art historian and an Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow at Performa. Her writing has been published in C Magazine, Canadian Art, Fashion Theory, Journal of Curatorial Studies, and Visual Typologies from the Early Modern to the Contemporary: Local Contexts and Global Practices.

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JUNE 2019

All Issues