Galeria Nara Roesler is pleased to present While You Laugh/Enquanto você ri, solo show by the Brazilian artist Berna Reale. Curated by Claudia Carliman, the exhibition is the artist's debut at the gallery's New York location and it's composed by four photographies and two videos, all centred on 'Bi', a non-binary character created by Reale. According to Carliman, 'addressing underprivileged and marginalised victims of the violence permeated in daily life, be it physical or psychological, Bi depicts society's systematic exclusion of the already excluded. Reale's work is forceful, raw, and blunt, as she exposes in playful but radical ways diverse forms of the injustices inflicted by savage capitalism, police brutality, militias, and hate crimes.'
Berna Reale: Exposed
by Claudia Carliman
'Become like me and I will respect your difference.' - Alain Badiou1
Misogyny, racism, classism, and sexism—in her new body of work, Berna Reale dramatises the pervasive intolerance towards everything that escapes the norm. Through her carefully constructed non-binary character 'Bi,' Reale challenges prejudice and discrimination. Addressing underprivileged and marginalised victims of the violence permeated in daily life, be it physical or psychological, Bi depicts society's systematic exclusion of the already excluded. Reale's work is forceful, raw, and blunt, as she exposes in playful but radical ways diverse forms of the injustices inflicted by savage capitalism, police brutality, militias, and hate crimes.
Bi is built on irony and debauchery. S/he wears a synthetic, head-to-toe pink bodysuit that overexposes magnified protuberances in the form of enlarged female boobs and male balls, made of memory foam. In one of the photographs at the exhibition While You Laugh (Enquanto Você Ri, 2019), Bi sits on a golden chair surrounded by empty hangers, alluding to the ubiquitous obsession with appearance and consumerism within capitalist structures, a fixation that is constantly fulfilled by the silent exploitation of invisible cheap labour. In another photo, Bi exercises with dumbbells imprinted with images of the globe, referencing the burdensome efforts required to fit into normative society. In Everybody look at the cats (Todos olham para os gatos, 2019), Bi reposes on a couch surrounded by pictures of cats dressed like fancy people, critiquing the better care of animals over that given to many people. Andin While I kneel, you pray (Enquanto eu ajoelho, você reza, 2019), Bi kneels while s/he offers a bunch of bananas—a phallic symbol—suggesting the frequent conflation (and confusion) of sex and love.
Bi's dissident body follows Judith Butler's notion of sex as a social construction. In her celebrated performative gender theory, Butler claims that gender identity is not a manifestation of any intrinsic essence but rather the product of language, speech utterance, actions, dress codes, and social behaviours, and, thus, a result of performative actions. Butler undermines the distinction between sex as a natural category and gender as an acquired one, arguing that sex is also constructed through social and cultural practices.2
Bi is a grotesque figure, recalling Hans Bellmer's surrealist 'hermaphrodite' dolls from his mid-1930s 'Poupée' series, in which the human body is dismembered, fragmented, and eroticised. Bi is also reminiscent of Cindy Sherman's play on the construction of identity, especially her Sex Pictures from the early 1990s, in which the artist uses prosthetic body parts to create ambiguous, hybrid figures.
In the persona of Bi, Reale enacts a freak, a clown, a jester figure—purposefully easy prey to be despised and discarded. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, 'Clowns and fools, which often figure in [François] Rabelais' novel, are characteristic of the medieval culture of humour. They were the constant, accredited representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life out of carnival season...They stood on the borderline between life and art, in a peculiar mid-zone as it were; they were neither eccentrics nor dolts, neither were they comic actors.'3 Despite the violence embedded in Reale's performances, videos, and photographs, her work at times seems entertaining parodies. While at first glance, Bi's costume can be perceived as a banal carnavalesque fantasy, it stands for everything that is often ridiculed, destroyed, and annulled for being different.
When faced with the radical vulnerability of another's body, one might feel inclined to laugh at it. Bi's discombobulated body causes laughter, while it also triggers anxiety for what is not known or understood. In The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Maggie Nelson argues that, 'The feminists might add that since our fundamental precariousness has been feminised (as vulnerability, as weakness), a misogynistic ideology would naturally demand its suppression, abjection, or defeat.'4 In a patriarchal society, everything that is considered vulnerable should be subjugated. Bi stands for minority groups including LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer), and for people of colour and women, all of whom are especially susceptible in the current state of heightened violence in Brazil following the election of the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, known for making offensive comments about women, black people, and gays. Since then, there has been an increasing rate of femicides, and a systematic targeting of gay and transgender people by conservative groups.
The Forensic Turn
Reale was born in 1965, in Belém, the capital city of the northern state of Pará, where she received a BA in visual arts at the Federal University in 1996. Belém is situated in the Amazon, a region outside the mainstream centres of Rio deJaneiro and São Paulo. As opposed to the prosperous southern part of Brazil, the country's north and northeastern regions lack significant business investment and social safety nets, magnifying economic inequality. To supplement her income as an artist, Reale entered the police academy in 2010, where she became a forensic expert and began incorporating her professional experience into her artistic practice.
In Ordinary (Ordinário, 2013), Reale utilises her access to forensic archives to gather and expose skulls, bones, and other remains of victims of brutality whose bodies were never claimed. Reale's forensic-based artistic practice shares similarities with that of the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, who worked in a morgue in Mexico City. Margolles also gives voice to those without social, political, juridical, medical, and biological representation in society. Like Margolles', Reale's work is about the indexical vestiges left by the violence of unlawful wars, the remains of unclaimed corpses, those who are unaccounted for. They both act against forgetting these horrific acts by remembering the brutality that surrounds them. Despite addressing such harsh realities, Margolles and Reale avoid speaking in the name of the victims, evadingthe depiction of the powerless, instead eschewing what the artist and theorist Allan Sekula calls 'the pornography of the 'direct' representation of misery.'5 Reale never portrays herself as a victim. Her posture is always regal, her headis erect with pride, and her body seems positioned to defy abuse, prejudice, and scorn.
Reale's performances (from which her photographs and videos derive) often take place in public spaces. In the iconic Palomo (2012), the artist is seen riding an imposing horse, painted all over in bright red, in the streets of Belém. She wears a black uniform with a muzzle over her mouth, as if her right to speak has been taken away. In Zero Limit (Limite Zero, 2011), individuals dressed in white, with rubber boots, like butchers, remove her from a refrigerated truck and parade her naked body through the streets of Belém. Reale's head is shaved, and her feet and hands are tied to an iron bar, as if she were a dead carcass. The performance recalls a cruel method of physical and psychological torture developed during the Brazilian military dictatorship, in which political prisoners were tied to a pau-de-arara (a tube, bar, or pole—literally, a parrot's perch). This disturbing performance also suggests the female body as a discarded commodity. In another action, When everybody becomes silent (Quando todos calam, 2009), Reale lies naked on a table in Belém's main public market. Her abdomen is covered with animal entrails while vultures swarm over her, waiting to feast on the putrefied remains. The image presents an uneasy, visceral tableau, in which Reale becomes the surrogate for the victims of violence, rape, and femicide in Brazil.
Reale believes in the power of the spectacle to create intensity, shock, and immersion. Her images command remarkable presence and inviting a voyeuristic gaze. They are over-aestheticised, creating a high visual impact and triggering disquieting reactions in the viewer. Reale even plays with Hollywood iconography in the performance piece Singing in the Rain (Cantando na Chuva, 2014), in which she wears a golden jumpsuit and a gas mask while re-enacting the classic musical Singing in the Rain on a red carpet at a garbage dump in Belém. The effect is ironic, humorous—and uncanny.
In a world bombarded by images of cruelty and exploitation, it is easy to be numb and indifferent. As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, '[T]he image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence.'6 In a country known for its Carnival, cordial people, and 'racial democracy,' Reale's humorous Bi exposes a dark side of that society.
Press release courtesy Galeria Nara Roesler.