In this in-depth interview, we take a deep dive into the work of interdisciplinary artist Sandra Lapage, whose artwork is a call to arms for a greener approach to consumerism. Join us as we discuss the artist's use of found materials, the role of 'the mask' in her performative work, and how trance and shamanism has found a home in her work.
Sandra Lapage lives and works in São Paulo, Brazil. Sandra is a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grantee 2022-23. She was a recipient of the Repaint History Artist Fund, summer 2021. She got her MFA from the Maine College of Art in 2013. She has participated in collective and solo exhibitions in Brazil, Europe, Asia and the United States. In 2022, she was part of the juried Alumni Triennial at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, Maine. Sandra was a visiting artist at the Tyler School of Art (Philadelphia) and Maine College of Art (Portland), United States.In addition to her solo work, she develops a collaborative work in the collective Eclusa and runs, with 4 other artists, the independent art space Galpão Japaratuba in São Paulo.
Artist Statement (excerpt):
What if our current crisis was mainly a crisis of knowledge? What if we realized that the hyper-specialization of our concerns and areas of knowledge is leading us to a myopic, or worse, cynical blindness? How to reestablish a cosmogonic vision of the world, when human evolution is impulsed by economic and technical development, while there is an evident ethical, psychological and affective degradation? I consider art as shamanic practice and trance as a source of knowledge, observing divergent epistemologies without falling into superstition, resisting accepted dogmas which seem to be taking humanity to a pessimistic turn.
Creating sculptures from trash and discarded materials, often malleable and even wearable, I address environmental and behavioral issues. These sculptures unfold into installations and photo-performances. Control is an illusion, and through the work, I exercise the acceptance of what recycled and everyday materials reveal, from accidents to new processes. The vital materiality of quotidian objects is my starting point and leads me to a reevaluation of the dichotomy between life/inanimate, human/nature. I believe that a shift in hierarchy can result in a greener approach to self, culture and nature.
What initially brought you to the path you are currently on? How long have you been working in sculpture?
I moved from painting and printmaking to sculpture gradually, and that change occurred roughly in 2013, when I started installing large woodblock prints, hanging them floating lightly in space. As for my current path in using discarded materials, an ethical dilemma brought me to it: as I was discovering the playfulness of working with materiality, transforming large woodblock prints into tridimensional form, I started creating large installations that confronted the scale of the body, inviting the viewer into an immersion. Having just concluded one of these installations at the end of a 6-months residency in New York at the Nars Foundation in Sunset Park, and having to plan my return to Brazil where I live, I was forced, for lack of alternative, to destroy and discard a large amount of what I had created over that period of time. Not only was that frustrating in terms of the work I had developed and giving up on possibilities to transform and reinstall the same pieces, I also felt a certain uneasiness in regards to having created so many objects for a 2-week show, simply to having them discarded afterwards.
The uneasiness became clear over time; for me, accumulating objects out of conventional materials such as paper and cloth, started feeling like a vain and self-centered activity. I felt that I was cluttering the world, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure of the value of what I was doing. Around the same time, I had my first encounter with El Anatsui’s work, and what most impressed me, beyond the striking beauty of the pieces, was the use of serialized industrial products. I had seen the work of Arte Povera artists (Marisa Mertz!), as well as Jean Tinguely, Raushenberg’s assemblages, and others. However, the use of repetition to undo the original meaning and use of the object was striking in El Anatsui’s work. It is about moving from a collection of precious debris to weaving simple industrial materials into a type of net, be that net a textile object or a 3D one. From that encounter, I dreamed of finding a material which would resonate with my own background and circumstances, and hopefully, bring to light what I was hoping to achieve as an artist. That discovery came a few years later, in the form of used aluminum coffee capsules and other found materials.
Can you tell us about your choice in medium? What types of materials do you use to create you sculptures and how does this tie into the message behind your work?
My favorite materials are found and used ones, assembled with simple means, such as staples and copper wire. I prefer serialized materials, as I work with repetition and accumulation that take me to a mantric and meditative path in which discoveries arise. Aluminum coffee capsules exist in abundance in many countries, including Brazil. In Brazil, there is a doubly interesting take on its colonial past based on agricultural products, in a wide proportion, coffee. Consuming coffee from an aluminum pod in Brazil is therefore strongly symbolic of the intricate and sometimes nonsensical paths that globalization has taken us.
Going back to my materials, manual labor connects me to the materiality around me. As I work by repetition and accumulation of operations and materials, I get gradually immersed in pure action and presence, and eventually, I forget myself. In these moments, I often channel something unexpected, and this is what is exciting: making—not knowing, conquering the fear of not controlling outcomes, accepting unexpected paths and surprises.
My biggest ambition is to work on a scale in which the problem of consumerist excess becomes self-evident. Reusing industrial materials in large scale addresses the problem of consumption, trash, ideas of luxury, status, and what society holds valuable versus what it deems irrelevant and disposable. If I am able to rescue the value of what is defined expendable, then I might be able to suggest a shift in perspective, resulting in a greener approach to the world.
Therefore, the immediate meaning of the materials that I use tie into a message of ecological urgency and of reevaluating consuming habits. And in a wider context, I am speaking of a large crisis of knowledge, and of a large divide between the evidence that never-ending material progress is illusory and bound to lead us to a catastrophical fate, versus a revolution in complex thought and the wish to create bridges between different areas of knowledge to find a creative path, or perhaps paths, to our relationship with nature and our planet. Here I speak of ideas of animism, vibrant matter, expanding consciousness, mycelium, psychedelics, indigenous shamanism, and the relationship between creative trance and shamanism.
When I attain a mantric, shamanic, or trance state in my art process, when I feel I am channeling something else, then I understand I am externalizing things that predate me, that I am deeply connected to cosmogonic visions of the world in which the relationship of humankind and nature is one of care and respect.
How do you source your materials? Does how and/or where you find your materials relate to your artistic practice as a whole?
As I activate a network of donors, nowadays I engage the public in my process and in a discussion over consumerism, recycling habits and greener choices in quotidian life. This network started timidly, with people from my immediate circle, but in time, with the use of social media and other means of making the work circulate, without ever needing to advertise for possible donations, I get increasingly more inquiries from people wanting to donate materials. Within these news connections, often people offer unusual materials for me to experiment with, and that tells me something about how people are starting to look at and connect to the materiality around them.
I’m really interested in your wearable sculptures. What compelled this divergence in your art making? What inspired you to make something that is specifically wearable?
My first clearly wearable objects were masks, and they came from sheer playfulness in the work process. “Art as pleasure, art as play, art as the recovery of childhood, art as making conscious the unconscious, art as a mode of instinctual liberation, art as the fellowship of men struggling for instinctual liberation.” - Art and Eros, Norman O. Brown.
As a citizen of Brazil, carnival, popular and street culture are part of an omnipresent imagery. As I started reading about masks, Carnival and “Dance Macabres”, I realized the power in masks and the act of wearing one. From the Selk'nam people to Kongo Nkisi nkondi power figures, from Kente cloth to Afrogallonism, from Brazilian carnival to New Orleans Mardi Gras, from African masks to Swiss Lötschental Tschäggätta, from Venetian masks to Goya’s masks, from the Canadian indigenous shaman to the sacred clown Heyoka, from the medieval harlequin to Marcel Dzama fabulous theatrical characters, this correspondence of images points towards syncretism and a reflection on the margin and the subversion of the established order typical of Carnival and Dance Macabres. Wearing a mask can be a subterfuge to hide from death, as in the medieval Dances Macabres, but removing it is perhaps just another way of hiding oneself. What I mean is: am I more my true self in trance and in wearing a face or body mask or as my usual everyday self? A mask reveals more than it hides.
As for the body garments, I first started thinking of ceremonial mantles when I realized that there was a certain recurrence of shapes, especially since I do not try to control the outcome of the work, but rather let it flow to whichever direction it is taking me to. The shape of the mantle in my Japaratuba series brought to my mind the work of outsider artist Bispo do Rosário. I have always been drawn to outside art, or art brut, or “arte ínsita”, or even, as a Brazilian critic coined, “virgin art”, for its hyper originality and strength of expression; the not needing to belong seemed to be freeing for these artists. Another characteristic of Bispo’s work was the super ornamented quality of his garments, exclusively made of recycled everyday materials: the ones he could get in the institution where he spent most of his life. From that realization, I started feeling ever more engaged to create sculptures that possibly cover the body.
Is there a space for ritual within your practice, or do you find your process ritualistic at all?
I feel there is plenty of space for ritual in my work, mainly in the state of altered consciousness that I am striving for, and therefore performance means, to me, simply the act of putting on the garment, feeling all of its edges and scratches. It's sometimes slightly binding and can feel claustrophobic, but at the same time can be empowering. Was does it mean for a woman to dress neutrally versus dressing to provoke? There is so much going on in these decisions, that it is impossible not to suffer some king of transformation, and this what I hope to capture in photo-performances.
Now speaking specifically of the Guará-Araruna piece, it is a homage to the Tupinambá cerimonial mantle, used in anthropophagic rituals to absorb one’s enemy’s energies. It is a powerful metaphor of communion, growth, and cycles of life and death. It also makes me think of how I am devoured by my own work, physically disappearing within it, whether during the process or a disappearance of the self within materiality and other connections.
And last but not least, I am still in the process of imbuing myself in the book “A queda do céu” (I believe that there is no available translation in English yet), about a Brazilian shaman perspectives on the white man’s loss of perspective and ability to dream. It makes me think of the urgency of expanding our minds to find a new understanding of the world before it is too late. I hope creative trance might be the path for me.
I understand you also collaboratively run an independent art space in São Paulo, Brazil. Can you tell us a bit about the space and why it was started?
I love to work in community, from my first residency to my graduate studies (I trained as an architect in Brazil and therefore only discovered the wonders of an art studio much later on). I feel that the personal and professional growth in living within an artistic community gives me strength and knowledge. It opens up my process to other eyes and points of view, as well as opportunities and ideas on how to survive as a visual artist.
Our studio Galpão Japaratuba is located in an industrial neighborhood in downtown São Paulo. It is a warehouse in which six artists share a space of about 1800 square feet. It is located in a dynamic area, in quick transformation. Is was inaugurated in 2020, when my partner Carlos Pileggi and I lost our former shared space as rent was going up and maintenance costs were becoming too expensive. We started the space with the help of a third artist, Anabel Antinori, and at that time took a leap of faith and hoped to find enough interested artists to be able to make ends meet. Thankfully, to this day, we never had an empty spot for more than a couple of months, and we have always been able to share all the costs. We run the space horizontally, making decisions as a group, but as I deal with the administrative aspect of the studio as well as maintenance, I am aware that I end up having a central role in the space.
Who (or what) would you say is your biggest influence and why?
I feel that influences evolve organically over time. I keep on looking at my heroes in recycled material art, such as Moffat Takadiwa, Serge Attukwei, Pamela Moulton, Rebeca McGee Tuck, Alice Hope, Virginia Fleck and many others. However, right now, as my metallic constructions often behave as textiles, having a certain malleability and lightness, I am strongly influenced and inspired by artists Mrinalini Mukherjee, Jagoda Buic, Cristina Camacho, and Japanese-Brazilian fashion designer Fernanda Yamamoto. These artists’ works are whispering to me about ways in which my fabric-like weavings might morph into 3D entities towering over space.
As for the ideas that have been roaming in my mind, I am trying to articulate my work, beyond greener practices, around ideas of shamanism in artistic practice (Edgar Morin), around how Davi Kapanawa’s Brazilian Shaman cosmogonic yanomami view of the world, Merlin Sheldrake’s enthusiasm about fungal life and the intelligence of mycelium and other systems all around us, and Isabelle Stengers animism and ideas of bridges between different areas of knowledge.