Models in Miami art exhibit claim they were pressured into sexual act

Laura Lima's "The Inverse."
Laura Lima's "The Inverse." cjuste@miamiherald.com

Brazilian artist Laura Lima is known for shocking audiences with the use of naked bodies in her performance art pieces, but two women who answered a casting call for Lima’s current Miami installation claim the artist went too far.

They say they felt pressured to sexually violate themselves with a rope as part of the performance.

Lima’s exhibition, The Inverse, is on display through October at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Miami’s Design District. The artist and the ICA dispute the women’s claims.

The art installation at the center of the dispute is a large nylon rope sculpture that wraps around the gallery. The end of the rope winds up in a semicircular cutout in the wall with the models’ legs partially visible, sticking out into the gallery.

The participants, wearing dresses designed by Lima, are paid $15 an hour to lie on the floor with their legs through the cutout, with the end of the rope positioned between their legs.

The official definition of the installation reads: “The participant’s body achieves uncanny abstraction, presence and suspense.” The casting call said the “only requirement is that [participants] remain relaxed over the course of a four-hour period and engage passively with the sculpture, which will be attached to them, at their comfort.” All participants signed a contract.

According to the Miami New Times, 24-year-old local artist Kayla Delacerda and another young woman, who asked not to be named, say they felt they were expected to penetrate themselves with the rope. They pointed out that condoms and lubricant jelly were made available. Delacerda said in the interview that she felt misled and refused to participate, but the other woman says she did on opening night June 3 and suffered emotional trauma.

According to the New Times, the unnamed woman said, “I thought it would be an honor to participate in the exhibit with the ICA and that I’d be OK. But it doesn’t matter how credible a place or person is; as a woman, you’re always susceptible to this kind of danger.”

ICA Director Ellen Salpeter defended the exhibit. She said in a statement to the Miami Herald: “ICA Miami is committed to providing an open platform for innovative and experimental contemporary art and artistic discourse. The Inverse is a thought-provoking piece of sculpture and performance that calls into question the relationship between art and the body.”

According to Salpeter, Lima’s practice, and The Inverse in particular, belongs to a history of seminal art works — including those by Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci — in which performers make decisions about how to represent the body in public.

She said the unnamed performer making the claim was fully aware of the concept behind the work and was never under obligation to do anything she was uncomfortable doing, as laid out in her written contract and explained by the artist and representatives of ICA in person.

Salpeter added: “Museum staff checked in with her on multiple occasions during the opening night performance, as well as during three subsequent performances in which she took part, and no concerns were ever raised.”

Lima responded to the New Times article with this statement: “Given the clear and open discussion we had, which I see as being a fundamental dimension of the final work itself, I was surprised to hear of this complaint. [The anonymous woman who complained] was very enthusiastic and, in her words, ‘committed to the piece.’ 

Lima has shown at museums internationally for more than a decade; her work is honored with two exhaustive catalogs. She recently presented works at the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid; the Serpentine, London; Beyeler Foundation, Basel; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston and Art Basel Unlimited 2016.