On an overcast Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by sleepy ambiguous warehouses and faded factories, I enter Laura A Dima’s studio, named ISO Amsterdam, on the outskirts of the city. Isolatorweg: the last stop on Metro Line 51. Here she shares a former factory floor with an array of creative professionals doing everything from product design, sculpture and ceramics, to printmaking, fashion and photography. Bright slashes of colour glow from large-scale abstract paintings on the walls and writhing metalwork installations lurch from shadows, giving the industrial setting a brooding, dreamlike ambience.
Laura is wearing a black leather jacket and striking black eyeliner that accentuates her grey-green eyes. Never in its long rusting slumber did this old canning factory dream it would become the studio of a chic, dynamic artist such as Laura. She ushers me in with a characteristically warm smile and we make our way into the spacious mechanical heart of the high-ceilinged building, passing a masked man guiding a whining electric saw through a tangle of metal framing, fat red sparks splashing onto the cold concrete floor and his tattered trainers. She leads me up a flight of stairs, passing another open studio where a tall woman in baggy blue jeans hurls scarlet paint at a massive white canvas. Then we are in Laura’s space. It must have once been a foreman’s office. It’s a capacious prefabricated room with windows that look down onto the factory floor. The man who had been sawing metal is now leaning against a pillar near the entrance, smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone. His mask dangles round his neck. Dull afternoon light from the street barely penetrates through the open roller doors where I entered a moment ago. Everything here feels somehow both open and enigmatic. The churn and glitter of myriad creative energies can be heard and glimpsed beneath the hum of lighting overhead. Laura, joining me at the window, points out a group of people setting up a photo shoot in a far corner of the open-plan building.
In the centre of Laura’s space is a table and chairs on which she has laid out fruit, fresh bread, hummus and a steaming pot of tea. In the right hand corner of the room is her work station with a laptop and various sketches pinned to the wall. But all the energy in the room is drawn magnetically to the left side where her two most recent pieces are on display: the looming dark triptych of blackish-purple dyed panels called What’s Inside Black? 3, and the fleshy forest of silicone digits known as The Finger Rub Rug.
First she talks about What’s Inside Black? 3: “Instead of painting to build something up, I wanted to see what I could create by a kind of undoing of the usual process. I used discoloration chemicals and a heat press to strip out layers of color from dyed fabric. I wanted to see what would emerge from the chaos of chemical reaction. I experimented with these Japanese-inspired panels that roll through the different patches of colour and pattern.”
Laura stops talking for a moment and gets up to turn WIB? 3 on. A little motor whirs to life and the three large panels slowly start to scroll in different directions, like tectonic plates shifting gravely in the inky darkness of the deep. Slowly a haunting image begins to emerge across the panels, a body, a face, peering out at the viewer: the ghost of the creator trapped in the pigments. This piece is fraught with tension between the rawness of the chemicals and their symmetrical containment. All of its dark, bruised hues feel like an elemental bleeding through, an eating away of chemicals. It’s destructive, and yet there is this paradoxical creation that emerges from the obliteration of material.
Laura sits back down, leaving WIB? 3 creaking away on its eternal dark cycle, the face dissolving and appearing intermittently. “I call it a performative installation. Something needs to happen, but I don’t even need to be there.”
We tuck into soft brown bread, hummus and green grapes. Laura pours out fragrant jasmine tea and talks about The Finger Rub Rug, which takes the interactive element even further, but with an aesthetic shift: “There is a cultural commonplace that art should be framed, should be precious and beyond the reach of everyday people, but I think art should exist for people’s enjoyment, and should question these old austere assumptions. My creative process always starts with the idea of movement. I say to myself, ‘I don’t know how, but I’m going to make it move’. Always. The art scene is notoriously pretentious and I wanted to make it more lively, and maybe bring in an element of eroticism. So I decided to make a wall made from the fingers of my lover because I honestly just thought it would be a very fun process”.
The Finger Rub Rug is tactile, highly intimate, and yet at the same time unashamedly open, public and playful. After feeling it, staring at it, being absorbed by its zany weirdness, we return to the lunch table and Laura tells me more about her thinking behind this extraordinary piece and its place in her upcoming solo exhibition: “The rug is made from approximately 1300 replicas of my partner’s fingers. It plays with this shift from the private, personal space, transforming it into a public object.” And isn’t that what art invariably does? It takes intimate, interior energy and drives it forth through one’s fingers, births it into an external object on the page or canvas or marble, an object whose worth and meaning ultimately resides outside of the artist’s control. The Finger Rub Rug turns the focus back on touch, the fingers getting a taste of their own medicine.
And the fingers themselves look and feel eerily real. Laura explains: “This rug is an installation with internal heating, so the fingers will be warm. I installed an electric blanket under the rug, and some parts are warmer than others.” One thinks of dead fingers, indifferent fingers, passionate fingers. Do they point accusingly? Do they stroke affectionately? Do they beckon us closer or command us to leave? Or are they emblems of reification taken to the extreme: workers reduced to “hands”, hands reduced to fingers? These are the sorts of questions The Finger Rub Rug kindles in the viewer.
Laura clears our plates away and continues talking, her eyes always calm and kind, but sharply focused: “There are four themes playing from hidden sound panels: scary, natural, erotic and playful, and the sound circulates around the rug through four speakers shifting in moods.
“And the exhibition will be a private viewing because the intimacy of the setting is very important. So each viewer will enter individually and they should not be exposed to peer pressure because when in groups, we behave like those around us. I want the viewer to experience the mixture of emotions that the interplay between sound and touch can create. So there is always going to be a gatekeeper to let people in individually. But what will happen is that as people touch it more and more during the exhibition, the paint will actually start to rub off the fingers and they will become less realistic-looking. And then this idea of degradation will start to become apparent, a new work emerging from the wreckage. I like to take materials and push them to the extreme of their limits. In What’s Inside Black? 3, the erosion of chemicals happens through contact with the fabric in a more elemental form of destruction, while in The Finger Rub Rug the degradation is through human touch.”
Laura A Dima’s art harnesses energy from both these forms of annihilation: the elemental, cyclical, cosmic entropy of natural forces, as well as the ambivalent, messy complicity of human life. But her art also contains a tangible note of joy: that there is a positive, playful, side to the vast churn of existence; art can engender the creation of new life, new possibilities, new ways of seeing and touching the world. And you can have fun doing it. In light of the current global crisis, in light of our current restrictions on physical contact, the world needs more art of this tone and calibre.
The Finger Rub Rug by Laura A Dima
Opening party: 8 May, 17:00 – 22:00
Exhibition: 9 May – 23 May
Wednesday to Saturday
14.00 – 18.00 and by appointment
With the support of the Amsterdam Fonds door de Kunst
After graduating from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in 2015, Laura A Dima has been interested in how altered spaces can manipulate bodies. Utilising the language of contemporary performance art, she develops virtual bodies and identities, reimagining figures from popular or artistic culture through design, clothes and surroundings. Fetishism is a binding concept through her work, as well as the desire to explore how emotions are transferred through “dead” matter.