Brooklyn-based artist Teresita Fernández is well known for using unconventional materials and creating large-scale sculptures and installations that draw our attention to visual perception. In many ways, her latest exhibition at Lehmann Maupin feels like an in-depth study of the central concerns to her practice.
Personal memories, ideas, and history manifest as sculptural objects and delicately rendered drawings intently focused on exposing various perspectives on a singular view. Her installation Fata Morgana, currently on view in Madison Square Park, uses mirroring to create fascinating visual effects. Reflective discs, similar in shape to the park’s foliage, are suspended above its main pathway to create gentle canopies of light and shadow. At nearly 500 feet long, it is the park’s largest and most ambitious outdoor sculpture to date. (Her new permanent piece for the Grace Farms Foundation in New Canaan, Connecticut, “Double Glass River,” also uses mirrored surfaces to double the landscape.)
I recently met Fernández at Lehmann Maupin to talk about the new work and some of the ideas that informed it.
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Lee Ann Norman: Much of the work in this show comes from your travels to Cuba, and you worked with malachite rocks from the Democratic Republic of Congo alongside objects you constructed. How did you come to work with these materials and geographies?
Teresita Fernández: I was fascinated by this rock from the Democratic Republic of Congo because it reminded me of Viñales, Cuba. Viñales is an iconic place for Cubans, and I had been transfixed by a 1950s photograph of my mother at 10 years old standing in the valley of Viñales, with the surreal mogotes (rare, tower-like formations of limestone) in the background. This rock also reminded me of an aerial view of a landscape.
When I use the word “landscape,” I’m really referring to place-making or way-finding. For me, landscape is about the history of people in places and how we place ourselves within those spaces. This, of course, goes way beyond the idea of a framed vista in front of you, by also considering what has happened there. I’m constructing an image of a landscape (Viñales) using the real, physical components taken from another landscape. All of the materials in the piece — malachite, bronze, cement, aggregate — are literally parts of real places being used to create a new landscape. In this way the piece becomes a conglomeration of stacked landscapes, or like being in several places simultaneously. By doing this, I’m also weaving their undeniable, intertwining histories.
LAN: The wall pieces are also connected to the rocks, right?
TF: The ceramic wall pieces are tiny views taken from the inside of the malachite, which have been enlarged and made out of glazed, fired clay. Again, the clay, which is literally earth from somewhere, is being used to describe a different landscape. I’m interested in the reciprocity and connection between the intimate, the very small, and the immense, so that the biggest images in the show (the ceramic wall panels) are actually taken from the tiniest little landscapes that are invisible when you look at the outside of the rock. It creates a sense of elasticity for the viewer when you can become the size of the thing you’re looking at. It’s almost like when you look into a diorama or a dollhouse, where you adjust yourself and shrink to inhabit the thing you’re looking at. As you walk around “Viñales (Reclining Nude),” you can start to inhabit these little cave-like structures or you can pull away to see this landscape as if you were flying over it, far away. You’re constantly adjusting your place in the world this represents. It’s a much more complex understanding of earth, place, setting, and image. These Brancusi-like bases don’t really organize themselves in a logical way and then are further disrupted by the reference to the malachite as both landscape and female form. The “reclining nude” of the landscape is draped across its surface. The Viñales topography is also a very feminine form. This is the oldest part of Cuba, the part that emerges first as the island rises out of the ocean. It is a strange, otherworldly landscape, saturated with unreal greens and oranges. It almost looks like you are underwater.
LAN: I like the interactivity in the work. You’re dealing with cracks, crevices, shadows, and scale directly.
TF: Yes, and vastness too. It is implied that you’re not a passive viewer, and that the work itself, while dealing with natural beauty, is never passive. I’m always anthropomorphizing the landscape. I am interested in the idea that you are an extension of the landscape, that you are a part of it and it is a part of you. You look at landscape, but it also looks back at you. These ideas also serve as metaphors for me about the figure in the landscape, the individual in society, the intimate and the vast, the tiny and the immense.
LAN: How were you able to look at the interiors of those rocks?
TF: It’s advanced imaging technology, like a very high-end X-ray. In the ceramic wall works, I reference landscape painting with the lush use of greens and valleys and precipices, but I’m also making cinematic references. The darkness of the cave is like the darkened cinematic experience, and the luminous image breaks up the darkness. The walls have been covered with graphite (also a mined, natural material) and the rectangular screen of that image creates a luminous glow that asks you to participate in the image-making, much like a viewer sitting in a darkened theater. The cinematic is always present in my work. The surface of the panel is reflective, dynamic, flickering as your own reflection moves over its surface, catching the light and the glare.
LAN: It’s a really interesting contrast. Before I started writing about visual art, I was a musician, and I always felt a real sense of dynamism in performance. It was very obvious that I was making art with my body and that it was never the same each time I did it. I can feel this in these wall pieces. You have a real sense of being part of the work.
TF: There is this sense that when you look at something, what you’re seeing is objective, but looking is ultimately completely subjective. I’ve spoken in the past about the viewer as a reader. When you read a book, you’re constructing images as you go along, like a film in your head. Each time you view an object, you see it differently because you are different. There is a dynamic element happening in real time, so it is, in fact, more like a performance: time-based and ephemeral.
The little wall pieces [“Viñales (Cervix)”] are ink and pencil drawings I made from standing inside the elaborate cave systems in Viñales. These are images of me literally looking out from the inside of the darkened caves. I’ve manipulated the images so that the openings in the caves become like a distorted viewfinder, or lens, that changes. But that opening is also a reference to the female body, to the cervix as both entrance and exit, a threshold between darkness and image.
Right before I went to Viñales, I visited another part of Cuba called Jaruco, in the province of Mayabeque. This is where Ana Mendieta first returned to Cuba after 19 years in exile and where she created her pivotal works inside caves. I’ve always been interested in subterranean spaces, but this visit was also a homecoming for me, a way-finding. I deliberately sought to follow and honor Ana’s important work, and to reconcile not only my lived experience as a Cuban-American who grew up surrounded by the narrative of exile, but also that connection to the cave as female body. There are countless personal references for me to both Ana and to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was a dear friend, and one of the few other artists I could have that very personal conversation with about exile and a hyphenated identity.
LAN: The installation Fata Morgana at Madison Square Park is very much concerned with how we navigate space, and how we perceive. Can you talk about how the idea of way-finding comes into your installations?
TF: When we say “way-finding,” we often mean physical coordinates, but I also think of it as recognizing yourself in something outside of yourself, which is a quintessentially human experience. This universal human experience is kind of rooted in a sense of exile, of being lost as a type of injury, and of subsequently finding oneself. The works of art I seek to create serve as a catalyst for that finding of oneself. I’ve often employed reflective materials to do that. In Fata Morgana, you walk underneath a mirrored canopy, but there is a displacement of your reflection. You don’t actually see yourself, but rather the person about 20 feet away, or just glimpses of parts of yourself. Sometimes I’m manipulating the way you move through space to give you room to create those moments of pause where you are finding yourself or placing yourself in something — it’s that act of looking, of searching for where you belong, that’s timeless and that humans have always engaged in.
The work is also about how what is huge can also sometimes be invisible, hiding in plain sight, or erased. I created programming around the work with my friend Yesenia Fernandez Selier, who is a scholar of Afro-Cuban culture and a performer. She re-enacted Dia de Reyes, which in colonial times in Cuba was the only time when enslaved Africans could perform their music and dances publicly. It was a way of making public art that wasn’t just about a big shiny beautiful object, but rather about public art as democratic space. I was able to use the “object,” the sculpture, to amplify an absence and to reclaim this use of public space. In fact, the title of the piece itself, “Fata Morgana,” is a reference to a book illustrated by Wifredo Lam for André Breton. The sculpture, like Lam’s paintings, is about camouflage, reflections of figures hidden in the landscape, again, hiding in plain sight. When I activated that space with things that don’t normally have visibility, I turned the mirage into a doubling, kaleidoscopic space by making it twice as present. That’s really important to me as an artist. I want people to feel things as a lived experience. I believe that is the power of art: to create change in the individual viewer by prompting self-reflection about how we negotiate “landscapes” and move through the world, that never-ending need and desire to “place ourselves” within place.
Teresita Fernández’s exhibition at Lehmann Maupin (536 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) continues through December 31. Her exhibition in Madison Square Park (Broadway and 23rd Street, Flatiron, Manhattan), Fata Morgana, continues through January 10, 2016.
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