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Layered Place-making: Audra Lambert in Conversation with Artist Teresita Fernandez

Portrait (2014), by Noboru Morikawa at Kyoto University of Art and Design

Layered Place-making: In Conversation with Artist Teresita Fernández 

By AUDRA LAMBERT, APR 2016

“Places and landscapes aren’t fixed, what we project on them is constantly evolving.” -Teresita Fernández

The past year has been anything but quiet for Teresita Fernández. Between her acclaimed solo exhibit with Lehmann Maupin in late 2015 and a blockbuster public art project, "Fata Morgana," on view from summer 2015 through early 2016 at Madison Square Park, a growing audience appreciates Fernández’s presence. An established conceptual artist, Fernández was recently honored by legendary nonprofit Art in General, and she is an honorary committee member for El Museo del Barrio's upcoming 2016 annual gala in New York City. I recently attended a conversation at McNally-Jackson bookstore in SoHo with Fernández, led by the New York Times Style Magazine’s Meghan O'Rourke and Gay Gassmann along with poet Matthew Zapruder, which piqued my interest and inspired me to explore Fernández’s work more in depth.

Fernández took some time to discuss the underlying themes in her artwork with particular emphasis on her affinity for working on both miniature and large-scale works, as well as her site-specific pieces which invite contemplation and self-reflexivity. She dissected the various perspectives and physical taxonomies present in her work that act as access points for discussions on various publics and the political forces that lie dormant yet unabated across the spectrum of contemporary art.

Audra Lambert: Teresita, thank you for taking time to talk today, and hi from the Whitehot team! I'd like to start by discussing your work with regard to scale. You mentioned during the discussion at McNally-Jackson that you tend to create work in both small and large-scale and I would like to hear more on why those are the avenues you continue to explore. 

Teresita Fernández: Thank you. What links very small and very vast scales is intimacy. It is probably the single most important quality that an artwork has to have for me. If the work prompts an intimacy with the viewer, this is what I'm after. As humans looking – as viewers – we become the size of the thing we're looking at. There’s an expansion and contraction in experiencing the world: you can move between things and experience them on many different levels. There’s a reciprocity between the very small and the very large.

AL: Can you talk about how you envision visitors engaging with large-scale experiences such as Fata Morgana, your recent installation at Madison Square Park in Manhattan?

TF: Large, experiential things are encountered by visitors as individuals within a public realm and understood by these publics on an intimate scale. Fata Morgana covered the whole park but viewers experienced it as individuals looking for their own reflections. The specifics of it relate to the size of their body, their eyes, and how they react, among others. All of these convene to create an experience for each viewer. 

AL: I’m curious about the influences affecting your work, as I know you’ve spent time living in Japan. As a fellow former expat in Japan, I’d like to hear how Japanese culture has had an impact on your practice and what about the culture has appealed to you.

TF: When I reflect on how living in Japan affects how I see the world, it has to do with the importance that Japanese culture places on the experience of intimacy. It often manifests in Japan with great subtlety. My work also harnesses a subtlety – you have to really look to see it, and it forces you to slow down in order to appreciate it. Oftentimes in Japanese art there is a play of light and a great reverence for darkness and shadow. In my work as well I use dark surfaces and employ one reflective element that gives importance to something. There are many translucent or transparent and reflective materials in my work that reference light and darkness, seeing and not seeing. This also references metaphorical blindness, erasure, presence, and accessibility. 

Teresita Fernández: As Above So Below / Installation view, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA / May 24, 2014 – April 5, 2015 / Photo: David Dashiell 

AL - I’m interested to see what role mythological influences play in your work: for example, you reference light and shadow. In many cultures, such as in Greek mythology with Apollo and Japanese folklore with Amaterasu, light in the form of the sun is personified. I’m curious whether mythical figures play a role in your practice, and if so I’d like to uncover what mythological referents are present in your work.

TF - I'm interested in the universal. There is light and dark – that binary is indeed present – but I defer from identifying with one particular mythology as I’m more interested in timeless images. Seeing and perception happens across cultures – and every single culture has an analogy for lightness and darkness. What we call “seeing” is that negotiation between light and dark. One only makes sense because of the other. My works often feature mined materials, such as gold and graphite,  that reference the subterranean but are also used to define the cosmos and light, as gold has been for centuries. You can trace this universal reference to light throughout cultures that have nothing to do with one another. 

AL - The sun and the cosmos compose our natural environment, and you also work often with the environment and natural objects. Can you delve into how and why you tend toward working with natural materials?

TF - My work is fundamentally conceptual so this influences my approach in using natural materials. I do use synthetic materials in my work as well, depending on what I’m creating. Regarding my interest in what I call landscapes, I’m trying to re-define the term so that in my work landscapes are about place-making and constructing the idea of place. That can be looking at place in many different ways: the history of people living in a place, the history of the physical and mineral geology of a place or an imagined landscape. This can come to mean both what’s at the bottom of the ocean and what the night sky looks like. When I make these references to the natural world it’s about how the viewer constructs a relationship to these imagined places.

I am interested in where I’m actually standing and what happened right here where I am. For my work Drawn Waters (Borrowdale), for example, I was very aware of peeling back the layers of graphite coming from its origin in the specific place of Borrowdale in rural England. Standing on that landscape gives you a very different sense of this material. I’m excavating ideas and looking at place-making as a constructive activity. Much like language, places and our associations with places and with landscape aren’t fixed: what we project on them is constantly evolving.

AL - I’m interested to know as well how you see your audience anchoring themselves in that [evolving] space. 

Teresita Fernández / Fata Morgana, 2015 / Photograph by Elisabeth Bernstein / © Teresita Fernández / Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

TF: As a viewer there is not just a sense of contemplating artworks, but of actually looking for yourself in them – a sense of self-identifying. That’s a very important moment. People look and they care about things that have to do with them. I'm interested in how I can prompt viewers to see themselves in my work. In the installation Fata Morgana, for example, the reflection above the viewer’s head was distorted with the result that if someone looked straight up she wouldn’t catch her own reflection. There was a refraction and angled displacement that occurred so that you would look up and see what was actually ten feet away. This forces a constant searching for oneself in that surface. That moment of self-identifying is a primal urge – an instinct we have to see ourselves in things that are not us.

I see this as also tying into the role of public art as being about democratic spaces and the ideas of "landscape." This invites a question about what is democratic, or what is a democratic way of looking. It is mutable because "the public" is always shifting. A large part of any public is also invisible, or unaccounted for, or simply erased. We can get a sense of that from the current rhetoric in American politics today. Scale or presence in numbers is not necessarily what creates visibility, and Fata Morgana was precisely about that. It had a strong sociopolitical subtext as something huge hiding in plain sight – overlooked. The intimate part involves that moment of identifying yourself within the context of that larger landscape. This becomes a metaphor for the individual in society: the internal, contemplative individual within a vast landscape made of many people and many "publics" that sometimes never intersect.

AL: I can sense in your work a very holistic approach, incorporating art, politics, and even literature. I’d like to know what literary references you see playing an influence on your work: the New York Times Style Magazine chose you as an artist for their “A Picture and a Poem” series uniting art and poetry, so I’m curious as to what literary traditions interest you.

TF: I would say that in my work there are references to what we consider American ideas of the individual in society which arise from American transcendentalism. Incidentally, these ideas that we think of as coming from "American literature" really come from other literary traditions or political systems. Notions of the individual in society also stem from quintessential approaches the Transcendentalists were learning from the earliest translations of ancient Buddhist and Islamic texts and to ancient Eastern philosophical thought. These concepts come from much longer traditions that observe the individual moving through a much larger landscape. In Chinese landscapes, for example, the individual is fused, integrated into a vast, immersive environment. This functions very differently from the idea of landscape in Western culture where landscape is presented as being directly in front of out eyes and which emphasizes viewers as separate from places. 

AL: Bringing us back again to the influence of both Chinese and Japanese aesthetics on your work. In encountering "Fata Morgana," for example, the notion of borrowed perspective in Japanese landscape gardens comes to mind.

Teresita Fernández, 2015 / Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, New York / November 6, 2015 - January 2, 2016 / Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein / Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong 

TF: Traditional Japanese gardening techniques have certainly influenced the evolution of my work has evolved, particularly my experiences visiting gardens in Kyoto. I am interested in the ways in which traditional gardening techniques incorporate close scenic elements, and how the far-off vista is considered in tandem with close objects encountered step by step on the garden path. I’m equally interested in the idea that you are constantly creating what you see as you move through a space – the view is constantly shifting and is not fixed, prompting a constant re-assessment of what is being looked at. This quality is present in my art as well – this sense that, as you are immersed in a space, the distinction between where you end and where the art begins becomes blurry in a similar way. 

AL: Speaking of Kyoto, you recently participated in a collaborative art project there as well.

TF: Yes, I collaborated with Hosoo on my art installation Nishijin Sky. This project reverberates with my interest in lightness and darkness. In Kyoto and across Japan, structures have traditionally had dark interiors, so gold leaf lacquer was used to help to illuminate whole rooms. Gold was part of my project in Kyoto, and this once again plays into the idea of extremes and how the darkness gives importance to the one small thing in the room that catches light. Hosoo is a family of textile artisans that has existed since the 1600s and originally created woven pieces worn by samurai. I worked with a 13th generation Hosoo member who was my age and it was a very interesting process. The collaboration entailed a learning process on both sides: they exposed me to traditional weaving techniques and I exposed them to contemporary art as a way to expand their process. Together we made nocturnal scenes with black silk and gold threads. As viewers encountered this work in a dark interior, the installation held a cinematic quality that has a lot to do with how our eyes function in relation to cinematic convention. This narrative sequence of memory that is ingrained in how we think, dream and remember was present within the work. The piece was literally suspended, with golden fibers floating in space. Many parts were transparent, so when walking around the piece, one becomes a part of the image as well as your silhouette becomes incorporated into it.

Teresita Fernández / Double Glass River, 2015 / (installation view from the SANAA-designed River Building at Grace Farms) / Commissioned by Grace Farms Foundation, New Canaan: © / Iwan Baan / Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong 

AL: In this case, do you see the viewer re-framing where they are and their point of view in terms of optics in relation to the work in physical space?

TF: Not so much in terms of the optical encounter; I'm asking the viewer emotionally to reposition and redefine themselves in relation to an immersive artwork. It becomes a way of questioning who you are and what you mean in that space.

"Optics" somehow sounds way too scientific – it’s actually a much more personal; experience. The word "perception" really doesn't mean much and ignores the emotional aspect of looking. Looking is, in fact, a very emotional experience. When the viewer is looking, she finds a connection between herself and the work I create as an artist. This work is an extension of the viewer much like those human figures in a Chinese landscape painting. Instead of seeing yourself as an objective thing separate from the artwork, you have to negotiate yourself as a part of the work: you are implied in it, not a witness to it. WH 

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is an arts writer and independent curator pursuing an M.A., Modern/Contemporary Art History at City College of New York - CUNY. Audra has curated interdisciplinary exhibits involving painting, performance, new media and installation art in New York City. She previously served as Project Coordinator for More Art, a socially engaged nonprofit based in NYC, and she has contributed to Art Nerd NY, Artefuse, and Examiner.com, among others.

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