Teresita Fernández's Golden Age
ART | APR 2015 | BY DAVID ADJAYE
Architect David Adjaye and Teresita Fernández sit down to discuss the artist’s largest public project to date, Fata Morgana, a golden canopy hovering above Madison Square Park.
David Adjaye: What is Fata Morgana? What is the significance of the name?
Teresita Fernández: A Fata Morgana is a type of superior mirage that occurs in nature and that appears to hover just above the horizon. I was interested in this idea of distortion on a grand scale and how I could make a sculpture that optically shifts our expectations of this big, six-acre urban site. Distorting the landscape seems to me like the ultimate visual abstraction… ambitious in a sort of ridiculous, but enthralling way.
My title is also a reference to a book of the same name that the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam illustrated in the 1940s. As a Cuban-American kid I grew up knowing who Lam was from a very early age. I’ve always loved how Lam’s abstractions seem to be hiding images in plain sight, this kind of camouflaging of figures in the landscape. I liked the connection it had to my ideas for the piece and the title kind of stuck and had a personal resonance for me.
DA: Brilliant. I love what you said about camouflage and the landscape, which is kind of a military term. Most people want their art to be present in the landscape, so what you said is actually very counter-intuitive.
TF: Places, cities, landscapes are not just about what you see but also about what you don’t see. In my work, I’ve always been very interested in this idea of blindness—of something hiding in plain sight.
TF: Yes, of how something can, for example be large in scale, in numbers, but disappear or become hidden and not visible. I was fascinated with the idea of making a monumental sculpture that could essentially dissolve and disappear and then later reappear, like a mirage. Camouflage is essentially a kind of blindness. If you think of blindness as just degrees of “not seeing”—like shrouding, squinting, peeking, glimpsing—these too are all a kind of minute “blindness.”
Sometimes you have to dim something in order to amplify it and really see it. I’m playing with a lot of those sensibilities in my work; the idea of camouflage is so seductive because it’s really this notion that something is palpably present but not accessible to the human eye—you feel it but you don’t see it. With Fata Morgana it was about putting this huge object in the park and watching it continuously appear and recede. The idea is that the piece doesn’t end at its measurable, physical edges but that it seeps into the city. I think I’m always trying to make physical sculptures that behave like cinematic dissolves.
DA: It seems monumental, but it’s interesting because when you talk about it you talk about it from the experience of park visitors. I would imagine it’s probably super visible from all the buildings around in this urban context as well. It seems it has an invisibility at the ground-plane, but a super-visibility from the more panoptic view from a Manhattan tower or skyscraper. Did you design it ‘in plan’ or did you design it as the experience?
TF: I designed it primarily as an experience for the ambulatory viewer, for people on the move. I wanted to focus on the arteries of the park, on access and interaction… The walking paths that define the park were, for me, like a little microcosm of the larger urban circulatory system of NYC that it nests within. Fata Morgana was conceived as a real-time portrait of how people move through and use the park, a mirror to urban activity. The walkways are covered with a canopy of hundreds of golden, mirror-polished reflective discs that reflect everything and everyone who passes underneath them. I wanted the piece to be animated, charged, active—not just while one is underneath it but from a distance as well. In this way, people are placed in the simultaneous, overlapping roles of both spectator and participant, looking and moving intertwined.
DA: But also from above, Teresita, no?
TF: The first thing I did for this project was to go to the top of all the buildings that face the park. These were, at one point, the tallest buildings in the city; this was Uptown before skyscrapers existed in Midtown! The Flatiron Building, originally the Fuller Building, was a groundbreaking skyscraper when it was completed in 1902. It was one of the tallest buildings in the city and one of only two skyscrapers north of 14th Street. I love that cities are living, breathing things. I kept thinking of our history of constantly looking up in New York. Fata Morgana hovers precisely on that plane above people’s heads; it’s as though the connection of the grounded, walking park visitor is also synchronized and correlating to what is aerial, above. In fact, if you look at images of real Fata Morgana in nature, they appear exactly like that, as these kind of horizontal bands of images that stack up on top of one another vertically.
DA: Beautiful. It’s really one of the first three-dimensional urban squares. It moves you from the human plane to a multiple perspective moment, which leads me to the beautiful thing that I know is so important in your work, this question of light. Is the perception of light here related to the seasons? Is it about a kind of continual ritual?
TF: It’s interesting that you use the word “ritual,” because I kept thinking of Fata Morgana not at all as an object but as a kind of procession, this urban performance of routine and commute set into motion by park visitors. All of my work really deals with that idea of light as something that’s active—as something that’s defined, in fact, by darkness. We are conditioned to think that light and dark are opposites, but the way we experience the world is nothing like that. Darkness really defines light, and vice versa. What we perceive isn’t extremes of light and dark but rather the charged saccadic efforts that happens in between; a kind of vibrating between the two, which creates this nuanced experience.
DA: So what do you mean specifically when you use the word “landscape”?
TF: “Landscape” is a word that often is used in a very sloppy, lazy way. We tend to think of landscape to mean whatever is outdoors and in front of our eyes. Most of those narrow ideas about landscape, or light, or light in the landscape come almost exclusively from Western European painting traditions, in this very limited way. And, I think that when you’re talking about light in a sculptural way or in an architectural way, it really forces you to negotiate light and place it on very different terms. When I talk about light in my work, there’s a specific material reference as well. Materials themselves have a very loaded history and I often choose materials that are mined: gold, graphite, pyrite, iron-ore. I am using those materials to create images that are ephemeral and based on depictions of light. So, there’s this connection between the subterranean and the cosmos.
DA: Recently I learned that gold is one of the few materials that actually comes from the stars. It’s an asteroid that hits specific parts of our planet and just folds into the geology. I think it’s interesting that you’re fascinated by this celestial material. Gold is revered as a luxury, but really its original reverence is as a divine material. I’m fascinated by the sprinkling of gold amongst the every day. And to talk about your social ideas about materials and people—there’s something profound in that, almost like a coronation. It seems that you’re somehow celebrating the everyday.
TF: That is at the very heart of everything I have been making for so many years, although it’s often overlooked when my work is read only formally. They are profound notions. I work with materials because materials are the history of people. Land, and by default, landscape, are the story of people.
I spent a year researching over 15,000 gold objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection that had never been on view. My use of material is really a very subtle way of referring to deeper ideas about people and places. Gold has always been universally associated with the sun. I’ve often made pieces that deal with that connection between the subterranean (mined materials) and the cosmos. And I’m fascinated by that human narrative that attaches earthly metals to heavenly counterparts. The sky being that place that human beings have always looked for coordinates and orientation—a way of locating oneself in the world.
DA Beautiful. What about at the show that you did at Mass MoCA, what other materials are you using to play with that notion of light and of materials carrying a history?
TF: Everything in that show was made of black and gold; again, it was about light and darkness defining one other. I learned how to see this phenomenon most in Japan, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 20 years. There’s this wonderful thing that happens in those dark, traditional Japanese interiors where you’ll be in a completely darkened space, and there will be one tiny golden object—a small bowl, or a delicate piece of lacquerware and it will illuminate the entire room. It’s like the visual equivalent of sound going through a speaker. By putting this huge sculpture in the middle of Manhattan, Fata Morgana becomes a way of amplifying the light in the city in a vey similar way.
DA: That’s beautiful. I heard someone refer to you as a ‘landscape sculptor’ which is sort of a very strange term. What does that really mean?
TF: It’s hard to come up with a term that describes what I’m really trying to do, which is conceptual, but also deals with materiality, cultural and historical references and ephemeral image-making. I’m creating conceptual landscapes with the raw material from a real landscape; the visual idea of landscape completely fused with the physical materiality of land itself. And that’s different than ’70s land-art, which actually shapes the land, and it’s different than landscape painting, which focuses on sort of this picturesque image, and it’s different than landscape architecture, which deals more with design elements. But, if you take aspects of all of those disciplines and you merge them, it becomes a kind of landscape sculpture. I like the term, too, because often sculpture seems to be the orphan of the visual world, it doesn’t get the attention of painting. It doesn’t have the scale of architecture. It exists in a weird place that’s slow, and I’ve always been attracted to that. I like the term ‘slow sculpture’ as something that is not exactly the land growing, not exactly a still image, not exactly a designed form but really something that exists at the unlikely intersection of all of those things.
DA: Your description brings me to another question. I’ve always been curious whether your work is specific or universal.
TF: Both. In fact, it always has to be both. The first thing I do when I start a new work is ask the very simple question, ‘Where am I?’ I take that question very seriously. So, in a way I start excavating and researching where I am historically, economically, socially, geographically, visually, emotionally, physically—where exactly is this site located? Not just physically, but in people’s imaginations and in history and in the entire context of place. For me, art functions as this kind of way-finding. As human beings, we have always been trying to find our coordinates. This is the reason why we have always looked up at the night sky for orientation, for navigation. That idea of finding our coordinates, not just literally, but as a means of finding one’s place within all these layers of information that we’re bombarded with in the world is what art is really about. Works of art, or literature or architecture, or mythology—they guide us. And we somehow know when we find ourselves. We feel right and we recognize locations or spatial situations that give us that sense of familiarity, that touchstone of belonging to a place, or a landscape.