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Interview with Claudia Fernández


21 December 2020
This month's topic: Material Consciousness

Interview with Claudia Fernández

Hailing from an artistic family, Claudia Fernández sees herself as a self-taught artist who learn art from his family, although she also studied at the Instituto Cultural Cabañas in Guadalajara, and at the National School of Plastic Arts, UNAM. Her work is developed in a wide array of forms, ranging from painting, to installation, video and photography, as well as community and educational projects, in which she proposes social participation models and art. The latter tend to be strategies connecting art with social and nature themes or debates.

Her work has been shown in different exhibitions, in Mexico as well as at international level, in spaces such as Museo Tamayo (Mexico City), Museo de Arte de Zapopan (Guadalajara, Mexico), MNCARS (Madrid), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Casa Barragán (Mexico City), ICA (Boston), Hammer Museum (Los Ángeles), Cabaret Voltaire (Zurich) and the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), among others.

ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Claudia, the first time I came into contact with your work was in 2018 at the exhibition Ceremonia Ultramarina (Overseas Ceremony), which you organised at the Travesía Cuatro gallery in Madrid, and in 2019 we worked together on Insistir en lo mismo.  Volver sobre una presencia sugerida, (Insisting upon the same. Going back to a hinted presence), a project I curated for the Espai d’Art Contemporani de Castelló. Before we start with a number of more specific questions, I’d like to know which are your interests and what place has in them your work as an artist.

CLAUDIA FERNÁNDEZ | I believe in art’s freedom, that is the only place where I believe we are truly free. I also understand that artists shouldn’t only create objects, but be self-reliant to do whatever they want, as long as they take place within aesthetics, concept and maybe narrative. For that reason, I always set about projects in which art and its context are intertwined, but its result doesn’t always take the form of an object I also believe there already exist too many objects in the world, and there are other necessities we can transfer into art, and address them from the endeavour of artists, curators or other individuals, as well as institutions such as museums or galleries, etc.

For these reasons I believe I am an artist with a number of interests which result in a body of work circulating along two paths. On one side there are those social and environmental projects which I address from my condition of artist, and from that context. Apart from that, I also work as an artist in more usual formats. I could mention some photographic series such as Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México (Mexico Valley Metropolitan Area), an aesthetic survey of hybrid architecture in Mexico, which is a very eclectic phenomenon, blending different styles and reflecting the socioeconomic landscape of each area in which this type of constructions are built. Later on, between 1997 and 2000, I worked continuing this line in a series called La belleza oculta en la propiedad ajena(Hidden beauty in strangers’ property), which advanced a kind of archaeology study of styles and aesthetic tastes of people, who act as architects of those constructions and create in so doing a new style. Here in Mexico there are no such architectural rules as in other countries in which size and characteristics of each element, implying buildings turn out something between horrible and beautiful, but it’s obviously a very interesting thing. These series are thought out from a non-uniformised concept of beauty, which responds exclusively to the taste of each construction’s owners, as well as to financial constraints. Both series have been exhibited in many places, since they reflect somehow many of the trademarks of this society, Mexican and other countries’, especially in Latin America, where we have more leeway in the face of that absence of legislation.

Certain folk-related aspects have always been present in different ways in my oeuvre. The installation named Del alimento (On food), drew for instance from the picture of the universe which emerges in a pewter spoon, one of those which are coated in ceramic with a dotted finish and which in Mexico belongs to everyday life and folk culture. From then I began to work with everyday objects, standardising them with a layer of paint, flat a first, then dotted which mimicked that spoon.  Back those two paths along which my endeavour as an artist moves, you’re ultimately the same person but you carry out different activities through that medium.

Art has historically implied a reflection of reality, but I don’t think that is demonstrated as much these days. I feel that we have been swallowed up by the maelstrom of commerciality, essential as it may be, as all of us ultimately rely on sales, but there are also several other problems in the presence of which art is kind of falling short. I don’t mean to say that an artist should work on social projects solely, but I consider individualities have been prioritised, and most people have no interest in interacting with communities or with political and environmental problems around them. Art has always served a purpose, but in my perception it has become a very shallow thing in many cases and, seen from the current situation, we shouldn’t forget reality is able to devour us really easily.

Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México

ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | I’m aware that your work, due to an influence stemming from your family background is to be understood in the context of an interest in – I’m quoting you here – community and educational projects in which models of social participation and art are proposed. I’m speaking particularly of an experience such as Proyecto Meteoro (Project Meteor), which intended to educate a broad community and children and young people in the historical centre of Mexico City in trades. How do you come up with those projects and what has their development been like? 
CLAUDIA FERNÁNDEZ | The way I see it there are social and environmental practices which can be developed from art, which attack existing problems thourhg a sui generis methodology, an effective and serious one, of course, but departing from different viewpoints and strategies. I have used art as strategy, because proposals are made between the lines, from subjectivity, and that is really beguiling to a particular audience. However, to my mind, that compels you not to act carelessly, that is why dependability is so crucial when you are working in this kind of projects. You must commit yourself to it, the current situation requires that, and art has been historically characterised by its not taking a stance. Otherwise, all of this would amount to disrespect.
Proyecto Meteoro was a trade school for street children, which eventually became an art school. It revolved around a learning model where the rate of young people with addictions and illnesses or disabilities that we took out of the street turned out very impressive. It could be said that around a third of them managed to leave the streets and many people have asked us how we made it. That was really thanks to the appeal of colour and shape, given that those children were initially reticent to the notion of a school. They wanted to be free at all times, and of course they were not willing to have you telling them that smelling glue, for instance, was harmful. In any case, we did some really interesting things in collaboration with other artists and designers. That lasted ten years and it needed much patience, of course, but the goal was at all times to bring about changes in those people’s reality. There we worked using quality raw materials. It wasn’t about occupying them with cheap materials, on the contrary, we put at their hands Czech glass beads to manufacture necklaces. We gave them money and, yes, we also used trash, but collaborating with a designer we made perfect lamps with. We printed with screen, or also a collection called “Cosas de casa por gente sin casa” (“Things from home by homeless people), which made it clear that those objects for the home had been made by people living in the street. We also made fashion designs in collaboration with several top-tier designers, and we arranged a big show with the results. The benefits were used to solve health problems such as addiction treatments, unwanted pregnancies, accidents, but also internships were created, infrastructures were built and many efforts were devoted to creating some security of sorts, as we operated in parts ot town were the police wasn’t often to be found. We tried to dignify those places, to create sanitation habits, both personal and in public spaces, and instil some dignity and self-esteem in those people, so that life there wouldn’t be so extreme. 
That project was developed by artists, not from psychology, sociology or from initiatives related to detoxication programs. However, the results found acclaim in those sectors and collaborations ensued. Therefore, I feel that art can be an end in itself, but it can also be a means, and the results are undeniable. Art can modify very difficult situations or contexts.

Another initiative was called Proyecto Residual, in which we crafted recycling units from the parquet of a house. That was another instance of a project which could have been overtaken by a town council, or some ecologist collective, which would have relied on more information than I did, but I feel that aesthetics, happening, and everything you can trigger through art produced a really powerful result in the neighbourhood where it took place.

Proyecto Meteoro – Ciudad de México (2002-2009)

Proyecto Residual – Ciudad de México (2010-2011)

ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Returning to Ceremonia Ultramarina, that exhibition came one year after Ceremonia, a large exhibition that the Museo Tamayo dedicated to your work assembling Mexican craft pieces you had been collecting since the 90s Can we talk about what that collection of pieces consisted of and how did that project unfold?
CLAUDIA FERNÁNDEZ | Ceremonia is a project I conducted along with curator Daniela Pérez, and which was proposed as a survey in the shape of a number of trips I had been taking throughout the country. Limiting its scope to Mexico was done for practical reasons, in order to narrow my work space down, but it’s in fact a problem concerning nowadays the entire world. The question is whether folk art, or hand crafts, are being disregarded in general, or if they are being assimilated by big brands which turn it into luxury objects the significant price of which I’m not sure is fairly paid to those communities in India or Taiwan, although I doubt it, of course. What is certainly clear to me is that in no case those artisan products are appreciated for what they represent. Instead industrially made products are as a rule more valued.
Ceremonia was therefore an exhibition not so much around the work of an artist but around the search which emanated from that preoccupation and that, working with Daniela Pérez, took that artist’s vision and her lines of research in order to shape it. The only setback was that Daniela left Tamayo a couple of months before the opening, and as a result, the exhibition didn’t have a curatorial return which would explain the project. It was simply accompanied by an explanatory note which barely looked into its nature, and I think a big number of visitors missed a wider reflection as well as the publication they had foreseen, which would contain photographs of all those pieces close to disappearance I think that is a very interesting part, given that in lockstep to the extinction of different natural species, there is also that of traditional objects, crafted by hand.  When the last of these old craftspeople dies, that object made by them, as custodians of the trade which had existed for hundreds of years, will disappear.
Even so, in spite of some setbacks, I am very pleased with the result and visitors in general really enjoyed it. I would have simply liked to complete it with that text and that publication in order to explain why an artist would choose to bring folk art to a contemporary art museum. 


Ceremonia – Museo Tamayo,  Ciudad de México (2017)

ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Ceremonia Ultramarina reminded me all of a sudden exercises such as Teresa Lanceta’s, whose exhibitions often revolve around pieces by third parties, but also in the way of exhibiting, it made me think among others about Lina Bo Dardi and her exhibitions A mão do pobo brasileiro or Nordeste , among them; as well as Alberto Sánchez’s work organising shows of folk art for the Spanish Republic Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1937. I’d like to know when did you start to become interest in that kind of manifestations and in which instant that change took place which took you to assimilate such collections as part of your work as an artist. Where is the boundary between material and conceptual authorship in each production?
CLAUDIA FERNÁNDEZ | At Ceremonia we made all credits of craftsmen and craftswomen public. We indicated the name, the workshop, its geographic location and the date. In arts those workers tend to be used to solve something which formally escapes most artists. My problem – I don’t know if this is a problem or merit – is that I don’t think of this as an artist, but I just think of myself doing what I enjoy, what I have done since I was a child. I don’t place limits on myself at those levels, and that must be the reason why I clash with the art world. I feel I’m doing just what I want and that I simply compel myself to do it right, without that many labels.
On the other hand, I did effectively learn a number of art techniques, but in my career I have focused on making projects which are of personal interest to me. Obviously, the world keeps guiding you and you often follow the same patterns as everybody else, but as it turns out I liked to do the kind of stuff that is somehow ground-breaking, and, yeah, I feel they need to be explained, even if not too much. Ceremonia enjoyed enormous success, I received many comments, and from then on, there appeared a number of trends in folk arts design and a few projects with that theme at their centre in the city. I even believe that it’s become a popular topic, something that makes me very pleased because I see the role of art as provocation, of the artist as agitator, and of the museum as a place where things can get shaken up can lead to results. When that is not the case, everything becomes really dull.

Ceremonia – Museo Tamayo, Ciudad de Méixco (2017)

ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Something which amazes me when I look at those installations, in which you set out a vast number of pieces that anyone could describe as identical, is that possibility you offer the audience to understand what there is of ‘different’ in the ‘same’. The artist Fernando García-Dory says in the text he produced for your exhibition in Madrid: A collection gets started with Claudia arranging to get an early car to take her in pursuit of clay pieces by a lady in particular living in a community more than four hours away from the judicial district capital. Can we talk about those trips, about the importance of craftswomen in the whole process and about the concepts of unique piece and repetition to deal with?
CLAUDIA FERNÁNDEZ | Yes, Fernando and I are very good friends and we have many common interests. He completely understood the whole thing. I remember that, since my childhood, family trips meant going to remote places looking for craftspeople, because I learnt they needed to be supported. We travelled through dirt tracks for hours in order to visit them.
I often feel that art is a particularly conservative milieu, which has remained stuck in that: object, purchase, exhibition, catalogue, the cocktail… and it’s always exactly the same. There are many museums that had a dead feel to me, which need to change strategy, and I understand that art collecting must help to render those changes possible which the art, as a modifier of reality, can address. Collectors can broaden their field of activity and not just purchase objects, but be a participant and support projects made in different communities financially. So they can say in the future: I changed that river’s destination, or I changed the luck of those craftspeople and that popular expertise which was about to become extinct. Those are new paths for art which are perfectly legitimate and which eventually resonate. For instance: an experience with Proyecto Meteoro was shown at the Serpentine, at the program Creative Time of Basel Miami, or at Tamayo, among other places. However, I must be very clear that many art authorities exhibited it in the same way a sculpture is exhibited. 

ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Finally, not before thanking you for your words, I would like to ask you what do you intuit as to the survival in the short and long run of the artisanal work modalities and in what will their activities look like. 

CLAUDIA FERNÁNDEZ | First of all, referring to the research made for the Ceremonia project, is that young people don’t want to maintain that kind of activities, and they prefer to move into town, and work in a cab, in data entry, at a greengrocer’s, but by no means they consider becoming craftspeople. I asked myself then why that was the case, and my first conclusion had to do with globalisation, with the advent of the internet and devices such as computers or mobile phones, receivers of a large amount of information where, for all that, folk arts have no place. As a result, those people end up wishing to emulate other economic and aesthetic models and ways of life, in which their communities are not represented, nor are – of course – manual arts of folk arts. If you think about it, with some exceptions to artisanal fabrics or isolated objects, that sort of practices are virtually missing on a mobile phone.
On the other hand, that activity, maybe because of the influence of other models, is associated by them with poverty. In a globalised system, the trend is that we all should have everything, and feeling to be lagging behind to such extent, when their poor social class condition becomes evident, they try to access the contemporary age fleeing what appears to be the reason for their disadvantage.
With regard to the artisanal production that still subsists, there are cases in which designers take a folk garment – some of them plagiarise it directly -, one that somehow tells the story of a transmitted trade, and they suddenly use it for tablecloths or cushions. They turn traditional objects, or objects intended for a ritual, into ornamental objects they can sell. In a way that is OK, in the sense they offer those communities an income stream, but the problem is that when many of those designers visit those workshops and they commission a huge amount of cushions, within two years, something not created to that end falls out of fashion, and those designers will be gone. In the end, they have managed to make those craftspeople despised for hogging the production and handling a great deal of money. But they have to subsist with the rejection of their community and face that, in many cases, that object will be out of stock.
To answer your question, I think that is a matter that deserves to be reconsidered, and we must force ourselves to be more responsible in regard to continuity in time of the objects one works with, because producing only under fashion requirements will only lead to problems for those communities, usually indigenous and living far away, among whom poverty levels are high. We must take that responsibility, principally when talking about steep social differences such as those.

Ceremonia Ultramarina – Galería Travesía Cuatro, Madrid (2018)

Ángel Calvo Ulloa was born in a very small place full of vile characters. In the faculty where he studied nobody ever talked to him about criticism or curating, so now he dedicates his time to reading, writing and every now and again doing the odd exhibition. He loves travelling and feeling very small in a large city. He also loves going back home and once again hating this tiny place.

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