Stephen Horne: writing on art

Contemporary Art

The Artistic Momentary: (Michael Fernandes at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia) 2004

For the weekend I’m ensconced in a friend’s oceanside cottage just around the corner from the studio of Michael Fernandes.  I say studio but really, on looking inside the huge former fish drying shed one realizes there is very little working space.  What does exist is a vast collection of “useful” detritus in a state of near complete disorder.  The place is packed with stuff.  But then, there is also the record collection, hundreds and thousands of vinyl LPs, almost entirely jazz and caribbean music. What’s he doing with all this stuff, this museum of recorded music?  I would say though, that this is a studio, his studio, that this is in some roundabout way, where he’s coming from, where his work is unfolding.  

 What we see in this studio places Fernandes squarely within the assemblage tradition; in this studio what we’re looking at is the fertile ground of a musical bricoleur.  All this stuff, all these unnameable throwaways, it’s all connected; each article has a place and a story the threads of which will take us outside the studio us right into the street, the urban neighborhood, the barrio and the street market.  The street market, that absolute antithesis of the uptight wasp world, a place where rythmn binds the people to the action and the action to a world of intensely human community with all its complexities, out in the open under the sun.

Here in the street market, musicality rules the press of bodies and voices amid the friction of merchandise and stories exchanged. And if we can be alert enough, observant enough, we may see the intensity of those ordinary communications by which life is transacted here, right where it appears that nothing is going on.  This is a world in its happening.  And then, around the edges, quiet spaces where one can rest or look after those subtler conversations or transactions.

And we can find those quieter spaces, memory spaces, in this exhibition which presents several older works  of Fernandes’ alongside a group of new pieces, primarily video and audio works.  In a really superb work from 1984, Growing Up Strong (1984) a large bamboo trunk leans against the wall and forms a sort of  “body.” Severed from its roots,  its earth, and shipped abroad as an exotic but useful commodity. Fernandes has re-attached this bamboo to a place, a time, a resonant elsewhere in memory; childhood island.

Where bamboo proliferates, in places such as Fernandes’ native Trinidad, it often forms the equipment of everyday life (housing, tools, furniture). Although bamboo in the forest creaks, rustles and cracks, this bamboo in the gallery speaks with the aid of recorded audio tape. Propped in a corner with a photograph this bamboo is about the height of a person with a title painted low on the wall, down where bamboo’s roots would have been. A rectangle of transparent green acetate covers and “frames” a photograph of a young child of indeterminate gender standing in a “low rent” residential backyard. The green of the acetate covers not only the image itself but the wide border of the print. A tape deck is simply and obviously placed on a shelf at about waist height, no attempt having been made to tidy up the work by placing this very ordinary piece of equipment out of sight. The sound is held within the trunk (body) of the bamboo by a kitchen towel stuffed in the upper opening of the bamboo. To listen to the recording the viewer must place his or her head closely against the bamboo. A deep male voice with a calypso accent rhythmically recites:

a big car like Mum tall like Mum run fast like Mum, a big job like Mum, , strong like Mum, feet like Mum, engineer like Mum, stubborn like Mum, careful like Mum, honest like Mum, independent like Mum, muscles like Mum, tough like Mum, healthy like Mum, cook like Mum, happy like Mum just like Mum, etc.

In this exhibition are recent works such as the audio stairway installation in which someone calls, psst, want to buy a monkey? Several audio works are tucked into the building’s in-between places. In the elevator, 30’s Trinidad calypso star Lord Invader sings, in the cloak room Birds of Prey, inserts the music of songbirds into the vestibule, and in the washroom we might notice the packages of  VIP hand soap, signed by “Jack and Diane.”

This exhibition presents a group of works which, taken together, present an unstable role for memory through its undermining by seemingly ridiculous lapses, gaps or insertions.  I would mention a few other artists such as Jimmie Durham, David Medalla or David Hammon for whom these concerns are central, and in whose works the two practices are linked, memories working to claim place, an uncompromising approach to belonging, while the on the other hand a sense of the ridiculous works to deflate any pretentions to authoritative language or knowledge, on the part of either the artist or the audience, a process in which “seriousness’ is rewritten in the artist’s favour.

Several video projection works, including Lift, Wound, UFO, Carlos Superstar, and Motorcyclist/Pedestrian are presented on three walls of a single large space.  These are silent videos in which we are left to guess at the dialogue. For example, in Wound, Fernandes, driving a car, spots two young women on the sidewalk and pulls over while winding open the passenger side window.  One woman approaches close to the window pulling her shirt up to point emphatically at her waist, obviously making a claim.  There is no apparent problem, however after gesturing at her this point on her body, she swings around to point with her whole arm while the camera follows to catch a man in the doorway of a house across the street.  He contorts himself, laughing.  End.  Running time, a few minutes.  The tape’s contrivance is so obvious, its absence of dialogue so unimportant.  All that counts is the ridiculousness of the presentation of such a performance as an artwork.  We can only laugh at the work’s abundant failure to convince.  And yet.

Is what we’re seeing here an artist doing his best to make us feel that thing we might call “being an artist” by staging it in such bald manner?  How about the projected video Lift where two men ask a third to help lift the side of a truck, an impossibly heavy truck.  Or Motorcycle/Pedestrian, where we are kept watching a street intersection with traffic coming and going.  Nothing interesting happens, unless a women greeting a motorcyclist by kissing him on the visor is interesting.  Of course art going audiences are used to this “failure” of artists to present anything entertaining or enlightening.  It’s tempting to mention that Fernandes has played the leading role of Joe in Andrew Forster’s Montreal presentation of the Beckett play, That Time, I mean by this to bring up Samuel Beckett’s program of “aesthetic failure” and how he used aesthetic impoverishment as a means to renounce art’s authority, its pretention to offer anything of value.  Beckett  himself once wrote, “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world, and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.”(1)  Fernandes’ performance videos do seem to approach this condition, just refusing to be anything other than literal, to “go” anywhere at all.  And this refusal of self-importance becomes intriguing in a mileu where we have become so used to work propped up by one critical grid or another.  And it’s no small matter for an artist to develop and sustain this sort of resistance over a period of twenty-five or thirty years. In this connection I would mention the wonderful words of French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, who said  "I worked on the intuition that just being a human  being is to be a genius and that by insisting too much on developing our talents we may lose this quality that perhaps we share with every living creature.” (2)

If it is through performance and improvisation that Fernandes keeps attention directed to the presence of the artistic momentary, it is the incorporation of aspects of the everyday that allows the work to escape specialized formulation. This resistance to the administrated realities of bureacratic and consumer culture affiliates Fernandes to the attitudes and practices of the Fluxus artists of course but also to the deliberately self-marginalizing activities of artists such as Jimmie Durham, David Medalla and David Hammons. These are all artists who, like Fernandes, have through wit, humour and “coyote” strategies turned their cultural, racial or geographic marginalization into self-empowerment.

Fernandes typically works with low-tech, banal materials and situations, ignoring the sensuous pleasures of hand made art and the look of refinement, preferring to leave his materials connected with their sources in environments of the everyday, whether of the cold industrial north or the warm earthy south. These materials, including verbal phrases, are frequently lifted from the media or commercial sites, but frequently perform hidden memory connections to his childhood Caribbean home, a land where pets are parrots and monkeys instead of dogs or cats and where musicians are called Lord, Duke, Lion, or Tiger.

And memory works to provide these references which Fernandes playfully inserts into the more sterile environments of our galleries, schools and shopping malls.  Is this simple “immigrant nostalgia” on his part?  I don’t think so.  These are his strategies and procedures by which to be here, to take a place, and to “take place” or be present by way of artistic activity. Here, as Alan Kaprow once said “not only does art become life but life refuses to be itself.”  We might also say that for Fernandes, art is there all the time but just beneath the veneer of “everyday life.” He does scratch at that surface of veneer, but just lightly.

Fernandes has for many years been a hugely influential instructor at the Art College in Nova Scotia and I mention this only because his studio practices so closely inform his teaching and vice versa.  There is something pertinent for this in the words of David Hammon who in a recent New Yorker interview said, “I really love to watch the way black people make things…just the way we use carpentry.  Nothing fits, but everything works.”  This emphasis on intuition and improvisation works quietly to displace the norm of educational practice as a mere administration of information, cultivating empty “excellence”.  Agnes Martin offers a beautiful description of the artistic moment, something which Fernandes works hard to impart, “There are moments for all of us in which the anchor is weighed. Moments in which we learn what it feels like to move freely, not held back by pride or fear. Moments that can be recalled with all their fine flavour.  The recall of these moments can be stimulated by freeing experiences, including the viewing of works of art.” (3)

Memory and its repetition is key to the works of Michael Fernandes. It’s his way to build a home, to be in this place and time that I’m calling here “the artistic momentary.”   If it has its longing it also persists in the paradoxical movement of recollection toward a future.  Fernandes won’t be disappearing in any big planes as his lyrics have it in the earlier audio work It’s Very Hot Down There,  " It may be cold up here today, but it’s very hot down there. Where I come from palm trees sway and men with frilly sleeves sing calypso under trees, where the tourists are always dropping in…and out. And then, when it’s all done, they disappear in a big plane."(4) At its best, his work disrupts the secured and the static, inserts a humanizing sense of play, and we find an intuitive deconstructionist favouring the unstable gap between a lived everydayness and the reflective life of the artwork.

Footnotes

1. Samuel Beckett, p.125, Proust and Three Dialogues, Calder, London 1965

 2. Robert Filliou, p. 82, Robert Filliou, From Political to Poetic Economy, Belin Gallery, Vancouver 1995

3. Agnes Martin p. 74, Writings, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1991

4. see my essays on Fernandes in Third Text 1/98, and Parachute #87

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