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Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso

Retrato del Artista by Marí­a Fernanda       Cardoso

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jun 01, 2002
Location: USA
Topic: María Fernanda Cardoso: The Transgression of Custom
Interviewer: Adrianna Herrera

LatinArt:  The work of María Fernanda Cardoso, has raised a lot of eyebrows in international art circles. She is as enigmatic as her work. She created icon-status for herself with her signature image: dressed in high boots and a silver suit, she is both the trainer and reigning queen of the smallest show on earth, a fantastic circus of fleas. Impressario-like, she has shown that the behavior of insects can be converted into a work of art.
Taken as a whole, her creations – from mattresses of earth to water woven with starfish, her impressive ritualistic circles made from the carcasses of lizards and toads – are an immersion in the obsessions of childhood: the transformations, hybridization or camouflage of fundamental elements and amphibious beings. Her work reveals the marvelous variety of survival strategies located in contexts that confront political violence or the simple laws of that dictate the ravages of time...

One of the most interesting aspects of your work is your wide range of non-traditional material: dissected flies, live fleas, earth, water, plastic flowers, and tourist "souvenirs." what permitted you this freedom to experiment?

Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso:  My artistic destiny is like speech which unfolds in its utterance. Similarly, my art arises from a constant exploration of the material. My meeting with Bachelard was very significant for me. I met him when I was doing my thesis on water and he enormously helped me to understand material, its symbology, its sensuality, its power, the poetry of each element. I discovered myself as a sculptress when I understood that I could sculpt with water. then I began to work in such a way that, instead of making nothing, I had to find, mold, and play with all manner of materials, each full of meaning, each endeavoring to be pushed by the creative force being dictated to me as a result from a dialogue with the material, beyond even the symbolic. Artistic creation is a relationship between the human being and the material. this relationship is the basis for everything. It is a lengthy process and one in which one cannot foresee the result.
My final experiments with water were two gigantic plastic bags that resembled swollen bladders. Each bag was filled with a ton of water and colored foam. The mixture of the water and foam caused each bag to move. I also made gigantic cups of water from plastic membranes that hung down from the ceiling. Each cup would fill up with dripping water. People could pass underneath this sculpture.
After water, I immersed myself in the exploration of earth. I worked with germinated grass. I also began to work with the formal properties of corn. Finally, I began to discover the aesthetic possibilities of the twisted roots of germinated plants. A common theme of my work is my total fascination for the manner in which non-human forms of life connect with the elements.

LatinArt:  María Fernanda’s grandmother taught her to distinguish the gender of flies. Her grandfather discovered the cause of malaria in Colombia. Her father taught her the scientific names of the plants. She was always fascinated by two things: tiny universes – hence insects, fleas – and beings able to adapt to living in other elements. "As a child" she confesses, "I always wanted to be a toad, able to live between different elements such as water and earth".

It may be a way of feeling that the power of death over creatures is less when they dominate more elements; but at the same time you deal precisely with the obsession for exhibiting Death by resorting to the bodies of these same animals.

Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso:  After the exploration with vegetal matter I realized that Death inevitably altered the form and the color of things, making the existence of that living art which I took from Nature by manipulating its elements, a very fleeting matter. I discovered that Death, even with its dynamism, was a permanent process. My idea of working with the bodies of dead animals arose from this notion. While lizards, toads, snakes, flies and crickets can be associated with the mythology of sorcery, they didn’t have this significance for me. I selected them for their visual strength. I placed the frogs in geometrical forms like the pre-Colombian figures, following the postures of the animals sacred to our ancestors. They are not natural positions, neither are they common to these cultures. One can find feet in a straight line, for example, in all the Inca figures.
Through my sensorial experience of touching these dead animals, I found an order that emanated from geometry, the symbolic fact of zoomorphic representations with their ritual burden, with the relationship to water, fertility and life. To base oneself on that material is to open a surreal door. Indeed, living in a workshop that smells like formaldehyde is a very powerful experience. The first time I opened a box full of dead toads I was frightened. I remember I made a block that imitated brick made from the bodies of these compressed toads. There was an enormous impact in that image which, at the same time, I found fascinating.

LatinArt:  These artistic representations of Death embody an intention of defiance...

Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso:  It is clear that it puts to us the relativity of what is permitted or not permitted in each culture, be it, beautiful or ugly. There is also a Platonic question on the relationship between truth and beauty. According to Plato, Truth is beautiful. Thus, when you show an image of Death, true because it is real, it should unleash the beautiful. However, the perception of horror exists. This gives rise to a questioning of this concept, the need of moving around it, of confronting it.
I was interested in people looking at Death face to face, not the representation of an animal but Death itself. Those animals are not desiccated, they do not pretend to be alive...they become works of art through the way I arrange and show them. Then they become beautiful. You look one moment and see the body; you look the next moment and see the beauty, the work of art. It is like Picasso’s bicycle seat with the horns. You look one instant and it is a bicycle, you look another and you see the bull. Your perception jumps from one interpretation to the other. I want my art to intersect at the junction of art and non-art, that is, something which is simply a real object. I want my work to refer to that ambiguous space of the transformations.
I come from a culture whose relationship to death poses a paradox. On one hand, we Colombians systematically refuse to face death. At the same time, we are constantly confronted with death, for in Colombia, violence has become big business. There is, moreover, something significant in my passion for research. It is clear that my scientific obsession for observation and classification is guided by an aesthetic attraction which can brush against Death, without having to die. This is humanity’s great question: how does one acknowledge the inevitability of death, even its presence, without actually dying?

LatinArt:  A very interesting part is your work on the games of occultism, and the fact that you do this with the same elements – butterflies’ wings – in two stages: when they are camouflaged on trunks, making them as rigid as dry earth, and when they unfold all their color, which is the point of departure of the exhibition "butterfly drawings".

Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso:  Camouflage is a very rare strategy. For an animal to pretend to be a plant is, in itself, as though a woman wished to appear as a stone; its transgression of the animal and mineral kingdoms. These are tests of intelligence. It is not the individual intelligence of a butterfly or of a cricket, but of the species. Moreover, I find it beautiful that animals pretend to be dead in order to survive. These are strange strategies of life which also involve the idea of perfection. Animals that copy with an impressive exactness even the stains and other details of a leaf, precisely because of their exact imitations of the imperfect, of the stains which appear on the surface when they are discomposing. They are stains which make it appear that the leaf is already breaking. I asked myself then, how they could have this strategy of beauty, or being colored and attracting attention in full flight while, at the same time, passing unseen when they need to disappear to protect themselves. They don’t just become physically invisible, they also become invisible by their behavior. The work of camouflage – branches in plaster and metal covered with dry leaves which are in actual fact camouflaged butterflies – show them as mini-houdinis doing their disappearing act.
The "Butterfly Drawings" exhibition is the opposite. I studied the symmetry of their forms and colors. The wings of the butterflies are like a mirror. By rearranging them, I create different patterns. I play with ways of placing them, proposing geometrically-ordered forms emanating from the designs of the butterflies themselves and the internal drawings of their wings. Repetition creates the sensation of movement, and produces the principle of animation. There comes a point when the eye tells you it has found what it was looking for.

LatinArt:  What are you thinking about while you work?

Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso:  Forms, colors, nothing else.

LatinArt:  You have said that you could have been a scientist if it wasn’t because you needed to approach reality from more than one perspective, and you can only do this through art. However, the obsession for entomological research is present throughout the length of your career.

Marí­a Fernanda Cardoso:  In order to construct "icopor balls" that I covered with flies – a work which, by contrast to the flea circus, did not explore the behavior of the insects but, rather, their morphologies – I bred the flies. When they died I dissected them. I would tell you that the result – the point at which the eye knows it has found the exact form – is not the only important thing. I was also very interested in learning how to breed flies, to build the little handmade cages, to establish a colony, to achieve the conditions for them to reproduce, follow the process of larvae transformation, to get use to the exasperating sound they produce, even to the putrid smell of the food I gave them. I did so not only because in that way I lived out my fantasy of being a scientist – to breed laboratory animals and devour all the technical literature in the world – but also because it was a question of how to look, how to observe other worlds and then reveal them.

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