(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)
AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles. from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Ana Teresa Fernandez.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO’s “HOPEFUL TIMEAN INTERSECT”)
She's a painter, videographer, sculptor and performance artist. Originally from Mexico, Ana and her family moved to San Diego in 1991. She earned her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 2000s and now lives and works in the Bay Area. Since 2014, close to 160,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the central Mediterranean departing from Libya, Tunisia or Egypt. And to date, approximately 16,000 migrants have been recorded as killed or missing on this border. Ana Teresa Fernandez created her exhibition Of Bodies and Borders to refocus attention on the plight of those migrants through multiple artistic media. And most of the works are derived from her own performance in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea where she was filmed while submerged, weighted down with 13-pound weights, wearing a black dress and heels and wrestling with a bedsheet for hours. Through the resulting video, paintings, photographs and drawings, Fernandez seeks to champion those she considers invisible, unrecognized and in danger of sinking into oblivion. Of Bodies and Borders was featured at the Grunwald Gallery and Ana Teresa Fernandez visited the IU campus to give a lecture and conduct workshops. While she was here, she joined IU Assistant Professor of Photography Elizabeth Claffey in the WFIU studios.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Welcome to Profiles, Ana Teresa. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Thank you so much for having me, Liz.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: I'd love to start by talking a little bit about your history. You were born in Mexico and relocated to the U.S. when you were 11 and I just wonder if you can talk a little bit about that experience and how it's shaped you as an artist.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Well I'm from what once was a quite small town on the Gulf Coast of Mexico called Tampico. It's in the state of Tamaulipas. It's in central Mexico and it borders with the Gulf Coast and Texas. The border is about six hours away drive. And it was a really enriching experience. I have a really large family, tons of cousins. And Tampico actually means wet dog in Náhuatl - It's an indigenous language from there - because there's water everywhere. I mean, there's swamps, lakes, the beach, the ocean, a port, puddles. I mean it's just surrounded and inundated by water. There's actually a small lake in the middle of the city that has alligators in it. And so you're just walking around this lake or driving around this lake. And there's just random alligators walking around. It has this really surrealistic quality to it just because of that integration of the urban environment with the actual landscape, you know, natural landscape. And that was just so fruitful to grow up in because there was always so much joy and celebration around the family and there was a lot of congregation that occurred around food and festivities. And there was never any lack of people around me hugging and embracing and noise. And when we moved to San Diego, California, when I was 11 years old, because of my dad. He was offered a position as a doctor. They needed more bilingual doctors because of the Hispanic booming community in the '90s. And he took it because what I didn't know is that this family-rich town had very limited intellectual and laborial opportunities that he saw for his three daughters and his son. And so he moved us. And all of a sudden we were in this incredibly sparse, sprawling city that's really disconnected from each other. You know, anywhere you go it takes 30 to 40 minutes’ drive. Our school was 45 minutes away. Then our swim practice was another hour away. And we just didn't know anyone. And so, on the one hand, all of a sudden we were incredibly isolated. And it became really quiet from this really loud, overly-full family to just the six of us. So, at first, I think I was incredibly…just…saddened. And we felt really alone out there. But as we got older and we had different opportunities and more education, I started to see the differences between these two countries. You know, as you're growing up in two languages with two different cultures with absolutely two ways of existing and being able to start merging back and forth a little bit, and weaving that type of existence you want, I realized that in Mexico that loudness was much more of a physical possibility for women, whereas not so much as the verbal intellectual possibility for women. So, men were the ones that were loud at the table. However, women were the ones that were loud on the dance floor. So that was really interesting to watch. And a lot of the women in my family in Mexico weren't able to get education past high school, or sometimes didn't have job opportunities, whereas in the States all the women I knew worked and became self-fulfilled, at least in that intellectual and laborial discovery. And so for me that was incredibly huge to become aware of who I could become. And the idea of becoming an artist with something that just did not exist in Mexico were slowly - as my parents and myself saw that I had artistic potential, being in the U.S. that meant that that could blossom at some point in my life and that I could invest time and energy and education in it. And so, very, very interesting dichotomies, but both equally rich and powerful in different ways.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: It's amazing to hear you describe these two varying experiences. And it really leads well into the kind of aspects of storytelling that come through in your work. I wonder if magical realism has anything to do with your practice?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I love that you brought that up, Liz, because it has a huge - it was something that actually was inundated in my bookshelves because of my parents. There was several bookshelves that was just dedicated to magic realism. Not only that, but also art books that were surrealist, which I find there's a really wonderful combination between those two, of both visual and literary aspects. And that's what I grew up ingesting in literature and just going over and over different books that my parents had collected over time. And there were posters of Remedios Varo hanging on our walls, and Dalí and Bosch - not that Bosch is necessarily a surrealist - but these ideas that, I think, became more descriptive in these books, I started realizing that Tampico had elements - really strong elements of that. You know, like the alligators or crocodiles roaming around in the middle of an urban setting. And driving around and all of a sudden, like, a mango hitting your car because it just fell out of the sky. So that idea of magic happening in everyday settings was so prevalent, I guess, when I was growing up, that it took me moving away to San Diego to realize that that was indeed a magical setting. And San Diego within itself has these different magical qualities. So you just have to have your eye keenly aware in moments like that. Because I think something that the U.S. doesn't allow as much as Mexico or third world countries is the sense of ingenuity. And I think when we're looking at third-world countries and how to create things with whatever it is that they have, you know, it's mending or creating something by mixing love and creativity. And when you see how much ingenuity are in these third world countries, that's when you realize in the U.S. that there's very little allowance of that just because there's a certain level of cleanliness that people want to have in urban settings and the streets - that they don't allow for things to emerge so readily as third-world countries do. But I think it does exist and oftentimes also in negative ways such as the border. You look at the border that's between San Diego and Tijuana. And those are train tracks - train tracks that are actually verticalized and perforated into the sand. And what is that but surrealism or magic realism? It's like, all of a sudden someone bends these train tracks and makes them stand up to do exactly the opposite of allowing journey and freedom, or roaming and investigation and discovery. But it impedes movement. So, like it or not, I think that there is something of a magic quality in how those materials and placement are working with each other.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: You talked about the physicality in a couple of your descriptions. You talk about the dancing and the kind of vibrancy of community and then to hear you elevate these train tracks upright to make a border wall. It’s really interesting. And each of your pieces really incorporates a kind of performance. So I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that - what performance means to you in terms of identity and really the way that the body operates within these various spaces that you're creating.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Performance is foremost what guides the work. No matter how that idea needs to finish whether it's in photograph or film or painting or sculpture, it always begins with a performance. And the nucleus of that performance tends to be tango. Oftentimes people ask me, “why the black dress? Why the stilettos?” And it derives from tango. And I often articulate that for a long time women in my family were often just expected to do this type of labor of domestic work, which I think in the U.S. you know they call it the housewife. And for me housewife is not really a title of an occupation. It's more of a location and the type of person - kind of similar to how South Africa is not people in a regional group, say, that South Africa is not a name but it's a location, that they took their name away. I find similarly that housewife it seems to be like the place and the person where it's not really a title. And I think that it's an expectation. It's not really seen as something that can be improved on and can be ameliorated but it's just something that I felt women were often just you know expected to have children fed and behaving as if like that was so easy. And it's not at all sculpting a life or sculpting a home or creating this whole atmosphere that takes an enormous amount of time and psychological energy, not to mention physical energy. And so for me, all of a sudden you have the total opposite of the spectrum which is tango. And it's almost like a hyper-elevated sensual type of dance, right? You think of tango and it's like the rose in the mouth and like the song (singing) dah dum dum dum, you know? However, if you actually dance tango, it's incredibly symmetrical in its power. The leader and the follower apply the exact amount of energy into each other. So for this dance to work in perfect symmetry, that energy needs to flow into each other the entire time. And so you can have a leader and a follower be both women or both men but oftentimes, it's a man leading a woman, but that's not the case anymore. However, I love this idea of the power, the sensuality and that symmetry. And so I took that visual language and started applying it into my performances in domestic settings. So the first performances ever done were of me in the tango attire "tangoing," quote, unquote, with a toilet, plunging it or cleaning the bathtub or sweeping the room. And furthermore, they actually went outside private settings and they started becoming more site specific, such as the border. I started taking my performances to the border. And what does it mean to attempt to sweep the sand at the border in this tango attire or mop the beach?
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: I'm curious what it means then to bring those spaces, which are kind of typically marginalized spaces, into a sanctioned space of a museum or a gallery, these spaces that are typically very clean, somewhat sterile, and often people are also uncomfortable in galleries or museums - right? - especially when they first start experiencing that space. So can you talk a little bit about that?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I think that there's multiple borders in these questions. There's that psychological border that I think that we often experience in museum or gallery spaces where for some forsaken reason we just become more uptight as we walk into those doors. There's something of an intellectual imposition of “I know more than you do” which we place on ourselves. The museum I don't think tries to do that. I think that they try and bring people in, in the certain way. But I think that there's a level that we find removed of “do I really understand that?” And I feel that there's just so much questioning happening. Once you walk through those doors all of a sudden I'm like, “am I seeing it the right way? Am I thinking about it the right way?” And I myself have to go through that if I'm allowed my thoughts, I'm allowed my views on whatever it is that I'm experiencing in front of me. I think that by bringing these locations such as the border and these actions at the border into these museums, I feel that there is another layer or texture of viewing or “audience-ing,” this thing that has become such a location of voyeurism, you know. Especially in these last two, three, four years these political landscapes such as the border have become so viewed and viewed in this very myopic way of us /them. And furthermore when the caravans - I don't like using the word caravans - but more pilgrims arrive, it becomes like a bit of a specimen to study or there's more of a laboratory type of way of viewing it as opposed to they're humans. They're individuals. They have wants and needs and yearns as we all do. And I think that by trying to put these locations and doing something that's very human and very basic such as sweeping the sand. I mean, sweeping - basic. The sand - not so basic. Or mopping - basic. The beach - a little bit more Sisyphean. But by bringing these more human laborial actions that are just everyday quotidian actions, I want to humanize this place. I want to talk about who are these people, you know, and why am I doing those actions? Because what I personally learned when I moved to San Diego, and furthermore to San Francisco, I realized that a lot of the people doing the domestic type of work were migrants in the States, you know. There were not only women but men and women that were working behind cafe counters, washing dishes, cleaning toilets. And these are individuals that risked their lives to be here and are not able to see their family members. And they have to do this every single day without hugging their loved one, without kissing and embracing and having that familial relationship that empowers us all.
(SOUNBITE OF BRIAN ENO’S “UNDER STARS”)
AARON CAIN: You are listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is artist Ana Teresa Fernandez - painter, videographer, sculptor and performance artist. Ana Teresa Fernandez is speaking with IU Assistant Professor of Photography Elizabeth Claffey.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: I'd like to talk a little bit about the role of beauty in your work because you really, in a sense, beautify some really ugly and complex issues that we are looking at today in society. Can you talk about how you employ it or harness its power?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: When I was studying in community college, I came across this opportunity to do art history studies abroad in Florence. And this is much later - looking back, I realized that this had a huge impact on my work. And living there and studying there and just breathing in the history of that place and all the artworks that were constantly around me, it was part of that cultural landscape to have so much drapery around and Michelangelo sculptures. And the David was replicated in several locations in the city. And so it was - you were constantly surrounded by these incredibly beautifully-made pieces of art that talked about human morality, human ethics. You know they like to say that they were more religious but I think it's all much more connected to human flaws. And there's so much mythology rooted in these paintings and sculptures and drawings that you see around the city, where it's all about, you know, who slept with whom and what ended up happening and Lucretia's lover who had so-and-so's baby. But anyway, it was so much about bringing humans closer to a sense of spiritual being, right? That was the excuse of inundating the city with art - that's like bringing them closer to a god. I think it was to really depict stories about human tragedy and human error and human lust and what drives us and you know, you look at Bernini's sculptures of Saint Teresa in ecstasy. My God, this woman is having an orgasm. She is completely in lust with something. And so there is this thing that draws us that I think starts - for me started with beauty. And when I was in the city or in various cities in different parts of Italy that was something that just got absorbed into my skin. And not only that but I felt so much of it was done by men that I felt like I want to be in that conversation. I want to be able to have visual fistfights by using similar contexts and similar mediums. And so coming back to addressing this question about beauty, I think that it's what I use - not use - but I think it's what lures me in, to be able to actually see and open up to deeper more complex issues that are harder to absorb if just placed as a number, as a statistic. Because I think that humans will always gravitate toward something that feels palpable, something that feels like they want to jump into, and once you're there you can begin to take in different types of information. You can begin to accept other parts of it. But I think first and foremost there needs to be something. And you know, that can be portrayed by a color that feels like it smells like something. Or it can be portrayed by certain lighting that feels like an emotional state. I think beauty is really, really complex. And it's not something that's obvious. But real beauty is something that will lure you in and make you question all these things. And you come out of it and you still don't know why you went in. But you know you want to go back in there and keep figuring it out.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: One of the pieces that you're well-known for is a pair of ice stilettos which you wore during a performance. And it brings up so many questions of beauty and its relationship to pain.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Right.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: And I wonder if you could just describe the performance a little bit and then tell us what it felt like.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Well I'll give a little bit of premise before. I hadn't really done much video work before then. I had obviously done a lot of performances but mostly documented through photography. And I was approached by Carolina Ponce de León, who's a Colombian curator. And she said, “I would like to apply for a big grant to do a series of videos.” And I looked at her and I said, “that's great. (Laughter) Who are you thinking of?” She's like, “you, silly.” And I was like, “I don't do videos. But that's not - I mean it's a big grant. You really want to risk it with me? I don't have much video to prove. Usually you have to build an archive that you can show.” And she said “no, we have a really solid idea. I think we can do something - put something together that feels very much current and of the time.” And this was around 2010 and she said, “I really want to talk about what's happening with immigration.” And I know a lot of people under Obama were just - it seemed like it was obfuscated because there was the mass exodus of deportations happening. And it was - it has been the era of the most amount of deportees ever under any administration thus far. So I said, “OK. Let's do this.” And we started with the idea of La Llorona which is the weeping woman, La Llorona - stories to retell little girls. And so we wanted to create a plethora of videos stories that were re-articulating what we knew as fairy tales that encapsulated the idea of immigration that encapsulated the idea of “wetback” or mojado that encapsulated the idea of the self-born individual that made themselves from nothing in the States that was not necessarily rescued. And so in that, I threw in this crazy idea. What if I made ice shoes and wore them? And she said, “I love it. Can you do that?” And I said, “I don't know. But why don't - I'll figure it out.” And I had a colleague of mine who had made a beautiful piece where he had crafted a mold to make a gun out of ice and held it until it literally melted in his hand. And it was Jeremiah Jenkins. And he's such a powerful artist, and that piece just really moved me. And so I contacted him. And we went to school together. And I said, “Jeremiah, do you think we can do this?” He said, “OK. What's your size shoe?” And I said, “9 1/2.” He's like, “you're gonna need a size 12.” And I said OK. And my parents happened to be visiting a certain weekend where I needed to give him the shoe by the deadline. And I said, well, in order for me to find a size 12, I think I'm going to go to a trans shop or a drag queen shop. So, we ended up - I dragged my parents to a drag queen shop and went in there looking for a size 12 stiletto. And off - I came up with a size 12 stiletto and took it to Jeremiah. And we worked together on creating a mold for it. After six months of trial and error, finally, the shoe emerged unscathed in its full ice glory. And when he first opened the freezer and I saw the shoes, it was just - I mean, it was such an epic shot between, like, the frozen pomegranate juice and the frozen chickpeas. And next to the ice cube tray, like, lo and behold the shoes. I mean, it could be no - that was the magic realist moment with, like, with the most mundane objects. All of a sudden, you have these shoes. And we took the shoes to International Avenue, which is not too far away from where his workshop was located in West Oakland, which is one of the most impoverished neighborhoods over there in the Bay Area. And it has an incredible amount of migrants, and not only that but there's also a lot of prostitution that happens there. So I went and stood above a grate and for close to 45 minutes waited in December. Yeah, the show was in February. So. it was like chop-chop time, you know? You got to get it done 'cause we didn't realize it was gonna take so long for the mold to be configured. And so December came along. And that's when I had to do the performance. And it was 45 minutes long. And we didn't shoot it right the first time. So we had to remake the shoes and reshoot it. And both times, there is a moment where your toes are just experiencing so much pain that then, all of a sudden, they go numb. And you don't feel anything anymore. And that's when you start to worry, and it's about 20 minutes into it. I just - I didn't know how much longer I had the first time when I first did it. And I had a water bottle with me just so I would drain down my leg so it would relieve some of that pain. When the water would touch my feet, it was just like, “oh,” just because it felt a little bit warmer, you know? And so it was just like these centimeters of pleasure, warm pleasure. It was pretty excruciating. And then after they go numb, I didn't feel the next 15 minutes. But once it completely melted and I walked off and I realized I couldn't feel my feet at all. When I was in the car, all of a sudden, there's these pulsations that come lashing through your feet and toes, where it feels like they're electric currents. And I think that's when your feet are beginning to come alive again. And that was the part that hurt the most, where I just had to pull over 'cause I couldn't drive 'cause my feet were just - it was like they were being resuscitated or something. And we had an array of individuals that came - because we were filming at night that came through as they were walking as I was standing there above the grate. We had several homeless individuals pushing carts filled with cans or their personal objects. There was this one individual that drove up in a Cadillac. I mean, I kid you not. It's just - I couldn't have made up the story. He had a tinted window, and he rolled down his window. And I think he might have been a pimp. He had a gold tooth. He had a lady next to him, and he looked over to me. And he's like, “damn, girl. Are those ice shoes?” And I was like, “yes, sir (laughter).” He's like, “that's hot.” And I was like, “uh-uh. It's cold (laughter).” But I think that was definitely my highlight of that performance.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Yeah, it sounds like an incredible interaction to have in the community, you know, that you really sparked this...
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yeah.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: You certainly made his day, I'm sure.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I think we made each other's day. And I think that the most valuable part for me was that even though I was this woman in this black dress with these ice shoes, I think he got snapped out of his - I'm a woman. Look at me as a woman, as an object - but because it was such a strange occurrence that this woman would be wearing ice shoes that he forgot that I was a woman. And he interacted with me in a way that wasn't like, “hey,” but it was more like – “what?” And it was more of a creative inquiry or just an inquiry that snapped him out of his own acknowledgment of how he tends to see women. That was one of the more powerful moments for me, when art is at its best, where it snaps us out of who we usually are and brings us into just the basic, like – “what is this?”
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about reactions that you've received and whether those reactions exist in the gallery or the museum or through your performances. What kinds of feedback do you get on your work?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: The ones that bring me the most amount of joy, I guess, or the most amount of, like, “this-is-why-I-do-this” moments is when I'm in the process of creating something or making something or wanting to make a performance happen and we're in the midst of it, and I'm collaborating with people that have done X job for X amount of years. And, somehow, in that process, they have a moment of like, “whoa, this is something totally different.” And they get to experience their job in a totally different way. And I think that that's usually what ends up happening when I have a project happening, such as…I did a performance where I attempted to ride a white stallion in a sinkhole in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. So, the horse handlers that do guided horse tours and, you know, the horse handlers that are like, “this is the blah-blah-blah cenote,” and “this is the blah-blah-blah jungle and the beach.” And, you know, you can just tell that they've done this route 300,000 times. So when I approached them - and I said, “can we rent a horse?” And they said, “yes, of course.” And I said, “well, can we ride it into a sinkhole?” And they said, “huh, I guess we can. We can try.” And they're like, “you wouldn't want to go see the route that we have planned out?” And I said, “I'm sure it's really lovely, but I'm much more interested in doing this action with this horse.” And they're like, “OK.” So the horse handler, you know, rides to the sinkhole with us. And then we enter the sinkhole with the horse. And as I'm in the sinkhole, we have to get it to go around and swim in a circle in the sinkhole. And the idea is because in that sinkhole, thousands of years ago, young virgin women were thrown into the sinkhole as offerings to the gods, and they were drowned. And so for me, I think of ways of coming of age. And one of my most favorite when I was growing up was The Black Stallion, Alec. And it's - actually, The Black Stallion is a whole stand-in or a whole metaphor for Alexander the Great, and his first conquest was riding a black stallion. And so that whole movie's based on that metaphor. And so for me, it was like I want to attempt to ride a white stallion in the sinkhole. And Tequila, who's - the stallion's name is, was just a little bit wild. And so I was getting thrown off, bucked off, kicked, stepped on. I mean, it was a total journey to just stay on this horse while - and the horse handler was like, “OK, no. So we start off. We go this way, and then we turn. And why don't you angle the camera from this way up. And you could see them.” Like, once it clicked for them what we were trying to do, they're like, “oh, we get it. OK.” So everyone was invested. Everyone was trying to do what they thought was this journey, this visual journey of me trying to ride the stallion across the sinkhole. We did it for about 3 1/2, four hours. They were on the entire time. And the guy afterwards was like, “I've never done anything like that.” And so, like I said, it's moments like - he has a relationship to this place, with these animals. And all of a sudden, he has a new relationship with that sinkhole in which this crazy girl came and attempted to ride this stallion in a black dress with stilettos. It's - yeah, you know? There you have it. And so you build rapport. You build a relationship, or you build a story that's very, very different to their everyday lives in a relationship to that place.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: You know, when you first started answering this question, you introduced it by saying, “I decided I wanted to ride a white stallion in a sinkhole.” Immediately, I thought to myself, “oh, my gosh. Like, is that safe?” So...
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Not really.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Yeah, I would love to hear a little bit about - I mean, are you also navigating the experience of fear, 'cause you're clearly bringing so many people, so many members of the community around you into your projects, you know, and giving them this incredible experience a new perspective. I wonder how you handle that experience of fear or safety.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I think my biggest fear is failure, that you do bring all these members of the community in. And that's when it becomes like, “uh-oh, OK, the pressure's on. We really have to make this work.” Or it really needs to feel or look a certain way. And so there's this pressure of trying to accomplish this thing. And I think I'm more afraid of that than actual - the physicality of it. I mean, yes, I'm terrified as I'm on the horse, as it's kicking me and stepping on me. And then there's the physical element that's just endurance-based. But I think all the actions that I've pretty much undertaken, there's always something that's endurance, that's related to endurance, which kind of circles back to the paintings because they're literally, you know, time frames of endurance. They're anywhere from three to five to six months. It takes that long to make. And it's every day. And it's - there's a tediousness to it. But once I'm in the action, the fear itself evaporates. And it becomes more about the fear of accomplishing what we've set out to do and hoping that after, you know, traveling this much and investing this much, hoping that the story will articulate what we wanted to articulate, that it will have the right angle, that it will evoke the right emotion, that it will grab people's attention to empathize with something. And that's I think the biggest fear of trying to accomplish that.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO’S “UNDER STARS II”)
AARON CAIN: Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez in conversation with photographer Elizabeth Claffey. You're listening to Profiles From WFIU. Ana Teresa Fernandez was on the IU campus, as was her art installation Of Bodies and Borders, which was featured at the Grunwald Gallery.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: I'd like to turn our attention to Of Bodies and Borders, because one of the first things that I noticed is that the paintings and the drawings are all labeled as documentation. Most people use photography to document their performances or videos or anything, really. So I'd love to hear how you made that decision.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yeah. Well, documentation, I think, is to try and get it away from a fictive medium to a nonfictive medium. It's not so much true, nowadays. But I think that both drawing and painting for the longest time has been considered a fictive medium and not only that but a medium that's been mostly rendered by men and men rendering women and men rendering women in stylized fictionalized ways. And for me, it's to bring terms back to a woman about a woman done and created by a woman, such as - Virginia Woolf addresses in A Room of One's Own - she says that there's so many male writers and they're constantly writing these either biographies of women or using women as the lover, the daughter, the mother, which are supporting roles. But they're not the role, the main role. And there's definitely not a lot of women doing autobiographical roles. So for me, by saying the word “performance documentation” on a drawing or on a painting is to really articulate - no matter how magical it might seem or how fictive it might seem - this actually took place in a real time, in a specific location. So for me, it's to really drive that point home of, like, this is not not real. This is a real. Let me uncomplicate that. This is real. There was a flying horse in the sinkhole. There is this person submerged in the Mediterranean Sea. And no matter how fictive it might appear, it did indeed happen.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: It also makes me think about your material choices. You're working with sculpture, video, painting and drawing. And there's two pieces in particular that are in such stark opposite ends of the materiality. And that's this video that depicts this ethereal body swimming through the Mediterranean, and then there's an untitled installation piece of paddles on the floor that seem to be made out of cement. Is that correct?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yeah. They're cement-made oars, rowing oars.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: So can you talk a little bit about those two pieces in relation to each other?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I love that you asked that, Liz, because as you said, they're complete dichotomies in the sense that if you think of the bedsheet, which is an article - incredibly intimate article – that, for the most part, a lot of individuals have. We think about it as being light and airy. But when you put it in the water, it actually becomes incredibly heavy. And it sinks to the bottom. And in contrast, oars tend to be made out of wood. And they're the few articles that will survive shipwrecks or sinkings of any vessel because they float. So they’re - the few items that will be the remnants of any sort of journey or vessel. And I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to create moments in which I was the one struggling to stay afloat and keep this object, this bed sheet in space, moving, making it feel like it was airy and we were almost an embryo of sorts floating through the water. But it was actually my energy keeping it up because it ends up weighing about 30 pounds in the water, and it will sink. And on the other hand, I wanted to create these oars made of cement because I wanted them to be the opposite. I wanted them to feel, like, heavy. And they almost become a cemetery of sorts. The way that they're placed are allocated next to each other. They become almost like tombstones, the remnants of the people that have sunk.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: It's a very moving association and very true. As somebody who's stood in the gallery and spent some time with that piece, it feels like all of those things.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Yeah. And the placement of it. I was actually looking at, you know, a lot of these vessels that are migrating across the Mediterranean Sea. But not only that, also vessels - slave vessels that were used centuries ago. And there's these wood print drawings - I don't know if you call them drawings or just prints - where the placement of the bodies are just right next to each other, feet to head, feet to head, trying to accommodate the most amount of bodies in these small areas within the ships. And so looking at those prints and then looking at these vessels, these current-day vessels, I'm just like, they're so similar. There's not much difference, except obviously one was by force. But these are also by force in this other way. And so for me, the placement of those oars become head to feet, head to feet as well, trying to re-articulate the oars become bodies themselves or metaphors for bodies.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Going back to the idea of failure and then also these kind of varying materials that you engage with, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about risk in the work and, sometimes, when the feeling of failure might have either propelled you forward or stopped you. Does that ever happen?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: It hasn't thus far. It's just I keep trying until - I really just won't stop until it's realized. And there's many moments of failure. It's just the situation wasn't right. The materials weren't working. Or the camera wasn't the right camera, or I needed a better angle. They can be really minute failures to very big failures. And it's just knowing that you have to do this work, and it needs to exist in the world. And what you want to articulate becomes slightly obsessive. I mean, you've become completely driven in trying to figure out how to puzzle it together. It's always been part of the process. There's a few - I think there's been almost no performances that are easy, you know? It's - they all - I've encountered so many hurdles along the way. And it's just trying to meet those hurdles in a way that it's gonna make you creative in how you jump over it so you come out of it on the other side having learned X, Y or Z.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: You know, I'd love to hear you talk more about that drive. I mean, I'm curious not only where it comes from but how you sustain it. And really in a society that doesn't necessarily value the arts as it does maybe the sciences, how do you keep it going?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I don't think I have a very straightforward answer for that, but I don't think I have a straightforward answer for anything, Liz. I think you're completely right in the sense that it's something that's not valued. And I think that I see it more and more these days with students, where they have attention spans of eight, 10 minutes at the most. And then they give up. And then, “oh, I don't want to do this. Oh, it's too hard,” or, “it's too this.” But then they see my paintings and they're like, “oh, but I want to paint like that.” And I said, “yeah, that took me six months to make, five hours to eight hours a day.” It's no joke. And maybe it was - the way that I was brought up, I think, had a lot to do with it, the fact that I was a swimmer for many years. We were in the swim team. And I swam competitively for 13, 14 years. So talk about really reducing all your sensory overload to almost nothing, to just your breath and the lane, the lane line that sits underneath you as you swim over it. And so you become really good at just putting your head down and doing something repetitive over and over. And I think that in being able to engage your mind in a way or train your mind to get engaged in a way that takes you to these really interesting obscure places, that's ultimately what happens when you go into the studio. Or when you're doing an activity or an action, your mental placement is just a different platform. It goes into really dark spaces. It goes into really obtuse and abstract locations that you don't often go because there's no one either pushing you. And I think that being forced with yourself for those long amount of time - it really allows for you to just stop and sink into different psychological spaces. That's what drives me. I mean, that's what kind of holds me in a space long enough where I can accomplish these things.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your first solo exhibition. I'd love to hear what it felt like to see your first body of work come to fruition in that way.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: My first solo show was Pressing Matters. And it was, I think, in 2007. And I was elated. I mean, one thing is to have your show or the exhibit at the end of the year when you finish your masters, which felt huge. But then to have been picked up by a gallery - and Braunstein/Quay was the one that picked me up. And she was the oldest conceptual contemporary gallery in San Francisco. And she hadn't picked up anyone for decades. I mean, she had been working with some really amazing artists for a long time. And so she came and saw my work and decided to work with me. And I was just completely dumbfounded. Here I thought a student that was pretty mediocre for most of her life who hadn't been accepted to any university that I applied - and when I spoke to the high school counselor about maybe applying to UCLA, she laughed at me. She's like, “with your grades?” I mean, my grades were pretty mediocre. And then all of a sudden, I felt like, “I think that there's a place for me here. And I think that I belong to a certain type of dialogue community, energetic space, creative space that's happening in this city.” And it felt like all of a sudden it was embracing me. That feeling of belonging was pretty much the most rewarding thing I've ever felt because if anything, I felt excluded for most of my life in what felt like was going to be a professional setting, you know? Because I think education is all about setting yourself up to go into a professional setting, right? And so if you're - been failing at it for most of your life or you've been told that you're never going to exceed, all of a sudden, when you go into the art world, it's a professional space as well. And so when I felt like they opened their arms to me, I was - I had to revalue how I saw myself. And that was a really beautiful awakening for me of saying, “oh, what I have to say matters,” because it's not about me always being wrong. But it's about me providing a different context or a different perspective where people can see and feel things, differently. And it's not about right or wrong.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: It sounds like a process of surrender, almost.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yeah, definitely.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Which certainly also plays a role in your work, I suspect, at some level.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yeah, I think you have to surrender, constantly, your expectations. And I think surrender and drive are not mutually exclusive. I think you can do both at the same time. You can surrender in certain ways and keep driving in other ways. And surrendering is more of acknowledging certain things you have to let go within that process but not lose focus at the same time.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: You talked a little bit about what it was like when you go into your studio, how you kind of go into this quiet dark space.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: It's got a lot of light. It's just dark in my head.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: (Laughter) Right. I just wonder - Twyla Tharp, the choreographer and dancer, wrote this incredible book called The Creative Habit. I wonder if you could share with us your creative habits or if there are rituals that help promote or create that space in your mind or even just things throughout the day that get you to a clear head. Or maybe it's getting you to a physical space.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: I think that the first thing that I need to do in the day is move my body. Just - whether it's running or going surfing, I think surfing is the thing that helps the most, because I live in San Francisco. And the water there - it's in the 50s, low 50s for the most part. Nowadays it's become, like, a chic thing to do, to plunge, to do these cold plunges. It says that they restart your systems, your body systems. I don't know the technicalities of it, but people are doing it. And they buy these vessels that they go into. And it's really cold. And then they pop out. I'm like, “people, just go into the ocean. Go into the ocean in San Francisco. You'll get the same result.” Anyway, for me, my perfect day would be going surfing and having that time and space where everything clears out. You're just there. You're in the water. You have a different perspective, where you're looking from the water to the city, where for the most people, it's you're looking from land to sea. When you shift that, you just have this different relationship to the sky and to land. And so it just restarts you. And then from there, I just go to the studio. And I pretty much do the same exact thing. I get in there. I turn on the lights. And I start wearing more clothes. I literally don't take any of my clothes off. I just put on my corduroy pants over my regular pants. And then I end up putting another sweater and a jacket on top because it's really, really cold. For some reason, once I start getting dressed, it just starts putting me into the space. And then I start putting paint on my palette. And I color coordinate it. I go from light to dark around the edges of the palette. And I just looked at the painting for a couple seconds. And I am like, “OK. What do I need to do next?” And it starts telling me what to work on. And then I start working on specific areas. And that's how it starts. Usually, about every hour, I'll take about a five-minute break. And then I'm back at it. Either I put music or I work in complete silence. It doesn't matter. I do either/or. No matter if I am listening to music or not, I put my headphones on. For some reason, it keeps my ears warm, first of all (laughter). They're the big ones that go over your ears. So I like it for that. It provides more silence, actually. So I like the hum of silence when I'm not listening to music. So people will - if they come and interrupt me in my studio, they'll be like “Ana!” I'm like, “I'm not listening to anything. I have my headphones on for warmth quality.”
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: And so are you in a shared studio space, or do you work alone?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: It's almost like an l-bracket space. It's about 600 square feet. It's two stories high. It's all wooden, and there's a bunch of windows. That's why it gets really cold and damp in there. But I share it with two other women.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Womanhood, women, feminism has been certainly a theme in this conversation and throughout your work. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Oh, yeah, hardcore. Very much a feminist. My mom, my sisters. I mean, we've turned my dad into a feminist. I like to say that it's a little bit like sandpaper. We're the sandpaper. We've polished him into feminism. The origin of the paintings, the origin of the work, the origin of the performances all stem from that power and stoicism that I felt and saw in my mother that was so incredibly quiet but relentless and unwilling to yield. And so all of the performances, all of the paintings, the images that you see at the very beginning of the work and even until now - there's certain quietness in the body, not so much in the physicality of it but in you can tell that the individual is completely in themselves. That was what I took from my mom. She was always very quiet. She was not loud. She's not that - you know, I think that sometimes women, like Latino women get placed this loud, crazy, over-the-top stereotypical type of persona. And you see it oftentimes in Hollywood in these fictionalized characters of the loud and obnoxious. And my mom could not be more the opposite. She's incredibly quiet. Just even her presence, there's something very, very strong but silent about her. That I think has always been one of her armors of just getting away with stuff because she's so quiet. And she's just unwilling to do what other people tell her to do. But she'll just, like, nod and acknowledge what you've said. And she won't rebuke you, but she will do only what she wants and what she thinks is right, you know? And one of the things that, for example, she would do was my grandmother - my father's mom was just livid when she knew that my mom would run on the streets let alone in competitions in Tampico. Like, she would go on these running competitions. And my dad's doctor friends were like, “oh, I saw your wife running down the street in that competition.” My dad would get home. And he's like, “Maria Teresa, were you in that competition?” She's like, “yes (laughter).” It's just - he's like, “OK.: He wouldn't say anything, but my grandma would find out It's not decent. It's not proper for you to be running around in the street. And my mom's like – “mm hmm.” But she just was resilient. She would do it. And she's always been like that.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: It sounds like endurance runs in your family.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yes.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: It's a running theme, the physicality, the endurance, the stoicism, all these things.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: She's a marathoner, not - I mean, she's like the embodiment of endurance.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: And she has four kids. Is that correct?
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Yes, another example of endurance - four very stubborn, stubborn kids.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: So often, especially in the art world, having family connections, family ties is kind of considered a hindrance, whether you're caring or very close to your parents or you have siblings or you have children or you have a partner that you consider. But this seems to be a real source of empowerment for you, having a family that plays such an important role in your life.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Any time I give a lecture, the first image that comes up on my PowerPoint is an image with my grandmother in the middle with all her grandnieces. For me, there is no hiding it. All the inspiration in my work began with my family and has been my family. And it's what makes me more human, and I think it's what extends beyond to understand. And when I see images of individuals in these dinghies attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, they're families. They're us in a different place, in a different setting. But they're us. They're the same. And I think that's what allows me to make that connectivity, and that lends empathy towards any situation, towards anyone. And I think that that's what makes me really afraid when I see those individuals and that risk of that separation of their family.
ELIZABETH CLAFFEY: Thank you so much, Ana Teresa. It's been such a pleasure speaking with you.
ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ: Thank you so much, Liz. I really, really appreciate it.
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AARON CAIN: Ana Teresa Fernandez - painter, videographer, sculptor and performance artist. She's been speaking with IU assistant professor of photography, Elizabeth Claffey. Ana Teresa Fernandez and her art installation Of Bodies and Borders were in Bloomington as part of Mexico Remixed, a Global Arts and Humanities Festival sponsored by Indiana University's Arts and Humanities Council. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website, wfiu.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)