Teresita Fernández’s installations are not environments for providing shelter. Her spaces are constructions bound by hierarchical categories – public and private, interior and exterior, architecture and decoration, masculine and feminine, voyeur and object. They function as objects built to expose, destabilize and disrupt these boundaries by surveying the complex interconnections between space and social control. Fernández broadens our definition of space, reminding us it is an invisible enclosure that unites the viewer with the complex act of looking. By magnifying our self-awareness of what it means to be positioned, she empowers us to actively participate in constructing the meaning of our experiences, so that we take responsibility for ordering or re-ordering the world of meaning rather than being controlled by it.
Fernández achieves this by creating spatial constructions that encourage viewers to suspend their beliefs in the purely physical reality of objects and to allow for a co-mingling of sensation, recollection, projection and play. Her visual vocabulary is a stunning, subtle lexicon of simple trompe l’oeil gestures, capable of merging what we see optically, that which we perceive we are seeing, and projections of what our desires wish us to see.
The resulting atmosphere is both transparent and fragile and is anchored visually by hand-drawn pencil drawings on floors or walls that provide a foundation upon which to impress complex ideas about the nature of space as an imaginary place replenished by projections generated by the viewer’s imagination. The geometric line drawings seem mechanical at first glance only to reveal their hand-drawn inconsistencies, their overlaps, their gaps. The vulnerable appearance of the pencil marks reinforces their status as a drawing and as an idea as opposed to an image with a specific, narrative association.
Drawing has remained a central feature in her installations. Over the past few years, she began making chartreuse studies of parterre designs from maze-like baroque pleasure gardens such as those at Versailles. The gardens, with their vast, complex and evolving structures, are an extension of her interest in how the movements of the subject in space complete the circuit of meaning eddying around his or her surroundings. The superimposed landscaped planes of the baroque garden are entirely dependent on the position and ‘performance’ of the subject within them. Each vista above, within, and outside the space of the gardens, reveals yet another structure that undermines any singular vantage-point so that our relationship and understanding of the spaces constantly changes. Designed to erase the distinction between viewer and scene, the two become connected as necessary counterpoints to any complete experience of the meticulously and mathematically conceived plans.
In Borrowed Landscape (Citron, Cerulean, Violet, Blue), 1998, her carpet-like, parterre-patterned drawings have become the basis for an installation at Artpace. The piece consists of a group of five suspended, abstract forms, differing sized volumes of shifting colored light that hover between sculpture, architecture and painting. The drawings are fixed to the floor and their constant shift in scale refers simultaneously to woven floor textiles and to a bird’s eye view of a sculpted landscape. In some areas they are smudged into shadows like the thick pile of a plush woven rug.
The entire work is full of such ‘softening’ details. The ‘carpets’ are surrounded by veils of brilliantly-dyed scrim that give the effect of stepping through colored walls to the other side of their painted surfaces and looking through and past them to infinite layers of color beyond. The color appears to almost bleed into the space, the potential crispness of the scrim made diaphanous by the warm light. After selecting an arbitrary route around and between these rectangular spaces, the viewer is treated to the stunning impact of a series of endless vistas of citron, violet, cerulean, and light blue, vistas which are alternately opaque or transparent depending on where the viewer stops in the negative spaces between them. This route is key in that it is this ‘negative’ space between them that further reinforces the sense of walking on a path around a parterre. In this way, the ‘negative’ space between the lushly-hued volumes becomes a ‘positive,’ that is to say, an active space.
This use of vistas is a further reference to landscape architecture, in particular the Japanese use of composed landscape in garden or interior design, or shakkei – a concept of borrowed scenery or borrowed landscape. In shakkei gardens, captured, distant vistas are like framed film stills. A second, related, device inside the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto uses a highly-polished, lacquered table to reflect a spectacular exterior landscape. A window becomes like a light-box merging the decorated interior with the landscape, transforming it into a framed, decorative still life. Similarly, the diaphanous planes in Fernández’s Borrowed Landscape are back-lit by the muted beam of an oculus in each enclosed space, arresting the viewer with a radiant glow. The window and table in the Nanzenji Temple are also like projection screens. This quality is a key link to Borrowed Landscape, in that the floor drawings appear like apparitions, projected by the light of an oculus, an eye-like opening in the center of each ‘ceiling’ which sheds a selective light, a kind of circular projection, on each floor.
The oculus shapes our understanding of her manufactured spaces, encouraging us to surrender to the subliminal eroticism of the work.
Indeed, an aura of secrecy permeates the chambers, a further suggestion of a classical hedge garden with its private paths and hiding places, ideal for chance meetings and illicit flirtations. In Borrowed Landscape, the secret is palpably sexual. Although one can move freely between these shimmering forms, the scrim bars entry, despite the fact that it is only loosely hung around the enclosures. A narrow slit encourages one to peek within to steal a glance at the richly decorated floor surfaces, which recall Ottoman pavements or Mogul carpets while the gossamer curtains bring to mind the nomadic tents or the elaborately tiled pleasure pavilions in a Sultan’s garden.
Fernández’s exuberant introduction of the decorative is intended to galvanize exchange and produce content, encouraging viewers to indulge in reverie and to project their desires into her kaleidoscopic vacuums. In Borrowed Landscape, space is not a passive body to be penetrated. On the contrary, space penetrates the viewer by actively absorbing him or her into the decorative field. When looking voyeuristically through the slit of the scrim of one of Fernández’s colored volumes and projecting his or her fantasy, the viewer occupies the outside and inside of the space simultaneously, becoming both the subject and the object of the gaze, a voyeur of oneself ensnared in the act of fantasizing. While this being simultaneously in, and looking into, the space may seem an impossible vista, it is an empowering notion. Fernández’s feminized vision returns power to the subject. Precisely because we cannot enter, the patterned interiors penetrate our inner, unconscious spaces, triggering a free and constantly shifting production of meaning.
Although we perceive its derivation from architecture, Fernández’s Borrowed Landscape is a built object that functions as an ambivalent physical container. While we may be bound by the solid walls of each ‘chamber,’ our experience of them is never circumscribed by their construction. On the contrary, the silken, sensuous surfaces incite us to question how space is built to house the social body – its desires, its disorders and its disillusions.
-Lisa G. Corrin
Lisa G. Corrin is a curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
This essay is adapted from a fuller discussion of the artist’s work originally published in the exhibition catalogue, Teresita Fernández, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1999.