Fernanda Fragateiro and the problematic documentation of contemporary art

The following is a conversation between curator Claudio Zecchi and artist Fernanda Fragateiro (1962; lives and works in Lisbon, Portugal) on the problematic practice of documenting the contemporary artwork.

Fernanda Fragateiro’s projects are characterized by a keen interest in re-thinking and probing modernist practices. Her practice involves an archaeological approach into modernism’s social, political and aesthetic history through ongoing research with archival matter, documents, and objects.

By operating in the three-dimensional field, and defying the tension between sculpture and architecture, Fragateiro’s works potentiate the relationship with each place by putting the spectator in a performative situation. Her sculptural and architectural interventions in unexpected spaces (a monastery, an orphanage, a dilapidated house) and her subtle alterations of existing landscapes reveal buried stories of construction and transformation.

Some of her projects are the result of collaborations with architects, landscape architects, and performers.

 

ARRATIA BEER, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Materials Lab (demo), 2017
Set of plywood boxes and various work and research materials
variable dimensions
Courtesy ARRATIA BEER

ARRATIA BEER, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Images are acts, 2017
Stainless steel supports, handmade notebooks with fabric
covers, pigmented concrete piece and cut book: Demo, Eine
Bildgeschichte des Protests in der Bundesrepublik, Nikolaus
Jungwirth. Beltz Verlag, Weinheim und Basel 1986
98 x 435 x 24 cm
Courtesy ARRATIA BEER

 

Claudio Zecchi: When we met for the first time in your studio, you were preparing your solo show DEMO at Arratia Beer Gallery in Berlin [the show was on until July 22, 2017]. In that precise moment, you were working on Images are act, a big wall installation – a sort of 3D painting – apparently very static. Actually, under my knowledge, your work (also generally speaking) moves just at the cusp of a paradox, and Images are act is not an exception. It is indeed a very articulated and layered work: if, on the one hand, it formally looks at a certain American Minimalism, on the other it can be understood in its entirety only through the direct participation of the spectator. To some extent, your work is also somehow performative.

What I mean to say is that, despite a seemingly cold formalization, your work doesn’t finish in a full stop. You always leave a crack somewhere to access the work.

How and why these two apparently distant approaches – Minimalism, actually Constructivism first, and participation – somehow coincide at some point?

Fernanda Fragateiro: I really like when you use the word “crack” to talk about my work, it sounds quite hermetic.

Images are acts (2016) was inspired by the strong presence of the color blue on the DEMO cover. I was obsessed with this book – that I had since 2009 – and with its cover image that documents a violent protest against the increase in public transport prices organized by the Rote Punkt Aktion (Red Point Action) in Frankfurt in 1974.

It’s true that if you are looking frontally at the piece you see a painting of gradient of blue, however if you change perspective it transforms into a three-dimensional object. This wall piece, made of 13 handmade notebooks, looks like an architectonical element, and works as a “symphony of form and suspended meaning.” But inserted into the middle of the blue notebooks is a copy of the DEMO publication. The movement of the protesters contrasts the stillness of the monochromes. Using this book as part of the sculpture opens a “crack” inside the work: the insertion showing the group of protesters being hit by water cannons in an elegant dance of resistance shows that in these works the edge is not the limit, the painting continues on; as well, the continuity extending to the protest evokes a gateway back to the moment of upheaval. For me, using this image was a way of reenacting the riot.

 

MAAT Museum, Lisbon, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Materials Lab (Demo), 2017
Set of plywood boxes and various work and research materials, variable dimension
Installation at MAAT Museum, Lisbon, ph. António Jorge Silva

 

C.Z.: This kind of openness is evidently clear also in a work like Materials Lab – a sort of an ongoing archive which documents your work, continuously changing its shape. How to document an artwork is a problematic issue and procedure which tends to open up several interesting questions concerning its modalities. The first one is: How and why one documents an artwork?

F.F.: First of all, artists should break rules. When I did my first Materials Lab (2015) I was not thinking about documenting my work. I was thinking about how to talk about my work while not using images of the works themselves. Rather, I was showing the whole process of making the artwork: from ideas to research materials to construction materials. But, after all, the decision was mine. What to include, what to add, what to leave behind? I was wondering how to organize several boxes, each box referring to a specific piece containing archival objects and discarded materials of different origin that belonged to processes of research: silk threads, books, book segments, exhibition catalogues, models, text fragments, magazine pages, inkjet prints, notes, drawings, marble, steel, bricks, dirt, dust, among others.

I was literally unpacking my artworks not knowing that I was creating another artwork.

 

MAAT Museum, Lisbon, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Materials Lab (Demo), 2017
Set of plywood boxes and various work and research materials, variable dimension
Installation at MAAT Museum, Lisbon, ph. António Jorge Silva

 

C.Z.: If, as Boris Groys warns us («The loneliness of the project» in Going Public), it is somehow problematic to consider the documentation of an artwork (here Groys directly addresses long-terms projects) – whose extension (process) is much wider than the artwork – as the artwork itself, when did you start thinking that documentation could potentially constitute an art piece in itself?

F.F.: Materials Lab started as a seminar for the students of Anthropology at the Harvard Art Museums in the Spring of 2015. The seminar was about what it means to think about objects; having considered that thus far the students have spent their lives engaged mainly in an academic-style approach to knowledge, I wonder about other modes, especially how an artist might approach learning/research.

For that seminar, I organized 27 very well crafted wood boxes full of my research materials, which I took with me in the airplane from Lisbon to Boston.

I was having a lot of fun and I was surprising myself with both the process and the beauty of the presentation I had created. I arrived at Harvard with these boxes and kept them as a secret until last minute. During the presentation I asked the students to open each one of them and to look and feel the materials while I was telling the story of each box/work.

These boxes, which reveal and hide, are also a kind of miniature of the exhibition with each of them resembling a model of a house or a book as if a book is a small building.

It was both the materials inside the boxes and the way the students experience them that created the artwork.

After my presentation, the Museum wanted this work to be part of their collection, which immediately raised a series of very interesting questions: How to document this work as an artwork? How to preserve it? How to show it? We are still working on that. But, and for my surprise, after the work was acquired by the Harvard Art Museums, the materials could only be touch while wearing gloves, and suddenly the paradigm changed.

The modus operandi is now under my control: every time I show Materials Lab, it cannot be touched by the public. However, seminars will happen during exhibitions: then the materials can be fully experienced by the visitors.

 

Harvard Art Museums, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Materials Lab
Seminar, Harvard Art Museums 2015

 

C.Z.: Your way to approach documentation is an open, in-progress investigation, deliberately focused on gaps. If, like in this specific case, the documentation is not made on the re-combination of each single fragment which determined the artwork in its entirety, we are facing another issue: that concerning the display of an artwork. A precise choice, I guess, which addresses the impossibility of archiving everything, on the one hand, and the intention to deliberately move towards a sort of emptying, on the other hand. Is that correct?

F.F.: Absolutely. When I show the Materials Lab to a group of students and curators of the Harvard Museums I explained that, just as important as the materials I have selected, is everything else that was not chosen to be presented. What is not present is also part of the game. The presence of absence makes this work as mysterious as an artwork. On one side, I’m opening a window to my thoughts, my methods, and the way that I materialize my ideas. On the other side, the audience must know that a window gives you a flat image of reality; even if a window is the space where architecture dematerializes, it doesn’t allow you to see all the space. Anyway, this body of work, like you said, it is an open, in progress investigation.

 

MAAT Museum, Lisbon, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Materials Lab (Demo), 2017
Set of plywood boxes and various work and research materials, variable dimension
Installation at MAAT Museum, Lisbon, ph. António Jorge Silva

 

C.Z.: Empty and gaps are keywords. They clearly determine the physical perimeter of this work, and at the same time they tell very much about the process. How did you choose what to document and narrate, and how does this choice affect the final form?

F.F.: Usually Materials Lab are thought and done in the context of an exhibition and they work as a group. I try to organize different materials and their presentation in a very minimalist way. Even if I’m working with diverse subjects and with different materials, colors, textures, etc, there is flatness on the way materials are presented – like a window you look through, or a painting made by different layers of paint.

 

C.Z.: Time is another issue you investigate approaching Materials Lab. A plural time that, as we already mentioned, re-negotiates each stable chronology by having as a consequence a range of narrations. Which time do you address when you approach this work?

F.F.: The narrative in Materials Lab is not a linear narrative. Also, it works as a chronology that is not a chronology. I see it as a poetic visual language, very fragmented and saturated with maximum meaning. It’s organized with different materials that, in a way, work as compressed matter and compressed time. Could this work be seen as a collage that allows you to change what is at the surface? «Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface» says Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Knowing that a lifetime is never enough to search, rediscover or authenticate, I’ll keep on doing this work, that became an intrinsic part of my artistic practice.

 

MAAT Museum, Lisbon, Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Materials Lab (Demo), 2017
Set of plywood boxes and various work and research materials, variable dimension
Installation at MAAT Museum, Lisbon, ph. António Jorge Silva

 

C.Z.: May we consider Materials Lab as a sort of alternative learning strategy?

F.F.: Absolutely. Now, thinking about my seminar at Harvard Art Museums, it was my desire to open my work to a very small group of students, allowing them to experience the work while using all their senses: touching, listening, smelling, looking – looking through the work. Actually, my idea was that a work of art is not something you look at but something you look through. I’ve always had in mind the title of a conference by Australian artist Ian Burn, “A landscape is not something you look at but something you look through” (1993). He teaches you that you need to be informed and aware of what you see. In a way, looking is a way of reading.

Alternative learning was always part of my concerns as an artist and part of my practice. I remember Box to Keep the Void (2005), a multi-faceted work of relational sculpture. How its declarative title indicates, it is a human-scale box containing the void. This architecture of space, conceptualized as a mobile apparatus, could be dwelt as a place through a performative experience, where a community of children could learn about space. This work was a response to my question: How can we learn about space by not using words but our senses? How can we learn through experience?

 

Fernanda Fragateiro, Claudio Zecchi

Fernanda Fragateiro:
Caixa para guardar o vazio – Box to Keep the Void, 2005
Wood, plywood, mirror and stainless steel, Closed sculpture, 400 x 400 x 310 cm, Opened sculpture 1200 x 1200 x 310 cm, 100% Cotton carpet 400 x 400 x 5 cm
Ph. José Alfredo, Mark Ritchie

 

C.Z.: As we previously mentioned, spectators actively enter your work – this one as well – and become performers to an extent. Did you consider this point since the very beginning, or this is rather a consequence?

F.F.: I always think about the spectator and how he or she will experience the work. Materials Lab invites the spectator to engage with it in ways that mobilize new sensory expectations and new forms of rationality. These participative viewers brings to the work their personal history as well as a collective history, that also become part of the work.

I have done several projects in public spaces – be it a botanical garden, a university, a research centre, a market, or urban development sites – because I was always interested in opening my work to a larger audience, often times stimulating a confrontation between a minimalist form and the messy mobility of human agency.

– Claudio Zecchi

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