MICHAEL FERNANDES:A CHANCE TO GET IT RIGHT
Centre for Art Tapes, Halifax
[First published as "Michael Fernandes," in Arts Atlantic 40, Spring/Summer 1991, 42-43.]
A lazy whistle from an overhead speaker catches your attention as you walk by the Gottingen storefront. The entire exhibition is visible through the window. An elevated, empty plywood coffin has the ends taken off so you can see out the other side. There is a text in white Letrasign on the floor:
I Know what you
guys are up to
so keep it down
I am trying to sleep
At the window an LED machine flashes orange/red messages, advertising slogans, and aphorisms:
Fat smoke is history
Because there is more to hair care than meets the eye
The best costs no more
The pain is real
Today we saved a life
Its like slowly being burned alive
Everybody's got a dream
Coming through with flying colours
Your comfort is our business
Thanks to you they are learning, keep up the good works
How you are playing with power
Get out of town by sundown
The taste is gonna move you...
(Note: quotations are from a 1987 interview first published as a computer disk for an exhibition by Fernandes at the Art Gallery, Mount Saint Vincent University).
CE: You don't get this work fast...
MF: I don't think you can. I don't work on them fast. I like holding on to a certain amount of time...releasing it in a certain way: it is time-release work. You don't get it right away, and I don't get it right away, so there are levels to it. It gradually unfolds itself. When it is successful, the work finds itself and you in it. At the onset, in encountering the work, familiarity with certain elements comes first, and identification follows. As viewers enter the work, at first I want them to feel familiar....
Once a painter, Fernandes has used borrowed images and texts from mass-media sources in installations and multi-media works for about fifteen years. He is unpredictable in his use of objects, sometimes recycling bits from previous installations in addition to inventing new objects and arrangements. For example, the hand-made coffin with the ends removed in this exhibition first appeared at Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in 1987: a version of this coffin also appears in an exhibition from Power Plant in Toronto which is currently at the Owens Gallery in Sackville (at the time of writing).
Fernandes presents a disjunctive experience. All decisions, like the installations themselves, are made within a framework of three-dimensional real space which admits the world - including the world of mass-media - into a viewer's calculations about the work's meaning:
As early as 1975, Fernandes used mass media imagery and texts to explore issues of personal and collective exotica, focusing on those elements of cultural difference and similarity. Throughout his career, in his paintings, photo-text works, books, installations, and sound works, Fernandes has pursued his art out of personal curiosity rather than from a theoretical premise. Though his various works look like products of vanguardist intentions, Fernandes seems to have been too immersed in his own experience of the culture and available materials to worry about finding the historic and contemporary justifications for his interests...
Fernandes' method seems to be to assign value, make associations, and invent elements as the work is installed. Everything is provisional. The installations are not fully articulated 'extended-objects' or resolved 'sculptures' positioned in a space.
Fernandes does have a discernible set of interests, however, a conceptual framework and a way of constructing work:
Michael Fernandes often relies on polemical constructs like 'us' and 'them' to provoke self-recognition in the viewer. His installation works establish a setting which is more akin to an artist's studio or home than a gallery. The work has a sense of improvisation and literalism which results in an intimacy and directness and which opposes the packaged, the streamlined and simulated... One could say, at least metaphorically, that this work is in the first person, present tense, and that it stands against the facade and the spectacle in favour of activism. Fernandes wishes to return us to a confrontation with valuation and to formulate a critique based on the local as opposed to the formal and 'universal'.The work is generally read as being critical or polemical, always vaguely social and general in its address. For some, Fernandes' oblique approach is interpreted as a lack of political will, liberalism, or intellectual obscurantism. Everyday life is addressed directly, and yet many viewers feel they have no means of entering Fernandes' excerpts from this daily life (anymore, perhaps, than they have a means of entering the construction of the advertising slogans the artist borrows).
Fernandes would like us to attend to every moment. There is no quick message. Attention takes time. His text on the floor of the gallery: "I Know/what you guys are up to /so keep it down /I am trying to sleep" is likely as not meant as a reference the unconsciousness with which we sleep walk through everyday life (in an earlier tape, the word 'unconsciousness' is repeated in sentences almost like a mantra).
In the past fifteen years Fernandes has distributed his imagery carefully across Canada's alternate gallery system, from Victoria, to Saskatoon, to Toronto, Halifax, Toronto, and Sackville. Only the artist has a real grasp of the variety of his own work: a writer is left to piece together bits of documentation with the occasional reference in art magazines. Fernandes will not let his work settle on two or three points that a reviewer can glibly reiterate:
MF: You get a drift of something. You have some idea. I always try to have something so that if you are interested further. The tape opens up to be something else.
I hear myself thinking in the work and then I watch it...I'm a witness to my own work. There's a point where I catch myself witnessing and then I say 'oh yeah, this is how I sense this' and then I'll put that down. What that does is to make listening and being a part of it closer. It's like all of a sudden you realize you're pulled in.... There are always hooks in them....
Like someone thinking 'what's going on here?' Yeah, I've had that...that happens even with painting. With installation work, there is more space to get lost in. Some people are not helped by that....
I want these works to continue to form after they are seen... Paintings seem to stay on the wall; my installation works are talking about a change that is active. You can go away and still work on it.
CE: Couldn't you bring the same attention you give to installations to walking down the street? A number of ordinary objects are in a room, they have been consciously arranged in an art gallery. I come away from your installations wanting to bring the same kind of thinking out into the street with me.
MF: That's good; that's where it comes from originally. I'm not going to it from one particular point of view. In the street the thinking is not of the street - sometimes it is. I walk down the street not quite being where I am...so sometimes those states are reflected in the work. I'm more interested in things that are not only pertinent to making art work but to making life work.
CE: You couldn't possibly bring the same attention to your life which you bring to an installation...
MF: Why not? Perhaps we should. There's no difference between the two. I find that when I'm not in the moment, I miss things.