Interiors, Pivô, São Paulo, 2017, installation views
Interview with Pivô Artistic Director Fernanda Brenner - July 2017
Fernanda Brenner - Recently, the inevitable question of the role of art in these times of insecurity, volatile economies, climate change and political turmoil has haunted me. When the future no longer seems predictable, we tend to look to the past and its narratives stable to find possible answers about how we got here and how we should proceed. His work examines and appropriates vernacular techniques that are then combined with tribal found objects and industrial materials, for example, an old Kuba fabric is pieced using coloured sewing thread and cockroaches coming from China. How do you see the question of permanence and how does it relate to the provenance of the materials and techniques you use to shape your work?
Dan Coopey - My works often use or develop from found objects, particularly objects that are connected to what I call "speculative stories" and objects that have enduring narratives that span multiple cultures, or most of them. Basketry is an example of this, because, due to the perishable nature of the natural materials used, very few basketry artifacts remain. What we know comes basically from fossilization.
There is the theory that in prehistoric times, the basket craftsman lined the containers braided with clay so they could carry liquids. Accidental fires caused some of these baskets to perish, leaving only the original burnt clay container. This theory interests me a lot, because at this point, basketry might have been outdated, however, it is widely used today.
While these historical narratives inform my practice, it would be a mistake to conclude that my works deal only with the past. I believe that my practice investigates a very current issue which, in turn, also relates to the future. My basketwork is often interpreted through ancient stories. However, with the new work exhibited in the Pivot, the visitor will see the actuality of the new materials when contrasted / mixed with the indigenous containers found.
I am impatient to see my work ten years from now, as I understand how raffia will grow old, its colour will become more intense over time.
With regards to my intervention with the Kuba textiles that you mention, I mended the holes and tears that had appeared over time through their use as ceremonial dresses. The value of these fabrics is largely dependent on their condition, so I was interested to see how my repairs would change their value, as my intervention could be considered both an act of compassion – in some sense rescuing them from ruin – and an invasive, even destructive act. Regardless of their new valuation, my interaction with them has ensured that they remain intact for years to come, even if they no longer function within the culture they originated from.
FB You always hide small objects inside your basket-works. I really like the idea of an artwork having a secret, something that can only be accessed if the sculpture is torn apart. Sometimes the titles offer hints to what is inside. Can you tell me about these hidden objects and how you select them?
DC The objects I hid inside previous woven works were always found items, either tools or ornaments that are handcrafted from base materials, metals, minerals, etc. These objects perform several functions within the work.
I am interested in how an object’s value shifts when out of sight. For example, a 19th century set of hand-carved ebony piano keys are just raw material when the only evidence of their presence is the material listing in the work’s caption. I like however that in a hundred years time, when the basket perishes, the object inside will retain its original value, though presumably by then, the value of ebony, and the value of piano keys, will have shifted either up or down. Hiding the objects also raises the question of the value attributed to artistry and craftsmanship. Each time I make a new work in this series, I try to find an object made from a material I have never used before. I enjoy this challenge, because as the series progresses it becomes ever more difficult. The objects are often antique, as handicrafts are largely outmoded and were replaced by mass produced items. Each time I travel I am introduced to new materials, for example in Sicily I found coral, and here in Brazil a lot of items are made from nuts, stones and agate.
FB For this exhibition you are trying something new. Combining found indigenous artifacts (pots and baskets) with your particular weaving methods. It is different from the Kuba textile works because instead of fixing the holes in the old fabric using new materials you are creating new structures that depart from the artifacts, thus annulling the possibility of practical use and their relationship with their origin or any kind of symbolic value they might have. In these works, the indigenous basket shares the same hierarchy of the rattan threads. In your practice, you are constantly shifting the notions of material and symbolic values, for instance, in the copper works. Can you tell me how you see the relationship between attributed value and raw matter in your work?
DC The use of indigenous baskets in these new works partly came from an interest in what I perceive as a very unstable, fluctuating set of values that are attributed to these objects. Removed from their original context, their value here in a big city, specifically São Paulo, is mostly for use as home accessories, particularly amongst the educated classes. Their material value rapidly increases as indigenous communities disappear, and there is now a scarcity of authentic indigenous items. Most of what you find today in stores that sell indigenous items in São Paulo is not what you could term genuine artifacts, but objects made solely for this particular market.
My intervention with these baskets – expanding and altering their forms using materials and techniques that are alien to their origin – deactivates their ability to function as practical vessels. Yet in some respects their displacement means that this is a condition already inherent to them.
Last time I was in São Paulo, I spent a lot of time studying and admiring indigenous baskets, yet I felt uncomfortable trying to imitate the techniques I had learned, and although my intervention here could seem intrusive, I feel that the contrast with my own weaving somehow allows the found objects to retain their identity, perhaps even heightening the viewer’s awareness of the specific forms and materials used to create the indigenous vessels.
FB Architectural and artisanal vernacular techniques are no longer easy to find in Brazil. Items were either entirely replaced by industrial manufacture and importation or are treated as ‘ethnical’ merchandise for decoration purposes. Lina Bo Bardi’s 1969 seminal show A Mão do Povo Brasileiro – recently reedited at MASP – dealt with these issues by bringing together a large inventory of what used to be ‘The hand of the Brazilian People’. The current curators chose not to update the collection and showed only pieces from that period. The 1969 exhibition became itself a museum piece and, arguably, contemporary art is looking more and more to the locally sourced and to its own ecological footprint (the latest editions of the Venice and São Paulo Biennials are good examples), instead of reinforcing the lavish and globetrotting art world of the early 2000s. You mentioned once that people often say your work looks Brazilian, and this is your second extended stay in the country. How does being in Brazil affect your work? Do you agree with this image of your work?
DC Last time I was in São Paulo, many people thought my work looked ‘Brazilian’, and this has instigated the works I’m making here now. As a self-taught weaver, I am very aware of the specific origins of the techniques I use and the materials I employ, therefore, I am able to make a strong distinction between the weaving I do – which is actually a hodgepodge of weaves from across the globe that I use to create vessels which have no real point of reference in terms of cultural identity – and the very specific weaves and materials used here in Brazil.
I think the resultant works are interesting as in some ways they dispel this idea but they could also be perceived as even more ‘Brazilian’, as they employ found Brazilian objects. But this is an interesting idea. In many of the items sold here, mostly food, you can see the label ‘Made in Brazil’. As a foreigner in São Paulo making these works, could I label them as ‘Made in Brazil’? And what would it mean to do so? I still don’t really have an answer.
Handcrafted objects such as baskets are often collective endeavours when made in indigenous communities; the sourcing of materials, their preparation and the crafting itself may involve many hands. I am aware that I am producing these works in the city, within a society that is more geared towards the recognition of the individual. This is clearly evident in social media etc., but it is interesting to think that by utilising these objects in my artwork, they somehow become authored, and their value is shifted under my name. Perhaps my act of weaving also gets more recognition, precisely because I am doing it in a context dominated by quick mass production and flat screens. But I hope that through the recognition of my own manual labour, people will consider the other hands involved, or maybe even see my works as a collective endeavour.
FB Finally, can you tell me about the process and installation of this particular exhibition? Does the venue’s context and architecture play a significant role in the conception of the show or are you mainly focused in producing the artworks?
DC For this exhibition I have chosen a fairly informal mode of presentation, as the objects I have created are in themselves quite informal. This non-hierarchical method of display also references the environment of the stores selling indigenous items here in São Paulo, which are often a jumble of different forms and textures. A kind of a beautiful mess, similar to what we see here in São Paulo’s Centro.