Sculptor Beatriz Cortez: “The imagination is already optimistic”

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The Arts and Industries Building, built in 1881 by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, began life as a place to house artefacts from the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. It became the first national museum in the United States. Over the years, his focus was rethought as new Smithsonian Museums sprang up around him, and he accumulated various nicknames from “the mother of museums” to “the palace of invention.”

In 2004, it closed for a much needed renovation – lasting 10 years and costing $ 55 million. Rachel Goslins, director of the AIB since 2016, tells me that she is fond of all her nicknames. They played a role in discussions about what this “beautiful, tumultuous, monumental” exhibition hall could or should contain.

Meanwhile, to mark the public reopening of the AIB and celebrate 175 years of the Smithsonian, Goslins has put on an exhibition worthy of the bold tradition and looking to the future of his institution. TO COME UP will combine artifacts from the Smithsonian collections with interactive exhibits and a few newly commissioned works of art, all themed around visions of the future based on collective humanity, inspiration, pragmatism and hope.

One of these commissioned artists is Beatriz Cortez, a sculptor and scholar born in El Salvador and based in Los Angeles. “We chose artists who already had a practice of forward thinking integrated into their work,” explains Goslins. In recent years, Cortez has drawn more and more attention to works of art that combine science fiction with ancient and indigenous knowledge and spiritual beliefs.

Detail of ‘Chultún El Semillero’, a space-time capsule inspired by ancient Mayan culture, filled with living plants, seeds and tools © Greg Kahn

Her studio is next to a gated complex near downtown Los Angeles, filled with shipping containers, trailers and a bus tricked into the annual Burning Man arts event. Cortez invites me through heavy plastic curtains. Still wearing goggles and a thick Kevlar welding sleeve, she warns me not to touch any steel frame she’s welded “in case it’s still hot.”

Cortez learned to weld in 2016, during an artist residency at Cerritos College’s auto body shop in Norwalk, a working-class town southeast of Los Angeles that is about 70 percent Hispanic. “I see my work as a tribute to immigrant workers who improvise, do things they weren’t trained for,” she says.

In the center of the crowded studio is his unfinished sculpture for TO COME UP. About five feet high, the steel structure is reminiscent of both a space capsule and a bulbous asteroid. Its frame gives it rugged functionality, while its hammered rounded panels are inspired, Cortez says, from both sea urchin shells and dresses sewn by his grandmother.

Once finished, “Chultun El Semillero”Will consist of two of these capsules, connected by a narrow tunnel. In one, the plants will grow under lamps. The other will store seeds and carry, in its center, a welded steel rock inscribed with a formula for the future distribution of seeds, developed in collaboration with the mathematician brother of Cortez and written in Mayan symbols. The title is a reference to pre-Columbian Maya chultuns – huge storage vessels dug into the rocky ground, used as cisterns for drinking water or as food caves – “all the things that are precious and life-saving,” Cortez says.

I ask him how readable his formula for the survival of life on Earth would be. “Some people will read it because they understand the Mayan signs,” she replies. “Some people won’t be able to read it, so they’ll have to look for it. This is an uncompromising response from someone weary of being told that their culture, or the cultures they study, are marginal, obscure, unimportant.

Cortez tries, through her work, “to be a time traveler”. While the engine of his art is his contemplation of the future, his fuel is the ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples. And in his recent academic work in the fields of posthumanism and speculative philosophy, Cortez wondered “Will plants remember humans when we’re gone?” She has researched plant migration in the Americas through the powerful United Fruit Company, as well as the agricultural exploration program initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture at the turn of the 20th century.

Detail of ‘Chultún El Semillero’ © Greg Kahn

I ask Cortez if she traces her own lineage with Indigenous people. “I am a mutt! I am nothing ! she laughs. “I refuse to be defined, because I think that everything is a question of the future and not of the past.

“My job is not about me,” she continues. “I’m afraid people will read my work based on my biography and think it’s about identity politics when it’s about something deeper.”

Nonetheless, Cortez tells me his immigrant story: how, before his birth in 1970, Cortez’s parents lived in New York City, sparingly but happily, before returning to El Salvador to raise their family; how they endured a decade of violent civil war until one night in 1989 they tell their daughter she must leave the country. Two hours later, Cortez was on his way to join his older brother in Arizona.

She hated Arizona. “I was from the tropics. I found myself in a red place like Mars. I had the impression that there were no plants. But after enrolling in Mesa Community College, while studying art, she found a place that “calmed me down and made me survive the trauma of migration.”

She holds a PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies from Arizona State University and has taught Central American and Cross-Border Studies since 2000 at the State of California, Northridge, where approximately half of the students are Hispanic or Latino. “I am surrounded by students who have had the same migration experiences as me. They inspire and inform my work.

Before leaving, I ask him the question in the center of the TO COME UP exhibition: “What do you think about when you think about the future?” Is she optimistic or pessimistic? “Well, that’s interesting,” she replies. “My work is very focused on optimism, on the survival of different peoples and their journeys in the cosmos. But it is also a matter of catastrophe and of imagining the end of the Anthropocene.

For an academic committed to demystifying Western and colonialist thought systems, the end of humanity may not be such a bad thing. “I don’t think the ideas about the end of the Anthropocene are apocalyptic; I think it’s about imagining the world from other perspectives, ”she says. “If I imagine being a rock, I don’t become a rock, I just imagine being something else. I try to decolonize my desires.

“Imagining is already optimistic,” she said. “You are already creating something else. “

November 20 to July 6, 2022, aib.si.edu

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