Representing the creative future

Fernanda Cortés: Objects as a prosthesis for the soul

“We can never avoid our history, our culture. It is a phantom or a shadow that follows you wherever you go.”

Forms treading the boundaries of the human and non-human. Characters schizophrenically transitioning from deep mourning to jubilation, and then again into fits of rage. Works of beautiful design and craft that are also acting as powerful art objects. The work of Mexican ceramic artist Fernanda Cortés is a fascinating collision of in-betweens and contradictions.

When we get a chance to speak about her work, it’s over a Skype call, finally pencilled in to take into account busy schedules and a six-hour time difference, as she’s currently back in Mexico — Oaxaca, to be exact — where she is to give a talk and attend the opening of her first solo exhibition. Showing here is clearly important to her, where she says she wants to promote the possibility of working in ceramic as a specialist artistic discipline, going beyond the notion of the medium as just a craft. It’s also meaningful because her national identity is intrinsically linked to her own creative voice. She tells me that she grew up looking at the paintings of Frida Kahlo, and spent her morning walks to university in Mexico City admiring the urban interventions of architectural forms and murals by artists Alfaro Siqueiros and Juan O’Gorman. Nationality is not always something I like to bring up with other artists; by the time we eventually find ourselves meeting in London, we’ve already been shaped by our experiences in a great number of places besides where we are born. But it immediately seemed to me that the sculptures Fernanda produced during her time studying at the Royal College of Art clearly draw upon the surreal imagery found within the magic realism genre of literature, which is popular in Latin American countries including her native Mexico. She agrees that it’s impossible to separate her, and by extension her work, from this heritage, and paraphrases Foucault: “We can never avoid our history, our culture. It is a phantom or a shadow that follows you wherever you go.”

The work that was on display at the Royal College’s degree show in June, and since then at Fernanda’s solo show in Mexico, is a series of sculptures that follow the figure of Sharik, a dog who undergoes a transformation that is both physical and emotional, taking on a human-like form — a narrative based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel ‘Heart of a Dog.’ Her practice is indeed largely influenced by an interest in literature, she also cites Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Juan Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Paramo’ as works that have inspired her. As such, the series of figures seek to convey this overarching narrative of Sharik, struggling to come to terms with his new likeness and simultaneous difference from the beings that surround him. At the same time the works are, when read in isolation, highly expressive and are equally able to stand alone as the culmination of a prolonged experience or emotion that Sharik has gone through, something which the artist realised when installing the works for their display at the end of her MA. “After moving the pieces around a lot in the exhibition space, I realised it was not my intention to create a history, but rather to express the feelings of the main character, Sharik, in one scenario. This would be analogous to a theatre performance, where a thespian presents a monologue that reveals their solitude.”

Fernanda describes these anthropomorphic forms as “marked by dehumanisation… invariably they loom in a state of abject otherness,” and despite signifying her figures as “dogs”— the term we invariably use for the familiar, domesticated canine — Sharik and his companions are undeniably feral looking creatures, embodied by their tactile and somewhat messy material surface and application of glazes. In this way, the works can be seen to be full of indirect social and political commentary; with all that has happened in the world this year, from the ongoing refugee crisis, to the EU referendum and of course the result of the US election — all of which clearly stood in favour of the degradation of the bodies of human beings seen not to belong in a particular place — it is hard for me to not interpret them this way. In fact, they do not necessarily even need to stand in for the human being — the posthumanist writers, Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti in particular, include animals in their work as those equally and unjustly subjected to societal domination, separation and othering.

“I’m not just referencing things happening now. These conflicts have been at play since human beings appeared on Earth. It is about the doubt and dissatisfaction with understanding who we are.”

Fernanda is clear with me that she is considerably less specific about her intentions and what has motivated her to produce these works. Rather she is interested in the broader conditions of solitude and suffering, a kind of existential struggle to come to terms with ourselves and humankind. “I’m not just referencing things happening now,” she says. “These conflicts have been at play since human beings appeared on Earth. It is about the doubt and dissatisfaction with understanding who we are. The work at the Final [RCA Degree] Show helped me understand the love to hate humanity.” The fact that Fernanda’s works are not specifically referential actually gives them an even greater poignancy in suggesting that recent events are simply reflective of an ongoing moral and political struggle of what it is to be a living thing on this earth. Indeed, she seems to be incredibly emotionally involved in the physical processes of making, using both the narratives inscribed into the gestures of her figures, and the surfaces of the objects themselves, as a way to find answers to these existential questions. She often outlines the notion of prosthesis, a stand in or extension of something, during our interview as one of her key concepts: “Objects are a kind of prosthesis for the soul.”

It was precisely this desire to become more involved in creating objects with her hands that led Fernanda to the Ceramics and Glass course at the Royal College of Art. Having previously studied a BA in Product Design at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she found herself at a point where she felt somewhat of a disconnect with the industrial tools and processes, and the emphasis on pure functionality that the course promoted. That being said, she mentions the experience of a class there called ‘Anthropology in Design’ as hugely influential, encouraging the formation of a relationship to design on a deeper and more human level. Eventually the search for a more expressive, ‘artistic’ approach to ceramic design took her to Europe, where she says she believes the philosophies of students and teachers alike are much more creative than those she experienced during her BA in Mexico and on exchange in Canada, and finally to London and the RCA.

Looking at the degree show program, it’s clear that the Ceramics and Glass course is without doubt one of the Royal College’s most diverse, or of any course at any art school I can think of. It encapsulates both a student body and teaching staff which is composed of a wide range of practitioners, from craftspeople and designers exploring their unique takes and innovations on everyday products, through to fine artists working on sculptures, pushing their own works’ formal and theoretical qualities to their limits. Fernanda’s work is somewhat more difficult to identify as one or the other. There are times where her more formal design background seems to show through, both in installation and in their photographing, where each form stands alone in a clinical, white space, as though prepared for cataloguing and sale. It’s a habit which she calls “baggage” from her previous field of study. Equally, though — and we both agree on this point — this way of framing just as successfully stands to further isolate her forms in a conceptual sense, into fragments that exaggerate the feelings of solitude and mourning that they strive to express. They can also be said to be art objects because they’re unique pieces that serve no productive function.

Naturally, then, I was drawn to ask Fernanda herself which label — artist or designer — she most identifies with. I’m clearly not the first person to wonder about this. She says, “I get very incandescent about this subject,” and then laughs as she recounts, “my teachers at the RCA would introduce me and say, ‘Oh yes, Julieta,’ — which is the name they would call me — ‘she’s an artist’.” She also recounts time spent in the studio there. At the college’s School of Material, which the Ceramics and Glass course is a part of, the education was still a rather technical one: “Most of the conversations I had were of a “how-to” nature. For example: how to use the clay. How do you mix a new glaze recipe? What temperature should the kiln be at for this kind of result? The School of Material offered me just that: pure materiality.” Fernanda confesses, as a wide reader and expressive maker, to preferring to spend her time away from these discussions in favour of sharing her ideas and thoughts with students in other departments — particularly fine artists, who shared her interests in literature, sociology and philosophy.

So does all of that make her an ‘artist’? Not so, apparently. Instead, taking into account her past technical education as well as her transition into more creative processes, she finds herself preferring to be labelled as both. Or indeed neither, simply that she is engaged in a “process of making”, where a consideration for design and art as interconnected practices and philosophies has equally informed and shaped her practice. On this matter, she deserves to have the final word, because she says it better than I possibly could:

Despite the conflict, controversy — or whatever you wish to call it — between crafts and industry, is it not true that our beautiful products look like pieces of art? For example, Apple laptops or designer handbags? Isn’t it also true that art is bought and sold like a commodity? Isn’t this how Christie’s and Sotheby’s make their money?

It’s just about my passion for creating my work. I design, draw, fabricate, sculpt, breathe, suffer, and love the things that help me endure and exist in our world. I’m collecting experiences for my survival and am inspired by the idea to communicate. It doesn’t matter if is through product design or art. It’s about channeling the nuances of our everyday lives.”