In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center: 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.
Patricia Fernández' "Points of Departure (Between Spain and France)" considers the forms that history takes in the context of war, displacement, and political persecution that has reshaped our notions of geography and place over the past century. Fernández' work is on view through June 27 as part of 18th Street Arts Center's Artist Lab Residency, a three-month studio residency for which Los Angeles-based artists are invited to develop projects that make their working processes transparent for the benefit of a visiting public.
As the descendant of political dissidents in Fascist Spain, Fernández was born in 1980 into a newly liberated country still reckoning with the legacy of Franco's dictatorship. Upon returning to Spain as an adult, she became intrigued by the materials, some commonplace, that represented an otherwise lost historical record of dissent, struggle, and displacement. After meeting a family friend, an anarchist who had fled the country but later returned, she began to trace the paths that Spanish Republicans had taken through the Pyrenees to escape persecution in 1939, known as la Retirada. Hiking the trails is an act of endurance that allows her to physically synthesize the actions and the memories of the survivors whose stories she articulates through her body of work. These walks produce drawings and texts, inspired by conversations with nonagenarian Spanish expatriates still living in France, which Fernández renders as a historical archive of their displacement. Through actions -- walking, painting, hand-copying maps and documents, presenting slide lectures about materials from the archive - she absorbs history and reproduces it as a living, contemporary force.
As an Artist Lab Resident at 18th Street Arts Center, Fernández continues to develop a symbolic archive of the Spanish Republicans' flight into France that stands as a testament to the absence of a historical archive in the Municipal Archives of Bordeaux where many of the displaced took refuge. Likewise disappeared are records of French Jews who fled into Spain in the early 1940s, fleeing the Nazi advance into France. Survivors attest that the records were stolen by the Vichy regime, the French collaborationist government that sought to mask Fascist crimes. Fernández' work cannot replace the stolen archive, but operates instead as a collective memory palace built of ephemera and personal narratives.
Fernández' work is distinguished by the care with which she constructs the materials of her ghost archive, as well as the forms which support and display them. Painting, textiles, drawing, sculpture, and woodworking are integrated into her practice. She understands the physical labor of making these forms to be another way of processing the stories that she collects into memories, and making them her own. Hand-built objects in the gallery include wooden furniture and a ceramic tiled floor. The latter represents the now-broken floor of the train station in Canfranc where waves of Spanish and French refugees crossed the border during the war, tracing paths that we are now invited to retrace as we peruse the assembled archive.
Because the work is based on stories that have been shared with her personally, Fernández is committed to sharing them on an equally personal and direct level with audiences. She does this through weekly performative lectures in the gallery, held each Friday evening, in which she explores one or another aspect of the archive such as the history of a single family or city. These lectures are not recorded, as she does not wish for the information to be mediated but rather to be communicated conversationally in a way that encourages both attention and intimacy. In the spirit of that one-on-one dialogue, 18th Street Arts Center's Director of Residency Programs, Anuradha Vikram, sat down with Fernández to talk about her ongoing project and her installation in the Artist Lab.
How did you become aware of the history of la Retirada?
Patricia Fernández: I had spent about two years on a previous project where I was collecting buttons from family members. It began with my grandmother's buttons. She wanted to share the stories with me that were embedded in the buttons, and for two years I collected these objects and then I exhibited the collected buttons arranged in what I saw as constellations. I made a whole installation with these memory objects. A close family friend told me about how buttons had served him in his life, particularly during the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War and after. He told me about his own collection of buttons coming from the northeast of Spain -- in Barcelona and Sabadell, very famous for textiles -- where his mother worked at a textile factory and they would strip all the buttons off the clothing because they had so much worth. He collected these buttons as a memory of his mother, quite representative of the kind of craftwork that was done at this time, and also used as a currency to cross over the border.
When I heard that he crossed over the border in 1939, I began to ask more questions about his political affiliations and I discovered that he came from a family of anarchists, and he -- unlike many of the Spanish Republicans -- was actually allowed to re-enter Spain. I wanted to know more about the history of the Spanish Republicans in Spain and learn about it through someone who had direct experience. That's how it began.
In the next phase, you took a residency in Bordeaux, on the French side of the border. Is this when you began to develop interviews with people who had made this crossing through the mountains?
PF: Since he had done the crossing, he explained to me the path as he remembered it, and then I went on that walk which began in Portbou over into Cerbere, right along the Mediterranean coast, and into the south of France. Once I was in France, I traveled to Bordeaux.
This wasn't specifically the reason why I went to Bordeaux, to interview people who had done this walk. I knew that there had been a very big and permanent Spanish exile population that had remained there, and I was curious about the cultural inheritance of these immigrants in this small city. I didn't know that many of them had actually done the same walk that I had just taken that month. When I arrived in Bordeaux I began to interview Spanish exiles, Spanish Republicans who had also taken that path, and they re-told their own experience of the walk, and then they wanted to know about my walk and what I was doing there. It became a way to connect these histories.
When you're making this archive that we see in the gallery, what are the different kinds of materials that you collect into it, and what are the materials that you produce and add to the archive?
PF: The way that I understand a lot of archival practices to work is that you compile this information and it's available for a viewer to look through, and oftentimes I feel like it hasn't been processed yet by the person who has collected the information. Because there was such a massive amount of information and so many things I didn't even know I would be learning about when I began this project, it became really important to attempt to understand the mass of information. At times I was literally taking documents that people were giving me -- for example, letters that had been written by the father of the son of a Republican that I met, or photocopies of books that were written by people that had done this walk -- all of these elements that were voluntarily added into the archive by others, and I attempted to internalize them in a way. I would make handwritten copies, or translations.
Everything in this archive is a copy in some way, everything is constructed or somehow mediated through my hand, and I wanted that to be apparent. It's a copy of a copy; it becomes important for the viewer to see that I am transforming the material. I'm more interested in how the history is mediated, transformed, or transcribed than just this very objective account. I'm really interested in the subjectivities of the individuals. And therefore oftentimes I'm the one choosing the objects to add to the archive and other times they're just handed to me, but in some way they are always passed through my hand.
Following on the question of re-making objects and processing the objects through your hand, what are the sculptural forms that you're working with that are not necessarily drawn from the documents that you've collected, but are more of a support for the materials as they function in the space?
PF: These sculptures that I'm constructing are really presentation devices -- they're tables. I wanted to construct a setting that was very similar to the experience that I had of looking at archives in the Hôtel des Archives in Bordeaux, which is the municipal archives, where I went every day and found absolutely nothing, but just the fact that I was able to go through all these papers and touch everything and look at all these old posters, handwritten notes, observations...there was something really sensory about that experience. So here, I came and laid out all my stuff on the ground so I could sort it and organize it, and the tables, the sculptures, are presentations that highlight certain things for the viewer to look at. The viewer is allowed to come in here and touch these elements.
When you approach making these forms, are you drawing from techniques that you are already comfortable with, or are you learning new material techniques in order to execute a project based on your concept?
PF: I have often made furniture works or pieces that resemble functional objects. It's always a challenge -- I definitely make these pieces from drawings, so oftentimes I don't know how to even begin to make something stand up -- so it's really a learning process for me. Working with glass is also new. I definitely have this idea in my mind and then I try to figure out how it is going to be constructed. I wanted to reconstruct the space of these archives, and I made this drawing of what the space looked like and how I wanted people to enter the space, and then it was about finding the pieces to make it happen.
I'm also using woodcarving; I learnt how to do this by watching my own grandfather (who refused to teach me). It was the thing that grandsons were supposed to learn, not women, so he would say "you don't want to learn this, don't do this," but I learned by copying him. If you spend time with someone or something long enough, eventually you'll learn something.
Would you say that everything that you do in terms of producing objects that expand on the material documents of the archive is still really about the handmade, and only using technologies that incorporate the hand in some way?
PF: I'm learning of these histories and these stories because they're passing through bodies, because they're being spoken, how things pass through our hands. It's very important that a body can record a history, or to know how history is carried and located in the body. Everything that's tactile is a way to write these things out through the body.
How does your weekly Friday evening performative lecture series operate within the structure of everything else that you're doing?
PF: I had this great opportunity of doing a three-month residency to really just go through everything. I've been trying to go through all these materials that are laid out here on the floor. The lectures, for me, are a way to perform these histories and keep these stories alive; it's also an exercise of memory. I went on these different walks; I've done four out of the five very important walks that the Spanish Republicans took when they left Spain. I will be returning soon to do another one, but who knows -- once I'm there, there might be this other path that I find. The paths aren't really even marked by signs, and they go all over the mountains.
The lectures are about sharing these histories of the people that I met, also about the responsibility of the younger generations. I actually did my first lecture on this idea that the descendants carry these stories, and in a way unless we re-perform these stories, they may get lost. There are a few documents or stories that were passed on to me from certain Spanish Republicans that I met, stories that had never been published, had never been translated or discussed or brought to light, and I found that it was important to share these, to insist on their importance. I was meeting the Spanish Republicans, most of them now in their 90s. Some of the people I interviewed are actually no longer with us, so it was really about this urgency to communicate their stories.
That's why I wanted to do the Friday talks. It's about talking and sharing stories. I found that when I went to France to talk with some of these people that had never returned to Spain, that remained in exile there, and when I later traveled back to Spain to see my grandparents, I became this vessel of information, this vehicle, and it was really amazing. What happened was that a lot of the stories these people in their 90s told me about, I shared with my grandparents who are also in their 90s (but decided to stay in Spain during Franco's regime), and one story being passed onto the other person activated another story and there was a communication that was happening that was not there before.
For someone who's coming into the gallery, what do you think that you would like for them to get out of the experience of looking at your work?
PF: One thing that I find that I love, when people come in here and I tell them a little story, is that they'll share something about their own family history or their past and we begin to ask questions together. We even talk about current-day politics. More than anything, I want these objects to activate a conversation. For me, these paintings, the drawings, the sculptures in the space are containers for information that is being passed. If someone can begin to ask a question about what this means, and where did this come from, then we can have a really interesting conversation about how memory constructs history, our role in constructing that history, and how we write our past, how we have these shared histories, and how they overlap.
I'm taking a very small group of histories of political exiles, but at the same time their plight and their difficulties and the things that they were fighting for can be equally experienced with another subgroup or subculture. It's important to have this conversation about why am I looking at things from the past, because really a lot of these subjects are being discussed today in contemporary Spain, and a lot of the crimes that were committed during Franco's era are still being questioned today. It's something that a lot of us are maybe not aware of if we don't live there.