Magdalena Fernández: When the Spirit blows upon the waters

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In the same way that in Buddhism we can talk about lineages of teaching that define a way of engaging the nature of reality determined by the particular view of a school, we can as well talk of lineages in art to extricate ourselves from stricter categories that can be very limiting. If lineages are determined by points of inspiration that flower individually in each artist, we can say that artist Magdalena Fernández (Caracas, 1964) is a late bloom of the of the kinetic and neo-constructivist Venezuelan movements that are her original inspiration, or at least her very own imaginal connection within Venezuelan art. These artists already distinguished themselves from the geometric purism of the moderns crossing their abstractions with the world of the sensate, just as we can see it in the meticulous work of Carlos Cruz-Diez about the perception of colour, impacted as he was by the intense tones of the tropics; the vibrational proposition of the Penetrables of Jesús Soto, which dematerialize space suggesting the sound of falling water through the participation of the public; or in the constructive structures of Gego, where mathematics and poetics create weavings with an organic nature directly related to the experience of space.

In the same way, Magdalena's work has developed within a reflection about the geometric made not exclusively from the rigid logos associated with modern geometric abstractionism, but from a relationship with the erotic-intuitive that drives her to cross-relate geometic forms with forms and elements of the natural world in an original spirit.

Behind the homogenous appearance of Surfaces, there is definitely a complex weaving of themes and intensions warped with extraordinary genius and intuition demanding a presentation that includes various threads. On one hand, Surfaces, as Magdalena spontaneously said when she briefly presented the project for the first time is an homenage to the square, that supreme form of abstraction, and its possibilities in space. It is on the other hand a meditation on how space is made place through the sensate experiences of the body that transits it, just as Sandra Pinardi puts it beautifully in her text. It is as well a very personal display about the differences and relationships between painting and drawing. And last, the great theme: transit (or should I say transmutation?), a transit that goes from the geometric to sensation, as well as from sensation to geometry. Said in different words, the work engages the process of naturalization of the abstract and abstraction of the natural. In the following notes I want to open some minuscule windows into some of the fantasies I have about that encounter that I still find so amazing, and into some shreds of a biography that doesn't really want to be told, but only insinuated.

Hieros Gamos
One of the things that fascinates me about Magdalena's work is her involuntary spirituality, and I say involuntary because these contents I refer to never form part of a deliberate discourse or a confessed intellectual or metaphysical stand. Magdalena expresses her interior world and her obsessions without mediation. But my experience and that of other people when touring the exhibition is an experience where, to say it with a Biblical turn of phrase, one feels the Spirit blowing upon the waters. It is spiritual in the widest sense of the term, such as Eric Neumann defined it in his beautiful essay on The Mystic Man : «For us, the mystical is a fundamental category of human experience which, psychologically speaking, is manifest wherever consciousness is not yet, or where it is not effectively centered anymore around the ego (…) it can manifest as religious experience, love, artistic creation, a genial ideal, delusion (…) The authentic, fundamental experience of the numinous can't but be anticonventional, anticollective and antidogmatic, because the experience of the numinous is ever new». It is very difficult, very risky, to enquire about the formulas that make a work of art, or any object, vehicles of a numinous experience, but I believe that in the works that Magdalena presents in Surfaces there is a fundamental happening that enables that transit (that other transit): Magdalena manages to carry out a wedding between opposites that is so effective that to experience it takes the breath away. The most ancient image of the conjunction of opposites is the hieros gamos , which was the sacred marriage in agrarian societies between the god and the goddess, a ritual which renewed the fertility of the earth. The alchemists rescued the same image in the marriage between the King and Queen, whose fruit, the filium philosophorum , was the elixir of life that cured all, and that transmuted all. The alchemical King and Queen are the archetypal masculine and feminine. The masculine is thus logos, truth, thought, action, reason. The feminine is eros, sense, feeling, receptivity, emotion. The conjunction of opposites continues to be today, both in the individual and collective psyche, with its cultural, social and politic manifestations, the great work to be carried out. In Magdalena's proposal the opposites to which I refer are the great protagonists of her work: water and geometry. Geometry is the daughter of mathematical logos, its visible body, it's pure reason, pure abstraction. It's masculine. We women, in general, have more difficulty than men in relating to geometric abstraction because we miss the meaning to which the figurative points. Water, on the other hand, is the element that has always represented the primordial feminine, fertility, emotion, the potential. Water is nature and the manifest world. The artistic genius of Magdalena has converted her mathematically conceived geometric forms, her calculated constructivisms, into vehicles of the movements, luminosities and essential transparencies of water. Her alchemical talent, in achieving this marriage between the masculine and the feminine, leaves the viewer under the impact of an encounter with «a third thing» that turns into a window that opens to states of integration only dimly intuited but fiercely desired.

Ancestors in situ
This seemingly arbitrary association between geometric abstraction and the spiritual is surprising only if some facts are ignored, facts that although no secret are still treated like dirty linens, or at least like an uncomfortable piece of information about modernity. One has to start saying that geometry itself comes already loaded (or contaminated, depending on the point of view) of the mystical since antiquity. One only has to think about Plato («God geometrizes») or in the Pythagoric School and follow the lead into concepts of sacred geometry which saw in nature geometric patterns and structures that reveal the metaphysical principle of the inseparability of the part with the whole. I will quote only two late examples: Says astronomer Johannes Kepler (in Harmonices Mundi , 1619): «Geometry existed before the creation of things, as eternal as the spirit of God; it is God itself, and it gave it the prototype for the origin of all things». And Giordano Bruno says in 1591: «The order of a unique figure and the harmony of a unique number gave origin to all things».

Coming back to the uncomfortable bits, no one who walks through the halls of Surfaces can ignore the presence of some homages that Magdalena pays, more or less deliberately according to the case, to Mondrian and Malevich, masters who lend themselves perfectly to illustrate how the imaginal worlds of the pioneers of modern geometric abstractionism were criss-crossed by original intensions and associations that were far removed from concepts of «art for art's sake». Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), the purest and most determined of the great precursors of abstraction, joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909 and used to say that he had learned everything he knew from Madame Blavatsky. From Theosophy he derived his permanent conviction that life was destined to evolve and that the aim of art was to embody this principle. It's from there that he also takes the concept that affirms that the progress to the ultimate revelation comes through the reconciliation of opposite forces. Mondrian was very preoccuped with the tension between the vertical and the horizontal, and according to his notes, the black lines that structure his big planes of colour and later the cruciform clusters that characterize him, represent the battle towards the unity of the cosmic duality and the religious symmetry which is the web that sustains the material universe.

Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) is the Russian painter who gave birth to Suprematism (1913), an artistic movement based on a geometric grammar constituted by squares and circles. Malevich was a mystic, influenced by Theosophy and by Piotr Ouspensky, Russian mathematician and main collaborator of the influential mystic Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Malevich, who was a contemplative, defined Suprematism as a medium to demonstrate the supreme states of conscience through the supreme state of painting, which was non-objectification. This non-objectification of Suprematism implies the radical destruction of the objective world, and it recognizes but one world, the one of the abyss of the Self. Thus, his most famous work, The Back Square (1913) was for him at the same time «the absolute symbol of modernity», pure feeling and an icon of the divine and un-manifested Absolute, of which can be said only what it is not. In fact, when The Black Square was shown in the last Futurist exhibition in Saint-Petersburg (December, 1915), the piece was hung in a corner up the roof, where Orthodox families hung their icons (called the «Golden Corner»), and the people would cross themselves at seeing it. On the other hand, Malevich always considered light to be a feature of the sacred. His piece White on White (1918), is also an important reference to be able to recognize the distant echoes in Magdalena´s proposal. For him this was a representation of the light before the creation of the world, before it illumined the objects giving them form and colour.

If we consider Malevich's square —both the black and the white ones— as an image of the Absolute without attributes, an image of perfect Emptiness, the via negativa , Magdalena's square, in almost all of its epiphanies, and particularly in Venice (3i00, Surfaces), would be a feminine icon of the Supreme that integrates logos and eros, matter transparent to pure spirit, a plenum of primal waters that affirms the manifest world and is capable of giving the great yes over its elemental surface.

Biographical Postcards

Verbatum. Water

«All my work is based on water, on the reflections of the light over its surface, on its transparencies, on the movement of light, on its breaking reflections. I spent all my life beside water, I was always at the sea with my family, at the river. It is my experience».

«This phase of the work where water appears in video starts from a visit I made to Venice in 2000, when seeing the reflections of the palazzos on the waters of the canals I realized that all I wanted to do was there. There was a precise instant in which I saw a little perfect square of a window reflected on the water, and that completed the image. Before, my videos where approximations to spatial problems. All the images I've done afterwards of images that move on water come out of that moment».

«In the same way, the piece of the black points ( 1i993 , Sala Mendoza, 1993) in the show Structures , comes out of the sound of a drop of water. I had the sound recorded and the constructive elements (the black balls) and wanted to do something with that. When I went to a recording studio and I saw the sonogram, I was fascinated by it because at that moment I saw the piece. 1i993 is a reproduction of that graphic reading of the drop's sound. The same can be said of the piece with the frogs (1i006 Eleutherodactylus coqui, Surfaces), where the breaks in the light-lines appear at the peaks of the sonogram of the frogs' singing».

«Already since the exhibition I did in Sala Mendoza ( Aires , 1998), I wanted to create, above all, an atmosphere, an atmosphere that would translate in geometric language the feeling of water. In truth, I have always done the same thing. If you see that swinging square piece ( 3em006 , Surfaces ) you can notice that it moves like water».

Verbatum. The master

«I studied mathematics because I thought I was going to find there some clues, answers to my uncertainties, to questions that I can't even define precisely, but that are there». That same quest probably led her to live for years in the north of Italy, where she had the opportunity of working and studying with a well-known Italian designer who turned out to be one of those characters whose strength and coherence become necessary reference points. «I lived in a little town called Castiglione della Stivere. While I was there I worked picking up fruits, and in the production lines of a fruit-bread fabric. At that time I studied in the workshop of A.G. Fronzoni in Milano. He was a designer of projects, an artist of genius who had a lot of the ascetic monk in him. He was extremely austere in his being, in the shapes of his daily living and his art, and he wouldn't allow any differences between his aesthetics and his life. He was a minimalist, and he moved on an apollinian rationality that would reduce everything to its minimal constructive elements. His proposals were global, and he upheld the notion that life and work had to be carefully and thoughtfully designed, and this consciousness of what was wanted needed to be taken to all the spheres of your life in an integral way, including the most banal and automatic. He didn´t care if the people in the workshop went from an architectural design, to a graphic one or to an industrial one. In fact, all the people there came from very different backgrounds and occupations. What he cared about was the coherence and direction of the project. He was very constructivist, in the sense that things had to be in one way and not another, and there was indeed a lot of rigidity in that. Of the square he would say that it was an expression of order in the world, and saw it as the constructive element of the fundamental reticule that organizes everything, it comes from there. I think that the reticule is the sure path, the grid that gives you order and discipline; it's only basing yourself in this order from where further down the road you can “dis-order”. Fronzoni was, of course, an atheist».

Verbatum. The eternal return.

«I have always done the same thing, I have always been rotating, planning, spiraling around the same thing. We artists constantly create the same thing. Look, these are some exercises from when I was in the graphic arts school here in Caracas, even then you can already see that this graphic of a grid already is seeking the movement of water».

Already here Magdalena Fernández wants to combine something geometric with something fluid. She shows me pictures of her first solo show, where she exhibited photos she made of an old printing press, where everything seem to mimic details of a very constructed architecture. I ask her if she would know how to define what is this thing that lies behind everything she has been doing all these years of dedicated art work. She becomes pensive. I do too. Meanwhile we can already hear the frogs singing and the afternoon lights dance over very white walls.

Alicia Torres
'Superficies' catalog
spanish version