Teresita Fernández Creates Glimmering “Walled Garden” Made of Stainless Steel Above Brooklyn
Fernádez spoke with Surface exclusively ahead of the unveiling of Paradise Parados to discuss the engineering marvel that has already been winning awards ahead of its public debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
It’s not hyperbole to call Teresita Fernández a household name in contemporary art. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship was one of President Obama’s appointees—and the first Latina—to serve on the U.S Commission of Fine Arts. In 2019 her work was the subject of a retrospective at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, and just recently Lehmann Maupin, which represents Fernández, displayed her work at TEFAF New York’s spring 2022 fair.
Though Fernández and her work have moved through some of the most exclusive art world establishments with hard-earned critical success, she has a strong track record of accepting commissions for public-facing artwork. Two years in the making, her site-specific sculpture Paradise Parados goes on permanent display today at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and is arguably Fernández’s most monumental work (It’s worth noting that Paradise Parados has already enjoyed considerable success: Eleven months before opening to the public, it received the New York City Public Design Commission award for Excellence in Design).
Paradise Parados overlooks the street from the Robert W. Wilson Sculpture Terrace at BAM Strong. Composed of 3,000 linear feet of perforated stainless steel, the piece’s form is an abstraction of a verdant walled garden, derived from the prevalence of ivy-covered brick walls and public green spaces in the neighborhoods surrounding BAM. The steel forms a woven grid that cascades over the side of the BAM Harvey Theater building, with three abstracted ‘branches’ protruding up to nine feet into the horizontal space above the terrace. Fernández worked with Brooklyn-based Camber Studio to collaboratively solve the design challenges presented by ensuring the piece’s structural integrity. Camber Studio engaged a team of licensed engineers to advise on the installation. As a result, a network of carefully hidden compression rods and stainless steel tension cables create the illusion of the sculpture gently grazing the wall with no visible anchors.
Despite being visible from the street, Fernández says the piece is intended to foster a more personal dialogue with onlookers. “Ultimately, my interest in public art resides in who constitutes the public, which is often a very mutable thing,” she says.”The more monumental the work is, the more I value a quiet experience by individual viewers. Every single person is a complex and nuanced iteration of ‘the public’, and the reaction or type of engagement I value the most from viewers is one of intimacy.”
We caught up with Fernández before the unveiling of Paradise Parados to learn how living in Brooklyn influenced the final concept, her research-heavy approach to site-specific installations, and the power of reflective materials to draw viewers in.
Paradise Parados is a site-specific, permanent installation. It’s also a work that viewers can see quite clearly from the street level. How did your experience living in Brooklyn, near BAM for an extended period of time, impact your vision for the installation?
I have lived in Brooklyn, walking distance from BAM for 25 years and really understood the urban landscape and how the area is used on a daily basis. If you looked at a site plan of this area or just walked around, you’d see many instances of iconic, small-scale green spaces interspersed throughout the surrounding Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn area, all which offer intimate, publicly accessible places of respite for pedestrians. Within this urban environment, Paradise Parados was imagined as a new way of imagining a ‘green’ space, a contemplative space.
What ideas or themes does Paradise Parados explore?
My public works are usually very deliberate about site-specificity. The organic form of the artwork is derived from the meandering ivy-covered brick walls so ubiquitous throughout Brooklyn’s urban landscape. Framing the doorway to the lounge area inside, the artwork becomes a canopy that suggests a draped, proscenium-like entrance, mimicking the undulating curtains that would frame a stage as viewers walk underneath the artwork to enter and exit the space.
In Paradise Parados, I was also trying to create a hortus conclusus, an imagined walled-roof garden space that hovers high above the density of downtown Brooklyn. The sculptural, woven form projects out three-dimensionally from the side of the BAM Harvey Theater and glimmers, catching the light. It is also viewable from street level when walking up or down Fulton street in either direction and is visible from a distance, and with its volume and monumental scale, it serves as an iconic, visual marker that gives viewers, pedestrians, and theater-goers a sense of having arrived at the BAM Harvey.
What can you tell us about the name of the work, Paradise Parados? How does it relate to the ideas and themes you shared with us in question one?
The title is a play on the words paradise and parados. The origin of the word paradise originally means “walled or enclosed garden” and the word parados is a term used in Ancient Greek theater meaning “side-entrance, or “entrance from the side wings of the stage”. So the artwork suggests a three-sided enclosed garden, and it is positioned, literally, on the side of the BAM Harvey theater.
I’ve seen the themes of self-reflection and identity reflected in your previous works, and in how viewers engage with them. In 2019 you told the New York Times, “People are very seduced by their own image and the exercise of looking for themselves,” Is that part of the experience you sought to create with “Paradise Parados”? Did it have any impact on your decision to choose mirror polished stainless steel instead of a more matte finish, for example?
The terrace space was envisioned as an immersive, coherent experience where viewers are surrounded by the artwork, walk underneath it, and see their own reflections in the myriad foliage weave patterns, as well as on the underside of the canopy when they look up.
The varied, interwoven layers distort the viewer’s reflection and allow for the play of light and shadow across and within the animated surface of the sculpture.
I often use reflective materials to draw the viewer in, creating an intimate and interactive experience of wayfinding. The weave pattern also has more subversive references as an image that suggests a boundary, border, cage or barrier, and that touches upon larger socio-political concerns in my creative practice that subtly prompt viewers to ponder who is on the inside or the outside? Who or what is rendered visible or invisible? What has been distorted? How do we as humans locate ourselves within image, surface, place, and history? As viewers move in front of the work, their reflections and the surrounding light create an individualized experience within the sculpture’s layers of metal, mirrors, and shadows. Conceived for the ambulatory viewer, this dynamic interaction “activates” the work, with the viewer functioning almost like a “figure in a landscape”, as their distorted image appears and disappears within the woven metal.
As the viewer walks in front of the piece, it’s a mutable surface that changes all of the time in front of your eyes, and it changes in response to your presence moving in front of it. Even though I don’t represent any figures in the work, there is always that sense of the viewer participating in the work, much like a figure in the landscape in traditional painting, where you’re constantly looking for yourself and finding your own reflection superimposed on the image of the artwork.
What was your creation process like? Can you tell us what it’s been like to work with both BAM and Camber Studio on Paradise Parados?
When I make site-specific work, I often ask, ‘Where am I?’ This simple-but-loaded question seeks to expose the contradictory and skewed nature of history. Where am I historically? Physically? Socially? Geographically? Racially? What are these coordinates? How does this place exist in our collective imagination? What is above me? So there’s a lot of time spent on understanding the site itself and its surroundings. After research and concept development, I often make concept drawings.
For this particular piece, which was an engineering feat and a very complex structure, I worked very closely with Camber Studio. They helped me develop all aspects of the intricacies of both design and fabrication and brought their experimental approach and design ingenuity to my artistic vision for the piece.
This installation was announced to the public just over two years ago. Is a lead time of that length normal for you?How did you stay focused and engaged with the work for such an extended period of time?
The pandemic definitely affected timelines and everything took longer than planned. We adapted and did what everyone else has done, which is to accept the slower process and have unlimited patience. In situations like this, my long-standing relationship with Camber also meant that there was trust and cooperation, and a whole lot of communication with BAM.
Monumental projects are slow and deliberate and are subject to lots of bureaucratic oversight. In the end, it is always especially satisfying to look up and see this massive thing that is also subtle and meaningful, and to know that an immersive art experience emerges from the less glamorous parts of planning.