There is another Houston behind the concrete of the highways and the mirrored glass of the Downtown skyscrapers. Buffalo Bayou Park is a stretch of green, swampy grassland bordering the muddy banks of the bayou, the river mound. The downtown end of Bayou Park has just undergone an intensive $58 million renovation project that includes the large underground Cistern.
Deep under the noise and buzz of the city lies a beautifully serene structure of 221 concrete columns. Not your most typical site for an art installation. There is no natural light, the walls are damp and a shallow pool of water keeps the atmosphere humid. Yet here, Buffalo Bayou Park and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston have facilitated the first in a series of art installations: Rain by Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández.
Fernández’ installation was first shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, who acquired the work. But it is in this magical space that the artwork comes to its full potential. Rain is a visual and sound projection that runs on a 1 minute 56 seconds loop. At first: pitch dark. You sense the humidity and vastness of the space, and the cold humid air that surrounds you. Then small white dots of projected light start to appear all around you to the sound of water dripping. White drops of rain-light.
As your eyes start to make out the shapes of the columns, the white dots grow into vertical and horizontal lines, and the sound of rain intensifies. Towards the end of the loop, a loud thunderbolt erupts into the space, a crescendo of light and sound, echo-ing from wall to wall before slowly fading again until all is quiet and dark.
This is true spectacle. To create the sound, Fernandez uses a musical method that is known as Body Percussion. She used the recordings of a Slovenian choir, Perpetuum Jazzile, whose members created the sounds by clicking their fingers, slap their hands on their legs or stamp their feet on a hard floor. Although nature is invented, the sound is pitch-perfect: the regular dripping and ticking of a fresh Summer rain and the deep, rolling sound of thunder.
Using only a minimal language of shapes and sounds, Fernández thus manages to create a complete immersion into wild, messy nature. Structure and chaos, all happening at once. The hardness of the concrete contrasts with the softness of nature. The water acts as a connecting force; the real water on the Cistern floor reflects the light and makes us feel the imagined wetness of the rain.
Architecture always has the power to bring different times together, its structures breathing old lives and possible futures. But Fernández’ artwork Rain transcends all time, holding us in its thrall of the moment. It rejuvenates the Cistern reservoir and gives it a new sense of spirituality, transcending its architecture. It makes us experience Houston in a new light.
I followed a tour of the Cistern with a visit to Sicardi Gallery, Houston’s largest commercial gallery showcasing and selling art from Latin America. Opposite the Menil Collection, this is a space not to be missed, housed in a beautiful Minimalist building. Concurrent with Fernández’ Cistern installation Sicardi is hosting a solo show of her sculptures, drawings and a film, under the title Flexible Structures.
The most striking work is a web of black lines, suspended in the air like a drawing in space. Unusual for a selling gallery, the viewer is invited to interact with the art. An exciting surprise! What seemed like a delicate structure turns out to be made of strong and flexible cords that can be re-arranged by sliding the connection points between lines or moving the heavy bolts holding the structure to the floor. The artwork starts to take on an architectural quality as I move like a spider through its web. The work turns from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, and re-defines the space of the gallery.
As in the Cistern, Fernandez cleverly combines the architectural and the artistic. Her sculptures are like enlarged molecules, and call to mind the architecture-sculpture of the Argentinian Tomás Saraceno. Visitors were seen walking through his celestial Cloud City stacked high on the rooftop of New York’s MET a few years ago, and an installation of his work Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities is currently on show in San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. They also reminded me of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s installation at London’s Hayward Gallery back in 2010, with delighted audiences walking and wobbling through an intricate maze of nylon.
For Fernández, the playfulness always stays within the parameters of geometry. Trained in Caracas as a mathematician as well as an artist, Fernandez makes explicit reference to the abstract art of Piet Mondrian. Fernández, like Mondrian, keeps coming back to the structure of 'the grid', that important compositional tool around which 20th Century abstract art evolved. The grid represents the order of the word around us whilst at the same time reminding us that the canvas is a fabrication, a screen between ourselves and the real world.
But Fernández’ geometry is flexible, not fixed. The tension between structure and chaos that I experienced in the Cistern’s installation Rain, is also present in her sculptures at Sicardi. We all need structures in our lives, the artist seems to say, but we should not forget that our constructs are often malleable, and that the seemingly fixed can be unmade.
Hopeful exploration of form with the aim of bringing order in the political society us. In the West the alignment of aesthetic form with a utopian vision of our society seems to have ended in the middle of the last Century (think of the Constructivist architecture of the Bauhaus, or Tatlin's Tower: art and architecture as a way to a better world). But artists like Magdalena Fernández, Tomás Saraceno and Ernesto Neto fully embrace possible alternative scenarios for our future. For them, art and architecture blend into a new order, based on an alignment with the structures of the natural world and a deeper sociological undercurrent of human interconnectivity, and of hope.
Do Latin American artists still believe in utopia? Is the South American artistic spirit less cynical, and more optimistic, more playful? Whatever the answer, Fernandez will hopefully continue her path to worldwide recognition. She truly deserves it.
Magdalena Fernandez, Rain, Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, Houston until 4th June 2017
Tickets can be booked on the website http://buffalobayou.org/visit/destination/the-cistern/
Magdalena Fernandez, Flexible Structures, Sicardi Gallery, Houston, until 11th March 2017