Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Les Mangles y Les Cuirales, Dirt Palace Interview with artist Andrea Pérez Bessin

Les Mangles y Les Cuirales - Statement

My artistic practice focuses on generating visual language around queer non-binary bodies through syncretic explorations of science, alchemy, Christian iconography, my immediate surroundings, and influences derived from Puerto Rican culture. Within these fields, I often find synchronicities in elements that are at times contradictory. Much of my process involves translating these elements as shapes and symbols that merge with the figure to synthesize fictitious devotional images. The resulting image places the body as a site for disidentification where the binaries that previously held these elements in opposition vanish, allowing congruous and discordant symbols to coexist. I create anthropomorphic amalgams that defy essentialist notions of gender and sexuality. This particular project Les Mangles y Les Cuirales is meant to highlight and honor queer modes of existence. The installation revisits mangroves as sacred queer ecosystems. All organisms within these ecosystems refute through their existence the idea of a gender binary. The red mangroves and the exuberant soft corals that reside at their roots exist in symbiotic relationships similar to chosen families. This project is a celebration of the abundance, resilience, and creativity present in queer communities.


Dirt Palace staff, Pippi Zornoza in conversation with Andrea Pérez Bessin

P: You originally received a degree in biology. Can you talk about your transition from the world of science into the world of art? Also your practice is very research based, i’m wondering how this is connected to your past work studying the natural world.

A: I find the natural world fascinating and I enjoy how science aims to provide an understanding of the natural world, but personally felt as if I had to really narrow down my area of focus to excel as an academic researcher in a scientific field. As I was nearing the end of my biology degree I took an introductory course on visual arts and it sparked the idea of wanting to pursue a life in art. It was an unusual idea to have since I had no concept on how to do that. I even told the professor teaching the class that the course had made me think about switching disciplines to which he promptly responded “don’t do it” and with that I got all the encouragement I needed to move forward. Previous to that course I had never taken any art classes, but I always enjoyed drawing and finding creative outlets in my spare time. Not really knowing how to shift trajectories, it occurred to me that there were some gaps in my understanding of art so I went back to school and got a BFA in Printmaking. Initially I had set aside my skills as a researcher not fully understanding that art and research were not mutually exclusive, gradually my science interests seeped into my art practice and now they are fully converged. I enjoy the freedom that art has granted to my research, I can focus as much or as little  as I want on any given topic and my research skills have also been practical when exploring new mediums in my art practice. 

P: Les Mangles y Les Cuirales at the Dirt Palace uses mangroves as it’s primary ecosystem. Mangroves are so fascinating, not only because of their adaptation to low oxygen conditions and salinity, but how they literally build their own ecosystem. They are also in need of protection in many areas. Can you talk about the mangroves and your connection to them? 

A: I agree, mangroves are entirely fascinating. In Puerto Rico, I grew up seeing and admiring mangroves along the coasts of the island. When I was living in my early 20s I would walk by docks near mangrove forests and spend a good amount of time observing the life that happens at the roots, their flowers, the shape of their propagules. The importance of mangroves as protectors was something I understood from an early age. Not only do they protect the organisms that inhabit their roots, but they protect the coastline from erosion. They do form unique ecosystems, even islands. Red mangroves such as the one depicted in “Les Mangles and Les Cuirales” produce viviparous seeds, seeds that are never dormant.They uniquely adapt to the challenges that the environment they exist in presents them and they serve as an anchor for others. Mangroves are very adaptable, but they are vulnerable too. I appreciate the mangroves in my community and it is important to remember that they need protection too.

P: Les Mangles y Les Cuirales translates in english (I think!!) to the Mangroves and the Queers. You draw meaning in the symbiotic connection between the corals living in the roots of the mangroves to chosen families. In your cosmology the landscape is also a character choosing kin and offering protection. Can you talk about your connection to the land? To family? How this metaphor developed? 

A: I think a lot about roots and memory and about synchronicities of shapes. Neurons are in charge of memories and their extremities resemble plant roots. So roots have become a symbol of connection to the land and to memories of the land. I love my homeland and I love the vegetation that grows back home. I grew up with my grandmother growing all sorts of fruits and herbs in a very small patch of land and living in awe of all the things the land would offer. Living away from home has strengthened the things I do love from my homeland, and the vegetation that grows back home is one of the things I miss. As it pertains to chosen family, I tested the true viscosity of blood by coming out to my family and subsequently lost contact with my family. That lack of connection makes it hard to return to my homeland for both practical and sentimental reasons, but it gave me first hand experience in reimagining and restructuring what a family can look like. Shared DNA means very little when compared to the love and support I receive and give to the people currently in my life. That is what I aim to emphasize when establishing an analogy between chosen family and mangroves, organisms that are not related existing in community and to mutual benefit. 

P: There is also an element of wordplay here, no? 

A: Yes, Spanish is a very gendered language so I used ‘Les Mangles’ as a way to omit the usually masculine gender by which mangroves are addressed in Spanish. Same with corals, except I did a minor adjustment and fused the word cuir (queer) and coral as an overt nod to the community I am paying tribute through this work. 

P: The 3 soft sculptural figures in your installation are so otherworldly, They have eruptions from their bodies, tentacles, a singular nose with no other features. I was wondering if they were inhabitants of your imagined ecosystem, or if they were visitors.

A: They are inhabitants of the ecosystem. They are in a different medium as the mangrove depicted, but part of the ecosystem all the same. I was looking at a lot of soft corals and nudibranchs, again all organisms that operate in direct opposition to the idea of a gender binary. So while these are not directly representing one particular organism, they have forms extracted from looking at these organisms. I love the intricate exuberance of all these creatures. 

P: The translucent colored vinyl that you sewed together creates a brilliant effect with light. When I was photographing your window, I was captivated by the blocks of color projecting on the walls the way a cathedral window might project color and light. You mention that you are currently researching stained glass windows. Much of your current work is illuminated in some way (I’m thinking about ORCHIDACEÆ PNEUMA). What has brought you here? 

A: If I were to pinpoint the origin of this focus I would have to attribute it to a complicated relationship with Catholicism. I know a lot of folks, queer and not, have a complicated relationships with religion and I am not unique in that way.  A lot of religious artifacts in Christian traditions are beautiful and ornate, but as a queer person these objects are not meant for me. A source of inspiration is the visual language present in Christian iconography, especially medieval imagery. Stained glass windows in cathedrals had the original function of being a didactic tool of the church. Stained glass windows illustrated stories present in the Bible for the illiterate folk attending the church. They are still captivating, but one can only imagine the unique ethereal feeling of tinted light shining through them at a time before technology and when windows in most homes were rather small. I love that light passing through a tinted filter still has the capacity to be visually compelling. I was recently photographing some work in a forest and noticed that the sunlight going through the ferns was projecting green light on the forest floor and it was so enthralling. I felt silly for not noticing that before. 

P: Can you talk about the devotional aspect of your work? I’ve always been attracted to the word devotional because it seems to transcend religious & spiritual implications because of its other meanings (from Webster Dictionary - Devotional A) the act of dedicating something to a cause, enterprise, or activity : the act of devoting B) the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal). The devotional (vs the spiritual - dealing with the spirit ) can be grounded in the body and the spirit, in the sacred as well as the mundane day to day, resisting the binary. I mention this because your work is so grounded in non-binary visioning.

A: I enjoy this analysis of the function of the word devotional. I try to be intentional with language and I often research definitions and etymologies of words. Creating art is a devotional act, it is my brain connecting ideas with the body to generate these images. While these images do take a lot of their aesthetics from religious iconography, it is not me directly making up my own religion or a search for a spiritual life. Instead, I am redirecting and repurposing my spiritual tendencies towards the devotional act of creating. I don’t necessarily see a clear division between the spirit and the body so I am always trying to gain an understanding of the body I inhabit. I dedicate a lot of time to observing.  The sequence of events that happen at a cellular level in even the smallest action are nothing short of a miracle. While all these events are not strictly miracles in the sense that a lot of the actions can be explained by science, there is a point where there is no answer to the “why?” that science tries to answer and I think that is the miracle I am trying to refer to.  I also spend a lot of time in nature. I like to get distracted by my surroundings and be captivated by the smallest details. So a lot of my process involves being very present in my surroundings and my body. Again to use the word, I am devoted to finding the sacred in the mundane and that is what I am trying to depict in my work, bodies and plants and all sorts of organisms contain all sorts of miracles that we often take for granted. I think there is a devotion in queer existence, there is a dedication of time and energy to interrogating the self that is tied to the body and the mind we inhabit. I also think it is interesting that the word dedicate is present in both definitions of devotional because the word devote is in the first two definitions of the word dedicate, the words are inextricably linked. 

P: There’s a couple images on your instagram that I’ve been obsessed with. They are two soft sculptures almost like busts on a neutral colored fabric. The description says etching on muslin and counterproof sewn together.  Their faces look worn like old stone carvings but they are printed on  soft fabric.Are these part of your Reliquies series? They seem like outliers but also connected.

A: They are part of my Milagres series.  Milagros are another type of object that informs the visual language I am drawn to. These objects were presented to a saint as an offering for an answered prayer. They were wonderfully specific. If a saint helped with a particular organ or limb in the body, that one organ or limb would be depicted. So there are specific milagros arms, legs, eyes, intestines, even genitals. I have this book “Los Milagros en Metal y Cera de Puerto Rico” by Teodoro Vidal that has wonderful images of all types of milagros. As metal milagros they are very rigid, but making my own interpretations as soft sculpture allowed the forms to be somewhat malleable. They did give the appearance of being rigid and were a surprise to those who were able to experience them in person.  I had been working mostly in sort of earthy monochrome prints in fabric and paper previous to my current work, I just never documented or posted the work. I had arrived at these forms just as COVID started. They definitely were not a complete thought, but I shifted from these earthy monochromes to vibrant neons during the Summer of 2020. These pieces felt somber at a moment when everything felt heavy. While working on these Milagres pieces I was at home with my two year old and I would give her tubes of paint and roll out a big sheet of paper on the floor and she would just be the brush like a mini Carolee Schneemann. She would apply the paint selectively and then treat the whole piece of paper like a slip and slide. The joy she was having selecting and applying paint really inspired me to seek that kind of joy in my work. 

P: In addition to your installation and sculptural work you are also a printmaker! My first exposure to your work was through your cover Illustration and printing for Shey Rivera Rios’s book Naty and My Chaotic Stench. How does printmaking and drawing feed your installation work and vice versa? 

A: First of all, I have endless gratitude to Shey for the projects they have invited me to participate in. It was a huge honor to get to design the cover for this amazing book. When I think of mangroves as anchoring beings one of the people I think about is Shey, they work so hard to support and improve their community. I just feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with and get to collaborate with them.

My sculptural and installation works are more of a recent development and they were an evolution that had its origins in my printmaking work. I was initially doing prints on chiffon and putting plexiglass on top of it and then it occurred to me that I could engrave the plexiglass directly as is done with plexiglass drypoints. I started doing these tiny “stained glass” plexi pieces where I would engrave the plexi and adhere it to a wood frame. Around that time I got invited to a group show at a museum and the person curating the show suggested I do one of these recent stained glass pieces to put over the windows. When I went to the space to get some measurements I saw that the windows were about 7 feet tall and that my approach would result in an extremely heavy and unwieldy piece so I started thinking of alternatives and landed on the tinted vinyl. I had my partner who is really skilled at sewing to teach me how to sew because the best way to adhere the vinyl was definitely by sewing and I had no idea how to use the machine. Previously, I would mostly rely on hand sewing or ask my partner to sew some pieces together on the sewing machine when I was short on time. To be honest I had kind of a mental block about sewing for the longest time, when I was in middle school we took home ec and it was also a very gendered thing. I just saw in that class that I was being indoctrinated to be a homemaker and while I did not have a full understanding of why I did not like it as a middle schooler, I did viscerally reject the things I was being taught in that class. We had to sew a pillow for class and I was so bad at it that I think it hurt my teacher’s eyes to watch me wreck an innocent piece of fabric with my ineptitude. She just took over my project and I never had to sew again until recently. Kind of a tangent, but I just think it’s kind of funny that I rely so heavily on a sewing machine now given my past history with it. Anyway, I am figuring things out with my sculptural work and I would like to bring printmaking back to these pieces. Again return to printing on fabric. Just bringing a lot of printmaking elements to the work, most of the time I do want that, but time can be elusive. 

Andrea Pérez Bessin (b. San Juan, Puerto Rico) is an artist and Studio Art MFA candidate at the University of Connecticut. Their work focuses on syncretic amalgams and fictitious figures of devotion as a way to speak about the instability of gender. They received their BFA in Studio Art from Rhode Island College and a BA in Biology from Brown University. Andrea currently lives and works in Newport, RI. Their work has most recently been shown in Newport Art Museum’s group show Digital Breath

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