by Gloria Cárdenas
"What I mostly like about white; its calming sensation but also the sensation that everything is integrated in one single thing. The only thing that is different is you"
I’ve known Marifer for some time now and although, in one way or another, we’ve continued to run into each other in the past 10–12 years, I had never really had the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with her about her work. More than an interview, we had the chance to have a delicious conversation in which I was able to learn more about the foundations behind what she does and I was able to discover some of the connections between her life and her pieces.
We discussed her start in the art world, the “holes” that have been in her artistic production, but at the same time about the connection there is between those holes and the turns her career has taken, a bit about social media, the calming and relaxing effect of her first installations, about what monochrome means, her little houses and paper as material.
This conversation should serve to know more about Marifer, but above all, her work.
Gloria Cárdenas: Tell me about how you started in art, specifically.
María Fernanda Barrero: My academic background is in science; in high school it was exact sciences. I even thought I would go into something more research inclined. At some point, I read a book called The Tao of Physics which talks about how, through oriental philosophies, they were able to find some of the same answers physics took a longer time to unwrap. After reading this book I started to doubt whether the scientific method was the method I wanted to work with. In high school there was a final assignment (a thesis) where art was an option. The program was very focused in exact sciences (like physics, biology, chemistry, etc.) and I liked the flexibility in art. I felt it was a more fluid method. I think that’s when I made the jump towards art. With that assignment I began to study Barragán (his spaces) and then I encountered the work of Yoko Ono. Because of my family, I was always exposed to the history of art, the classics and museums, but not as much contemporary art. Once I saw that contemporary art had a research focus, my attention had been caught. I think that was my start.
GC: But, this was after high school, right?
MFB: Yes, I started with the idea that I was going to dedicate myself to the theoretical side of art, not the practice of it, so I took on both programs. I was doing a program called Humanistic Studies which is like “Liberal Arts;” it had a lot of sociology, anthropology and history of art. I also did the Art program because the art there meant practice; very focused in production. It didn’t include anything from my background; it didn’t have enough theoretical sustenance. But once I started producing I came to like it; I understood it more. I felt that if I had an academic life I could live from that, but I didn’t think it would be as easy as an artist.
These teachers told me that they thought it came pretty natural to me in case I ever wanted to try art production as a professional career. So, I got motivated and switched to production.
GC: Where did you got to college?
MFB: I went to UDEM, Art and Humanistic Studies. Later I did my masters in sculpture at Slade School of Fine Arts at the University College London.
GC: Have you always made art or is there something else you’ve done outside of art?
MFB: Yes, let say that since I was 18, I’ve always made art. Anything I’ve done outside of art was what I did when I was in Sayulita in 2015, 2016 and half of 2017. Although, I don’t really see it as being outside of art. There are these categories where they say “this is art,” “it’s art up until here,” “it’s contemporary art up until this” or “from here to here, it’s crafts” etc. This is why we could say that the whole project at Sayulita falls by the wayside of what we consider to be in the category of art; much less in the context of contemporary art. But to me, the fact that I can design an entire habitable home with a concept, with a certain color and have many of the elements I had previously worked it, it definitely is. Maybe it doesn’t work within the context of contemporary art, but I did get many of my ideas from within contemporary art.
The relationship I found was that, at the end of the day, the installation has much to do with the spectator. Tourism now has a lot to do with creating an experience for guests, so they’ve become very related. Maybe not with conventional tourism, but let’s say that in more experimental tourism, there is an attempt to offer a special experience. This falls in line with research or artistic proposals. Maybe even tourism could go further, because it allows for the habitation of spaces in a different way that wouldn’t be habitable and people are paying for these experiences. This is why, at the end of the day, it’s not much different.
GC: Did you leave any of your pieces at the hotel?
MFB: No, there aren’t any of my pieces at the hotel. There’s a bunch of stuff that I collected and reused, but I never wanted to mix... I wouldn’t have been able to. There’s antique paintings and old things I liked, but I would never have mixed them. I don’t know; I feel like they didn’t coincide. In concept yes, maybe there was something there; but I didn’t mix them. Besides, the paper would have been ruined with the humidity and temperature.
GC: The whole hotel [Casa Nawalli] is blue, right? Is that where you started using blue in your pieces?
MFB: I started with blue through white, because white paper tends to lean towards certain tones like violets, pinks, purples or blues depending on the tone of the paper. The blue I used in Sayulita is that blue. It’s a sort of violet blue that I took from paper.
It was like an obsession I developed. It has the color of the sunrise and sunset that is common in Sayulita. When you’re there you’re very much exposed to the horizon, the landscape, the sea and you’re privy to more colors. In fact, I arrived to Sayulita because of a project that I did for a biennial called ARTE/SANO entre Artistas 2.0. It’s a biennial by the Museum of Popular Art of México City where an artisan and an artist collaborate in a piece. We did it in 2013 and that’s when I went to Sayulita with Santo Hernánez (a Huichol artist) who taught me to use thread. We made a piece together that was included in the biennial. I think it was then that I wanted to work with blue, or even before then because it was present in the paper. I also made a small blue piece (10 × 12cm) for an exhibition with Bárbara Perea for Imago Mundi of the Benetton Foundation. That piece was exhibited in Venice in 2015. It was the last piece I made and I made it with blue thread.
After that, I put it aside. I had the hotel project in Sayulita which was very demanding and I was overtired from the banalities and politics of the art world. What I’m interested in is producing. I don’t like that whole side of politics and public relations. I know I have to do it, but the truth is I don’t really care for it. Of course, there is a price to pay if you don’t do it because art is now heavily based in networking.
GC: It’s true, I confess that I myself have a hard time with that and it is inevitable to think about the role of social media. How everyone offers themselves to the world as they want to be perceived and how that makes you sell yourself. Sometimes I think that one that is truly good at what they do, shouldn’t have to sell themselves in that way, right?
MFB: I’m not good at that stuff. I’ve always liked to protect my privacy, I’m careful about that. I don’t love social media. I don’t love showing my personal life. I never publish personal things on social media. I don’t like art that is based on the person (the artist) and now it seems to be the most relevant thing: art is too based on the person. I like the work, I’m interested in research, the proposal, the development of concepts and the value that the work has.
GC: What can you tell me about your project Leaves of Stars in relation to the research behind the project and the biologist Lynn Margulis?
MFB: Lynn Margulis was Carl Sagan’s wife. She was a biologist focused on early evolution at the cellular level. I read a book she wrote called Symbiotic Planet where she explains the origin of the first organism with a nucleus. She proposes a theory where a bacteria takes over another but they are related in a very developed symbiotic state, when an organism absorbs another and their level of collaboration is so extensive that they exchange genetic material. Lynn Margulis proposed this as one of the most efficient and important forms of evolution and change in the DNA of organisms.
According to her, that was the creation of the first cell with a nucleus. When I read her book, I found it very interesting how she saw evolution, not from the traditional Darwinian point of view of survival of the fittest (often considered the strongest), but rather evolution in terms of symbiosis and collaboration. Reading her book was very enlightening and it opened my mind to new things. A great part of Leaves on Starts is based on that book and the ideas of Lynn Margulis.
GC: Tell me more about paper as your production material.
MFB: I started with paper because I had been working with stone, metals and more traditional materials in sculpture. We had applied to use one of the spaces during the master’s program which was a large salon of about 10 × 10 × 5 meters in height. I had a week to use it and I wanted to do something large scale. Since I didn’t have a lot of money, help or strength to be carrying large wooden beams around London, it occurred to me to use paper.
I bought a roll of paper, which even that was hard to carry (that amount of paper is heavy, it’s not that light); but I found it a few blocks from where I was and I covered the whole room. I made the house. I made a small model to then produce it in large scale. That was the first installation.
This material carries with it a sense of the ephemeral, frailty, and vulnerability. Although once you actually work with it, you realize it is neither frail, ephemeral, nor vulnerable. So much so, that many of the paper pieces have sold.
GC: Tell me about your piece Cuarto de Papel (Paper Room), 2007, which I remember as a space with an orange-like light.
MFB: That was an exhibition a friend made while he worked at a very experimental subterranean bar while we were doing our masters in London. A lot experiments were made in this place. Everyone chose a space and I liked this one in particular.
I wanted to cover a room with paper. That room already had a sort of yellow lighting. I wanted to see what happened with white paper and lighting; it has a bulb that iridescently changed between red, yellow, and green. Very curious! People would go, sit and I couldn’t get them out; they wanted to be there, they liked it. It was always full of people.
GC: Was it very different to the sensation of the yellow/orange?
MFB: Yes, very different visually, but it maintained a cozy and agreeable sensation. The thing about paper is that it is not just white, but that you know it’s paper and you feel that. So just imagine what that feels like; imagine the sensation.
GC: Did you ever live in, or did someone live in one of your Paper Environment spaces or rooms? I’m interested in reflecting upon or going deeper into what it means to live in a monochromatic and fragile reality.
MFB: This is an interesting question because none of my pieces were lived in for too long, but while we were installing (which was many hours of work) there was a curious phenomenon at play: Most people felt very calm, it was very relaxing. For example, my sister (who would go and help me install) would fall asleep on the floor. Don’t think there was anywhere to sleep. She would sleep directly on the paper on the old, hard, wooden floor of the rooms we were assigned for the Degree Show in 2008. She would say how sleepy she got when she went. It’s very relaxing and very nice being inside these spaces. But beyond that, or as part of the exhibition, no.
GC: I was wondering, not as part of the exhibition, rather for that which you are saying of what happens when you are there. How do we react to this highly fragile space where you have to be careful and move calmly; where you may even, unconsciously, lower your voice?
MFB: Yes, most people lower their voice but it is not as fragile as it seems. Certain things do break but paper is much more durable than it seems. If it weren’t for logistics, it would’ve been possible for someone to live there, including me. I spent a lot of time there, so did many of the people who helped me and some students.
At the exhibition with Alternativa Once, there were people that would go more than once. There were even organized meditations and they would get together to mediate several times. I wasn’t there for the meditations, but it is a very nice environment where you can spend a good amount of time. I actually did consider locking myself up in a place like that. But I thought of that for myself. I don’t know if I should do it in a gallery; not sure how that would work. It would be quite interesting.
Now, all these effects have a theoretical backing. There is an effect called the Ganzfeld Phenomenon which occurs if you lose yourself, let’s say, in Antarctica where everything is white. Because everything is monochromatic, you can’t perceive depth, you lose your sense of the proportion of things, the difference between one object to another, notion of time. This happens with monochrome; it confuses your senses to the degree it can be dangerous because, obviously if it happens in Antarctica you can get lost or dizzy. They say the same can happen if you get into an empty pool and you’re there for a while where everything is one same color; you can also have this strong confusion in perception.
GC: It’s very interesting because we live surrounded by color everywhere. For example, even if you tried living in an empty clean space, there is color everywhere. I think the monochrome in a way would make you more sensitive to other things. Specifically referring to white; I understand it gives one peace, makes you sleepy, want to reflect or meditate because it’s clean and not aggressive. Besides the relationship with the mixing of colors or different techniques is very different that one with the monochrome.
MFB: Yes, it’s a strange concept to us. Very, very, very strange. Also, what is strange is that it’s rarely used. There are only a few artists that work monochromatically; you can count them. James Turrell and Yves Klein being the main ones.
That’s why I feel that the monochromatic is a strong tool because it directly links you to perception, it’s easily perceived; it reaches children, and elderly… any kind of public.
GC: Yes, but also a painting within a museum is not the same thing as being inside a monochromatic room.
MFB: Exactly, it is not the same. Everything needs to be monochromatic: the walls, ceiling; absolutely everything. If you have a different colored object, you lose that effect. For example, they were telling me about an installation in Brazil where everything was painted red (walls, furniture, etc.), everything except the ceiling. The effect isn’t the same. Although people consider it monochrome, it is not the same thing.
GC: This thing of confronting the monochromatic is very interesting. It’s rare that we have the opportunity to come to face with it. Did you go to Dialogue in the Dark; the sensorial tour organized by people with visual disabilities that look to sensitize those without the condition? It’s very different, that lack of color and light. It’s the complete opposite of feeling peace and relaxation. But our reaction to entering this absolute blackness is interesting; it invades you and makes you nervous. I know people that couldn’t go in; it’s got a very strong impact.
MFB: No, I didn’t get the chance but it must’ve been heavy. We’re not used to anything monochrome. Actually, I think our brains aren’t used to it. Maybe after being in it for a while you connect and get used to it. But initially it’s a heavy change and I think that’s what I mostly like about white; its calming sensation but also the sensation that everything is integrated in one single thing. The only thing that is different is you so you seem out of place. You in that environment, your same body feels different. To me that is the most important part: that unifying sensation.
GC: The small house is an element that we see repeated in your projects. Tell a little bit more about where that comes from and what it means in your context.
MFB: The little house is based on a chapter of Gastón Bachelard’s The Poetry of Space. He is a French philosopher from the Gilles Deleuze generation, during the second half of the 20th century. It’s a very nice book that, let’s say, is important in architecture theory. The book talks a lot about the importance of space and the home; about how we create ourselves, how our origin is based on space.
It has a chapter called The Corner and it covers the primal origin of human space. The small house is like the primal house; the original house. It only has the least possible; that’s why it’s in a corner and only has one door, one window and an inclined roof. So, it’s like going back to the first home, the first house or first habitable space. The house has this sensation of “I contain you” and “I protect you,” but I built it, as opposed to a cave. So, it’s already a space built by a human, almost appropriated, where I isolate myself from the outside which scares me or intimidates me and makes me feel fragile. But is still connected with the outside: it has doors, window, and all those elements that make it permeable. That’s how the small house is like going back to the origins of human space.
Besides, it’s quite simple, very basic, like returning to the origin. There’s also this idea that we built the concept of ourselves from space; what they call spatial sense of self. We understand ourselves through space. I think the small house, in a way, is representation of that and us. Of how one builds sense of belonging through the idea of being, the idea of how I exist in the world.
GC: In accordance to spatial relations, I remember a contemporary dance piece I saw some time ago where the accompanying text explained how skin is the barrier that prevents us from really connecting with others.
MFB: It’s because skin is the limit with the outside world. It is the barrier that limits inside and outside. It’s a heavy subject for dance, sociology, medicine. They obviously define it according to the body and the skin because the body is their main tool. Same goes for the sculptor; you define it in terms of space, the spatial or architectural elements. In my case, it is more about space and architecture.
GC: For sure, both the space you take up and the emptiness around you. Emptiness is also what makes up your work as it is the space that your pieces take up.
MFB: I think the complexity in these topics also has to do with the fact that they’re subconscious. Everything we do; we all have to build a sense of belonging, of placing ourselves in space but a lot of it is subconsciously.
GC: Have you done any research about our relationship with the sea and our body in relation to its salinity? Can you tell me a bit more about how this is reflected in your work?
MFB: There is a theory that I also read in Lynn Margulis’ book that is called The Hypersea. I don’t recall the authors but it was very nice. It states that our essence is in the sea. Speaking in abstract terms: when life decided to leave the ocean (for unknown reasons) to venture on land, at the moment it didn’t know how to do so but through evolution and time, it decided to maintain the conditions of life it recognized to which the body was adapted to, isolate them and explore land. This, in very abstract terms. So, in a way we carry the sea in us and this means that we have the same salinity as the ocean. It’s a very scientific proposal but it also has a poetic reflection which I really liked. It inspires me quite a bit and it makes me feel like the ocean is close; that we are part of it and it is a part of us. That we continue to have this relationship of collaboration, survival and a deep sense of life with the ocean. The sea has a presence in landscape and it is a very important element and an inspiring one that is repeated a lot in my work.
GC: How do you think we’ll achieve a balance between the microcosms and the macrocosms? The interior “I” and the world that surrounds us? My essence versus the world that imposes itself on us or presents itself to us?
MFB: This is somewhat outside of my area of expertise and it’s several questions in one. When talking about microcosms and macrocosms, I imagine the dialogue in a way and they have a homeostatic balance of sorts. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, I think they speak to different levels, different sizes: the structures or patterns of one are repeated in the other.
In terms of reaching a balance between the interior and exterior, I see that it has a lot to do with introspection; with reflecting, observing, and dedicating it time. I think life and survival is very much about that. As long as we meditate, are introspective, dialogue (from within and out) more clearly and firmly; we’ll feel more secure. It’s a big philosophical question. What I’ve tried to do through my pieces is to simply mention it, make it evident that it’s there. That it is important to reflect upon it, be conscious of it, and observe it; that it doesn’t remain abstract to the point we don’t know it’s there. To simply know there is a dialogue between my inner “I” and my exterior “I.” In a way, skin and body are the barrier between my inner persona and the part that is social or public.
Lastly, about how my essence interacts with the world that imposes itself on us, I think it’s kind of part of the same thing, which is why it’s said that we are both political and social beings. We are not isolated beings. Of course, we have our own essence and will, but it’s very much affected, created, and molded by the outside world as we have to interact with it. Furthermore, I think it is a dialogue in which we establish points of commonality, priorities (which is the relevant part); what is me and what isn’t and try to negotiate. It’s a lot of negotiation and dialogue. They’re very long processes and very personal ones which may be interesting to some and others could care less.
GC: At least here in México, it’s generally hard to find people who are asking themselves these things or even speaking about philosophy; in turn, how many people do find following bloggers or influencers?
MFB: We could say our society isn’t a very philosophical one. There are some that are, like Germany for example. They have a philosophical tradition like no other country. Most western philosophers, at least the majority of those concerned with existentialism, are German or French.
GC: Do you think this is something that reaches children, education? Or just people who work in that?
MFB: I think it does permeate. For example, there are those people like the German Rudolf Steiner, from the Waldorf schools, whom, even if I don’t agree with, has a more philosophical education system.
I think it should permeate. There’s that saying that the German shoemaker can’t hammer a nail into a heel without considering its implications upon the universe. That’s how German thinking is thought of. I do think there are societies where it is more relevant, but yes, that may not be the priority for our local society.
GC: Have you considered living in the beach, nature, again?
MFB: Not at the moment, but I would like to go back. I am yearning to be closer to nature, green, humidity. There’s a lot of concrete, dust and panoramas here.
GC: Yes, I hate it! Marifer, thank you for this interview and sharing your vision of the world with us.