Published  09/02/2015

Fernanda Chieco: ‘I go searching for stories’

Fernanda Chieco: ‘I go searching for stories’

The Brazilian artist talks about art residency programmes, and how one led her to look at haunted houses, chase phantoms and, finally, build a ghost town with watercolours

Gone [Foram-se]
Fernanda Chieco
Galeria Sé, São Paulo, Brazil
30 November 2014 – 7 February 2015


If there is a common characteristic among artistic circuits everywhere, it is the proliferation of international art residency programmes. This tendency is based on a global perspective predominant in contemporary art. It focuses on developing cultural exchanges, building an expanded network that is not limited to local territories. The objective is to provide creative people with the opportunity to be in contact with a different art community. It is becoming customary for artists to incorporate residency placements as an ingredient of their creative process. This is the case with the 38-year-old Brazilian artist Fernanda Chieco, who has already participated in eight art residencies in countries including the Czech Republic, Ireland and South Korea. She is currently showing the results of her latest sojourn, at Art342 Residency Programme at Fort Collins, Colorado, US, in the exhibition titled Gone [Foram-se] at Galeria Sé, in São Paulo.

Chieco, who lives in São Paulo but previously lived in the UK where she did an MA in fine arts at Goldsmiths, University of London, and whose work has been exhibited internationally in cities such as Madrid and Lyon, says that, at this point in her career, she explores the uncommon. Three months in Fort Collins seemed exotic enough to her. In Gone, she presents a series of watercolours depicting what, in fact, she did not encounter there. Pursuing a project about haunted houses, she soon discovered that ghost-chasing was much less interesting than the tales about it. Hence, she sought out what was genuinely real regarding the phantasmagorical theme and ended up mapping the ghost towns in Colorado and Utah, spending two weeks visiting forsaken places.

Her curiosity about the spectral presence of life started during the residency she took in South Korea. The artist learned Korean, tasted unfamiliar flavours and braved traditions in what was, for her, a completely unknown environment. While there, she became intrigued by discarded chairs she encountered while wandering around. Later, she assumed these were a consequence of a failed attempt to westernise the Asian custom of sitting on the floor. She developed a series of drawings in which the objects became alive. Thus, her curiosity about the lingering presence of people who were now absent was piqued. Her drawings became uninhabited by human figures as she was enticed by stories of abandonment. In this interview for Studio International, more than talking about her work, she gives an example of how to make the most of residencies.

Caroline Menezes: The artworks on display at Gone, as in many other series that you have created, originated in a residency programme. Could you explain why, for you, this type of programme is important and influential?

Fernanda Chieco: I need them for my artwork to exist; the residencies will always pervade my artistic production. It is a lifestyle that I have created since the beginning of my career. I disconnect from my usual context and I go searching for stories that occur outside my neighbourhood. Afterwards, I return to my studio where I digest them. I need to be in contact with the stimuli from outside, these external stories are my work tools.

CM: I can see that the residencies have been nourishing your artwork. This displacement, where you experience another type of life, is an intrinsic part of your creative process. It makes a lot of sense, especially in your case where your work always incorporates a kind of narrative. Perhaps, if you were a painter of geometric compositions, you would find all these trips exhausting, you would rather stay at home with your mathematics.

FC: This is true. I have seen artists in residence become completely lost within the language or the culture, or they think that they need to submit strictly the proposed project or continue whatever they were doing before. I believe the opposite: when I travel, I “switch off’ from what I was doing in my work and try to absorb my current surroundings and, ultimately, come up with something new.

CM: Frequently, when an artist chooses to travel to participate in a residency programme, the reason is to be in touch with other artists, or search for cultural aspects that the artist cannot find in his/her local community, or even to experience other conditions, such as the geographical environment. There is a pursuit of the freshness of the present place that the artist is visiting. Observing the artworks that resulted from your last residency, what fascinates me is that you searched for “ghost-cities”, places that were inhabited in the past, abandoned settlements. Can you tell us how this idea of abandonment captivated you?

FC: To do that, I have to explain the residency programme prior to that one, the Incheon Art Platform in South Korea. When I arrived in that country, I was surprised to see a neighbourhood with hi-tech skyscrapers that were an expensive real-estate investment. I realised there was something weird about it. There was nobody living there. They were new, but completely deserted. People couldn’t afford to live there. This emptiness heightened my awareness. After this, I noticed that, along the streets I used to walk, there were neglected chairs of diverse types and many of them on different corners. Nobody would sit there, or carry them home. When I asked around why the furniture was there, people would answer with a question: “Which chairs?” Nobody was even aware of them. They were invisible to the rest of the people. So, I decided to draw them like characters, giving them life and form. It was the first time that I created a series without the human figure. The chairs only made their presence known because they were unoccupied.

CM: So, from this, blossomed the idea of people not being substantially represented in your drawings, but rather as a concept. Somehow, there are traces of life on the chairs, reminiscences of the human figure on the object. I can now understand why your artistic research later moved towards the interest in ghosts. Can you explain what your project in the US was like? How was the beginning of this residency?

FC: I had recently returned from South Korea where I produced these drawings that had been prompted by people’s absence and neglect, and I have always been interested in ghost-related subjects, such as apparitions. When I heard about the ART342 residence, I was particularly interested in where it was located: Fort Collins, Colorado. Do you think that at this stage of my career I would want to go to the US to be in New York? No. I wanted to delve into an old historical town like those seen in westerns. As I researched, I discovered a series of peculiarities. Surprisingly, Fort Collins had quite an active community devoted to exploring ghostly phenomena.

CM: How did the project develop from ghost-hunting to mapping the ghost towns?

FC: The project accepted was originally based on ghost-hunting. However, as I am used to residency projects, I left the project open to modifications. Even though we are required to plan projects to be worked on, the scene usually changes once you move into the art residence. That’s what I find most fascinating about it. After arriving in Fort Collins, I even joined some ghost-hunting groups. However, being a sceptic, all I could see were pseudo-scientists or psychics wandering around and telling tales about what was only the wind howling and creaking noises from old houses. It didn’t grab me, so I kept searching for something “real”, something that would chill my bones and exceed my expectations. I finally went to the “Hell Tree”, a supposedly aggressively haunted house that had been burned down a few times, and from which people would hear screams. I spent a whole afternoon in the house. I didn’t experience anything apart from the usual desolate atmosphere. This made me lose interest in “ineffective” ghost-hunting.

CM: How was it for you to modify the subject? How did the characteristics of the place contribute to it? 

FC: I researched the peculiarities of the place again and, all of a sudden, a subject emerged: ghost towns. Due to its long history of mining camps and boomtowns, Colorado is home to more than 1,500 ghost towns. I decided to rent a car and try to visit those places. It wasn’t easy to find geographical coordinates to such “invisible” places, but I managed to determine approximate locations and was willing to explore as much as I could to find the most abandoned spots. I produced a little map and hit the road towards and across the Rockies. I spent two weeks on the road and visited more than 20 places, ranging from whole cities to towns whose houses had only their foundations left. I tried to focus on understanding the feeling of being in places where I could clearly perceive the presence of the inhabitants from their absence.

CM: Can you give an example of what you experienced visiting these cities?

FC: There is an entire city – with a bar, post office and coffee shop – abandoned in the middle of Utah’s desert. Due to being very dry, the place has not deteriorated. I did all the research trips alone. Generally, it is better to be in residency programmes by yourself, without company, because if you are on your own, you become more aware of the surroundings and unexpected things happen. Thus, I was walking alone, taking pictures. I didn’t want to make sketches while there because if I did that I wouldn’t experience the towns properly. Suddenly, I heard a repetitive noise and decided to follow it to see what it was. I stopped in front of a house whose door was open and I saw on the table a book with its pages flipping and that’s what was making the noise. It was the wind that was coming in through the half-open window. This conversation that existed despite the absence of people in that area was incredible. Someone left that book there – who knows when exactly? – and that day it was trying to communicate with the window that was banging when the wind blew. That led me to thinking about the difference between emptiness and absence. Absence presupposes a prior presence, but a void may have always been that way. I experienced absence, or a prolonged presence of something that took place beforehand. As if absence were a presence in these places.

CM: I can’t stop thinking about these people. Who are they? Who looked at that book before leaving and then walked out of the house and left the door open? Why did this happen? It was not a catastrophe that made them run away. The ore did not run out from one minute to the next. Did they think they would return? Or are they like a nomadic people who are interested only in what they can carry?

FC: Exactly, I was amazed; it’s nomadism, the disposable culture. I was peeking at clothes in the closet, appliances, cars parked at the mercy of time. Sometimes, I had the feeling I was being watched, but there was no one else, the places were very isolated and often did not have highways nearby. In all, I could sense that there was a clear absence of activity, a lengthy absence. But the presence of these people’s absence was palpable. These people still existed there somehow – like a fingerprint that we leave in places when we go through them.

CM: To me, it’s significant that the human figures in the series of Gone’s watercolours are simply the white of the paper, that you only know they are there by the outline of the clothes. It is your interpretation of these mysterious existences without a defined identity.

FC: My idea is that the people disappeared from the watercolour in the same way they left the cities – very abruptly – as if they had instantly vanished when I started painting the ghost towns, and there was this void that was left by them. Only the clothes remain, just as with the cities.

CM: How was this encounter with abandonment assimilated by your creative process? Your previous works are basically drawings with coloured pencils. What led you to opt to work with watercolour this time?

FC: After going through all this, I shut myself up in the studio and remained there with several notes about what I had seen and felt, theories that I came up with. I did not want to draw; I wanted something that was related to this exploratory activity. The characteristics of the region also contributed to the technique I chose. The residence was at the base of the Rocky Mountains at quite a high altitude, nearly 1,600m above sea level, and amidst a very arid landscape. I had some altitude sickness. My whole body felt the dryness, I was drinking water non-stop. As I started sketching out my ideas, my longing for water inspired me to work with watercolours. Although I had never done any painting before, I thought I should give it a try. It was interesting to see how the water evaporated in such a dry environment, a challenge for my work. I started working at the pace I use for drawing: slowly and with rich details. I had a massive studio that I wanted to make full use of. For that reason, I placed large sheets of paper on the walls and started working on big watercolour paintings. I wanted them to fill the space.

CM: In the exhibition, it is noticeable that the watercolours present architectonic aspects not only in the scenes themselves, but also in the manner that they are on display in the gallery, with asymmetric intervals. In this way, the viewer includes the gap on the wall in the perception of the whole.

FC: I decided that I didn’t want to frame the works, nor place them behind glass. The best solution was to hang the sheets of paper in a way that they would be distant from the walls, floating and roughly stuck on to foam-board surfaces. I wanted the paper to be vulnerable to the exhibition’s conditions. They need to have a dialogue with the space. This is an ongoing series, which I intend to work on for ever, in parallel with other projects. I want to build an entire ghost town with watercolours.


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