The Big Picture Has No Frame


If we assign meaning to the term art to allow for art now, art urban, art folk and art aware, we then understand the term as it applies to Michael Fernandes' works: works whose elements and materials derive from the world immediately around us, works of the here-and-now. In them we meet ourselves, we share secrets, we smile. These works are alive in the making. For Fernandes, each piece is fresh, an opportunity, a starting-over rather than a perfecting of technique. As the artist states, "The training is now-each work is this work, it is about something specific, it has its flame."1


What is this?

What does it mean?

Where's the Art?

What's involved?

Something's available.

Is it alive?


This is personal work. It derives from living in this world (when I need inspiration, space to percolate, I go to the ravine or the ocean; Michael boards the Bathurst Street bus); it derives from observation and play. There is an openness in play, a not-knowing, a sense of movement and there is engagement, there is presence (read here the three meanings of Michael Snow's film-title, PRESENTS: presents/gifts, presents/offers, presence/being-here-now). The work also derives from thinking critically about how we situate ourselves in this world-"Thought is action as much as gesture is." The language and situations are everyday, the small picture; Fernandes' focus shifts to the big picture.


Though the work is very much of the public, socio-political realm, our relation to it as viewers is personal. The dialogue is not between this work and art history, nor between the work and the political situation referred to; the work does not accuse others, blame others, call for change in others. We are called to look in. The dialogue is between each of us and the work/world. The work is personal and the pronoun is WE. 


In the 1989 National Gallery of Canada exhibition, The Canadian Biennial of Contemporary Art, we, the viewers, walked past two drywall partitions, similar in construction to one of the NGC's own walls. On one of these partitions was drawn a yellow happy-face logo, and on the second an anarchy symbol. As we continued, we found ourselves sitting on a park-bench in front of a third partition, if, that is, we accepted this inviting position from which to view a series of projected colour slides (of a man's hand changing from an open to a closed position, of a man's feet advancing and retreating). Affixed to this third wall was an arching overhead neon sign, in the style of writing that we might see in the window of a trendy cafe, which read: "Muggers and Politicians." As we sat on the bench, framed by the sign above, we had become part of the installation for other viewers, who might have asked themselves which of the two we were: muggers or politicians-or does the 'and' of the signage imply that muggers and politicians are one and the same? Being in Ottawa, we naturally thought of politicians as them: those elected to office, not us. 


Fernandes brings the term politicians back to us. He sees that we are they and he asks us to consider how we do our politicking. The question extends to the gallery itself, the walls of which have already been invoked. Fernandes asks, is it a showcase to serve politicians or does it serve the artist/art?


In other installations, Fernandes' use of (for example) silhouettes and felt cut-outs simplifies, eliminates particulars, and in so doing asks us to recognize what it is that is represented. These elements act as containers, providing a space, calling us to enter or project; "they condition the image to receivership: that is, to receive, not put out." The viewer is invited in. The audience is considered. A meeting of public and private is acknowledged. 


* * *


Michael Fernandes puts into relief the everyday. We recognize something so right... and yet something is ‘off’. A strangeness or foreignness in the presentation catches us, prods or tickles us. Here are not simply representations of the familiar: something in their presentation, in the gaps or in the contradictions, gives us pause. We can't assume we know/identify. They are and aren't what we recognize them as without the assumptions and expectations that blind us to the moment. 


The elements derive from the world around us; the language is street-level, the language of everyday conversation, but the syntax is played with, the transitive verb is left without its object, phrases float removed from context or have ambiguous relations. There are plays-on-words and neologisms (for example, Cour Age, Noosphere, and Possibileator are titles of three recent Fernandes works). Movement is created between the terms stated and what is left unstated; the conjunctions in force are AND/OR. 


Consider the title of a 1986 installation, No Other, written on the invitation-card over an image in negative of a woman and young child kissing. We read "no other" and hear 'no other/mother', 'no other/not other', 'no other and other.' The one becomes its opposite. We're not sure. The contradictions don't cancel. We flip back and forth between the various readings. Ambiguity and surprise are contained in phrases from another work, Growing Up Strong:

      a big car like Mom;

      tall like Mom;

      engineer like Mom;

      think like Mom;

      cook like Mom;

      happy like Mom;

      just like Mom.


Are these descriptions, wishes, exhortations? What is meant, which is right?


On the invitation for Fernandes' 1983 Mercer Union exhibition of the same title, the words "NO ESCAPE" are printed below two photographic images butted side-by-side: a woman sleeping and a flame. This juxtaposition raises the question: do the images signify the darkness of sleep versus the light of the flame, or the notion that, in the darkness of sleep, the pilot-light continues to burn? Filling in the unstated but included words of the title, I think: I have no escape, there is no escape; escape what? Why escape? The traps are set and I am allowed to fall in. The phrase expands to encompass both the negative and the positive and, I conjecture, in this movement, points to a world-view held by the artist. A view of the world that understands: that it's all life and "it comes again"; understands oneness in perceived difference; distinguishes what is permanent from the transient; understands the YES contained in the NO and vice versa.  

In these and other titles, such as Make Nothing, On The Fault Line, Circuitous Route (Cul de Sac), the NO is always present-but in what way, with what force? Can we ever make nothing? Is the vulnerability implied in being on the fault-line not a strength? When listening do we sometimes pick up on the 'no' in 'knowing'? Not having an escape is, in fact, not an end.  Fernandes’ NOs do not leave us with negation. In no other there is everybody.


In White Bread, a 1990 work included in the present exhibition, we encounter directives in the negative, placed at the base of a stacked cube of bread:




      NO PETS. 


Breaking bread connotes an invitation, a calling together, but then we read "NO STANDING", words associated with commercial and government office buildings that are clean, pristine, presentable—the white in white bread. Offices are there to enter, to do business in, and yet possibilities are cut off. We are told simultaneously, "Come but don't come." Fernandes: "In denial you question, but in the YES you also ask what is being encouraged. In the one, there's always a construct of some kind." 


I note here discussions of Yvonne Rainer's film, The Man Who Envied Women, which speak of her creation in the film-text of a "space of contradiction"2, a strategy whereby she avoids setting up the director/camera/protagonist as the point of view through which the audience perceives; nor does she allow the audience to know comfortably which of the many, often conflicting opinions given in the film the filmmaker herself sides with. In so denying the position of authority that narrative film usually affords the director, Rainer forces the audience to situate itself, do its own thinking. 


In Fernandes' audio-tapes, everyday language is pared down and carefully constructed in the rhythms of its phrases, in repetitions, in the selection of the lists, in the intonations. The tapes reflect our attitudes, our mind-sets, "the explosives we carry around with us." An example from his 1980 solo exhibition, Exist:


      Life is just one problem after another;

      You can’t say what you really think and feel;

      I am always to blame.


The suggestions taped for his 1983 Mercer Union installation, No Escape, are whispered conspiratorially; as listeners, we're in cahoots with the tape:

      Let's play;

      Let's goof off;

      Let's whitewash it;

      Let's make them pay.


The tendency to get out of control, to be carried along, as implied by the progression of this list, can be dangerous.  Says Fernandes, "The energy, the flame, the firepower we have is no longer innocent, but lethal". 


The language used in Fernandes' tapes is everyday language. It is simple, but the simplicity creates complexity. In our engagement, we complicate. In the juxtapositions of elements from various sources or situations, our assumptions are questioned; cliché-type thinking and buzzword simplifications are challenged. Hannah Arendt identifies the danger of our not questioning these and other modes of thoughtlessness and non-thinking: "Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence."3 


Fernandes' recent works contain the language and images of today: graffiti, advertising slogans, colloquial conversation and symbols (we see happy-face, peace and anarchy symbols, rather than those of classical mythology or Jungian psychology). In these expressions, "thinking already exists", it's in the air, has support, is on everyone's minds. 


Advertising lingo permeates our world; we are mediated.  It is a carefully researched, carefully honed language that cannot be dismissed.  As Fernandes has observed,


It's an interesting mirror. You may say it's off, but not that off. It's alert. It's out for its prey. We feed it. It's a study that constantly seeks to be heard, to be supported. It tells us about how dependent we’ve become on being told we're   okay.  It's about looking out. It carries us away from ourselves and we go along with it. We want it, we want to belong, conform. It's about surface. It's direct. It's a system of communication that is sophisticated, that has authority. It is aware of the waters; in the same week as the [Berlin] wall was going down, Pepsi had an ad out. We didn't know if it was news or an ad!


Marketing is pervasive: we are carried along.  Our complicity with this and the cycle of need that we keep in motion recalls the tape/voice of Wheeling, an installation included in the 1985 group exhibition at the Art Gallery at Harbourfront, "News from Nova Scotia," which spoke (in part): 

      More food more unconsciousness;

      More clothes more unconsciousness;

      More books more unconsciousness.


"In the 'more'", Fernandes explains, "we're looking for change, but in the gathering we haven't moved."


Today the Cartesian formulation, "I think, therefore I am", might more aptly be stated, "I shop, therefore I am."4 The consumerist treadmill of continual, though superficial, change preserves the status quo; commodification means objectification and homogeneity, and fashion is discussed in terms of loss of the subject and of death:  "to desire immortality through the perpetuation of an image is, in the final instance, to be condemned to a living death."5 Today, the trend in advertising is to cloak itself in and as art, and some artists, staying one step ahead, make art that is already advertising. 


Fernandes looks at advertising for what it reveals, asking, where is the power?  In an earlier installation at Toronto's YYZ Gallery, entitled Is That You Jane, Is That You Dick, he placed a tape-recorder on the floor below a wall of photographs of the cosmetic display-shelves in a Shopper's Drug Mart store. A segment of the tape said:


      Nothing is made that cannot be made;

      Nothing is requested that cannot be requested;

      Nothing is heard that cannot be heard;

      Nothing is acted that cannot be acted.


Obvious statements? Only on first hearing or first reading. In the spaces created within them, in the negative inversions, we might ask ourselves: how does the past inform the present? What keeps us spinning?  How are we present? 


In his article, "Where are we-the Underground?," Jonas Mekas answered the question, frequently put to makers of experimental films, as to when he was going to graduate to making 'Hollywood' features, real movies?, with the comment,


You may be wondering, sometimes, why we keep making little movies, underground movies, why are we talking about Home Movies, and you may hope, sometimes, that all this will change soon... No, there is a misunderstanding here. We are making real movies... Man has wasted himself outside himself; man has disappeared in his projections. We want to bring him down into his small room, to bring him home... where he can be more with himself and his soul—that's the meaning of the home movie.6 


* * *


Fernandes is open to all possibilities: anything and everything can enter his work.  He takes risks in his works and challenges himself.  All opportunities are welcomed to make new work ("I say 'yes' and I grow"). This thinking includes the circumstances of the work itself; his world includes the art-world. For instance, in the invitations to a show, Fernandes sees another opportunity for a work with its own distinct form, its own possibilities and constraints ("To work on the flat, to simplify—some people never see the piece, but they have the card"). Similarly, Fernandes has also used the catalogue as a separate work, related to but not duplicating the exhibit, partly in order to work with the catalogue as a form, partly because, so far in advance of the opening of an exhibition, not all the elements are resolved.  Fernandes moves in the present: "Every time is a new opportunity; it's a new experience." 


A humorous yet pointed reminder to audiences, curators and exhibitors alike of the importance of works-in-themselves is the following text by Fernandes for the media/culture/text exhibition curated in 1990 by Cindy Richmond for presentation as a special insert in C Magazine:

The works are important in themselves and interpreters or commentators only distort them. It is advisable to go directly to the source—the prints, paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, videos and film—and not through any authority.7


Fernandes' no-compromise pushing for the work’s own existence was in evidence in his installation in Toronto as part of the inaugural exhibition of the Grace Hopper Artists' Collective in 1989. Fernandes ignored the marketing exigencies and potential of this event. He saw a different interest/opportunity in involving himself in this group. His audience for the work would be the various publics, remembered, implied, or in attendance, and the other artists. 


The space utilized for the exhibition had been a factory. The signage was still in place (e.g., "Wear a hard hat"). Large printed signs in various typefaces became an element in the installation, but Fernandes took the words from the streets—statements by new immigrants, perhaps:

      I didn’t take no stereos;

      You are in North America when you don't know where you are;

      Why don't you go back to where you come from?


A shipping skid from the factory, placed in the centre of the space, took on the appearance of a raft, now motionless, but with the potential for movement. Similarly, a wall of veneer paneling-a moveable wall, "on the ready" for the makeshift office this space will next become?—was leaning against the existing wall. The factory was thus recalled, but also the broader life of the city. ("It was not just a site-specific piece", Fernandes tells us, "But relevant to the city as a whole-things you encounter as you move about, or in the news.") Just as the space itself will be altered for the next occupant, so, Fernandes remarks, installation work is temporal and should disappear. Now, of this installation, only his signage remains; all other elements have "gone back." 


* * *


Over the years, there has been a movement in Fernandes' work more and more towards less and less 'art', in so far as that term implies the hand of the artist. He has gone from being a painter to having objects fabricated for him, with artisanal or tech aspects (tables and chairs, photographs, electronic triggering devices), to his present use of peace-symbols and stacks of white bread. Fernandes started to question his involvement with electronics and machinery, and our dependency on equipment, expertise and gadgets that can break down.  Bread is a basic, not only as a staple of life, but also in its simplicity and economy as an artistic element. This is consistent with Fernandes' continued search for ways to work simply, to pare down. "When I see things out there like this, I embrace them. I begin to work with these things that are already working", he explains. In simplicity there is complexity. Elements have several references and crossovers to their source in the outside world and to their use and placement within the work and within the gallery's walls, materially and connotatively. 


Bread and wallpaper might just happen to be the particular choices for these installations; on the other hand, they might evince the above-mentioned movement. One can't be certain, for Fernandes works as he lives, hears, sees, responds to his inner and outer worlds. Perhaps these choices also point to a broader dialogue with or questioning of the relevance, role, audience for, impact, and accessibility of art today. Certainly they provoke a consideration of walls (not just in Berlin) and non-exclusivity in thinking. 


To what extent are walls surfaces, to what extent do they sustain?  When does protective become secretive? Virginia Woolf named the oppressive barriers to (women's) personhood and self-fulfillment "walls of civilization." Today, walls are coming down... or are they? 


Walls exclude and include. Fernandes' installation art is marked by inclusivity-"It's like a market." But the 'like', I submit, is dropped in Fernandes' thinking, and "like a market" becomes 'is a market.' Just as in a market, just as in the world, just as in the works, so "in the crowd we brush up against..." There is movement.  Elements are recognizable entities and yet there is a carry-over; there are connections. Odours permeate, sounds spill over, differences come in contact. There is a wash-over effect, but still a separateness. As in a market, people, objects, ideas, oranges and bananas announce themselves as individuals, yet accept their togetherness. 


There has also been a direction in Fernandes' work toward seeking opportunities beyond gallery walls, "out there in the world where everything's happening".  And so, for example, he has made submissions for the Olympic Poster Competition and the Halifax Waterfront Public Art Competition. He has placed a piece in C Magazine, and the next venture of the Grace Hopper collective is also a publication. Recently he submitted this text-piece to Street SmArt, a community-wide art event to be held in June 1990 in the north end of Halifax:


      My Farts are OK, Your Farts Are Not


Fart, art, smart... getting down to the basics-identity, divisions, yet permeating... I can hear the laugh! The committee actually likes the work; now they just have to convince the mayor! In any case, accepted or not, these works are already working: they're out there circulating, even if only among the various committee-members.8 


Fernandes' works are personal; the works are alive for him in their seeking. He implicates himself in his works not only in the motivation for their making-he starts by noting some situation and questioning, "What is interesting here, what is happening?"-but also by including himself in the situation. In the 1986 Anna Leonowens Gallery group show, Art against Militarism, arranged to coincide with the meeting of NATO ministers in Halifax, Fernandes used the first person singular in a sign that read, "I am a terrorist." There are always surprises in Fernandes' work. Here, the admission of being a terrorist shocks. Bringing a different perspective to bear on a situation forces us into a reconsideration not only of terrorism as we had it pigeonholed (i.e., as something those bad ones do), but also of our own natures, the mind-sets we carry around with us, which could explode at any second.


The work is personal, but it is not autobiographical. It is not about Michael, nor is the point to know him. If anything, knowing too much is a hindrance. For instance, knowing that Michael is from Trinidad, you might attribute significance to ethnicity (explain/label/dismiss-"Oh, he's from Trinidad!"), and then you miss.  Now there's a Michael-ism: "You miss." Normally, I would have said, "you miss the point," but in Michael's "you miss," an enlarging happens, possibilities hover, unarticulated, hanging in the gap. With "you miss", you can picture ships passing in the night, people striking out, seeing each other at a party but not getting each other's number, running to the stop just as the bus pulls away, nodding but not really getting it. In the pause created by the blank, in the hesitation of an unfamiliar construction, we go in, move, come back out and move on. 


I'm not sure any more where my experience of Michael Fernandes' work and my experiences with Michael leave off from each other. I guess I don't distinguish between them; they are alike. Michael walks lightly.  Michael has a light step. He plays games. Michael likes a good joke. 


* * *


Michael's Dream:  "I saw the faces of Nixon, Haig, Hitler-all the beings who call forth negative responses. Over these faces was superimposed my own face."


Michael was pleased with his dream, pleased to experience "that we are not separate entities-in another, it comes again." Michael's dream/work is a recognition of 'everybodyness'. 




1.  Michael Fernandes, in conversation with Barbara Sternberg, February 1990.  All further unattributed comments in quotation marks are also by Fernandes. 

2.  Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 24. 

3. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Janovitch, 1971), p. 4. 

4.  Debbie McGee, Multiple Choice (film), 1989. 

5.  Julia Emberly, "The Fashion Apparatus and the Deconstruction of a Postmodern Subjectivity", Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 11 (1987): 50. 

6.  Jonas Mekas, "Where are we-the Underground?", in The New American Cinema, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1967), p. 17. 

7.  Michael Fernandes, Untitled text piece, in Special insert: media/culture/text, organized by Cindy Richmond and the Mackenzie Gallery, Regina, C Magazine, no. 25 (March 1990): unpaginated. 

8.  News flash! The artist informs us, as we go to press, that this outdoor textwork has been accepted for inclusion in Street SmArt. 


Originally published as a catalogue Essay for 1990 Power Plant exhibition catalogue: Michael Fernandes: Walls