Surrendering to the Common Life: A Conversation with Cristina Rodrigues

In situ, Cristina Rodrigues’s works read like fanciful relics. Lavishing baroque details over ordinary objects, she masterfully mixes virtuosity with the commonplace. Adventures into the sublime, her installations are as universal in their significance as they are local in their inspiration, purposefully touching the lives of everyone involved. Rodrigues’s practice is governed by more than simple aesthetics, hovering between social ethnography, anthropology, and the ideals of sustainability. By meticulously stitching disciplines into a historical context, she produces living testaments to individual lives in an attempt to bridge age-old narratives and new cultural appraisals—a task that continues beyond her presence in what she describes as the “ultimate act of democracy” for art. Her installations frequently celebrate the role of women as keepers of cultural tradition, bringing nearly forgotten cultural wealth to the fore by lending an artistic identity to functional and sometimes obsolete objects. Drawing on people, their communities, and underlying relationships to a wider culture, Rodrigues positions her works as enlightened beacons to which viewers can congregate. 

Rodrigues, who was born in Porto, Portugal, lives and works in Manchester, U.K., and maintains studios there and in Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal. She is a chartered architect in both countries and holds a M.Phil in Art & Design from Manchester Met­ropolitan University. Over the last four years, she has lectured at the Manchester School of Architecture and at the Zhongyuan University of Technology, China. She has also created and led two major international research projects: DfD—Design for Desertification and the 21st Century Rural Museum. DfD, which responds to problems of desertification, depopulation, and economic decline using Idanha-a-Nova as a case study, was developed in partnership with MIRIAD, Manchester School of Architecture, Idanha-a-Nova Municipality, and UNESCO Geopark Naturtejo. The 21st Century Rural Museum (2012) encourages rural regeneration by involving artists, designers, and writers in a cross-border collaborative project. Through this itinerant exhibition, the voices of an older generation have taken center stage in major cities, drawing attention to the daily lives of people in rural Portugal. 

Rajesh Punj: In creating your installations, you are as much architect as artist. Do you consider space to be an amphitheater for your work?

Cristina Rodrigues: Being an architect influenced how I perceive space. I always make major installations because I always react to space before I do anything else. So, when I am thinking about an artwork, I constantly think about how it is going to look in space and how it is going to react to space. How can space become part of the story of this artwork? Because crucially, for me, space is not neutral. I don’t believe in neutral spaces like the white box. Space is never neutral. 

RP: For readers less familiar with your work, can you begin by explaining your motives?

Enlightenment III, 2015. Iron, plastic paint, glass beads, crystals, and ceramics, 2.1 x 1.8 meters. View of installation at Alcobaca Monastery, Portugal.

CR: My work is mainly about women and their narratives, in very different environments. So, I explore immigration from both sides. While focusing more intentionally on rural areas—the places where people used to live and what is left behind, as houses and accompanying lands become vacant—I still want to explore the city as the main destination for migrants. I want to understand both realities, to perceive how groups of women behave in each of them. My work is fed by these separate narratives. 

RP: As much as location matters, your work appears more about people than place. Is that a correct assumption? 

CR: Yes, it’s not the space, it’s the people. It’s about the construction of cultural identity and how it is perceived, because identity and culture are manipulated in a way that makes you feel part of a group. For instance, where I work in Portugal, in the central region, in Idanha-a-Nova, the adufeiras— the groups of women who play the adufe [a traditional square tambourine]—began to disappear in the 1980s. This is the instrument that I used to make one of my main installations, The Blanket. As a result of migration, only elderly people remained in these places; but they were not very active, and as a consequence, a lot of traditions disappeared through a deep inertia within the population. And so, to rejuvenate social identity, the politicians encouraged initiatives designed to reinstall certain cultural habits back into society. In this case, they gathered women together to play the adufe and sing the traditional songs as a way of re-creating identity. The idea was to make the women feel part of a group again and also to raise their self-esteem. I don’t wish to judge whether it was a good approach or not, but when I started working in places like this, I tried to understand why such traditions were important. Also, when you are a migrant, you go to a different country and begin to perceive your own culture differently—how your own culture is affected by the new culture that you come into contact with and how traditions become ever more important. 

RP: So, the objects that you select stimulate the need to re-engage with a whole series of cultural conditions?

CR: The object is always selected with intention—I couldn’t do it with just anything. The object needs to be central, and it needs to be recognized by people in a certain space. And then, crucially, I display it in a natural context, where it is used, and create an item, in this case a blanket, that becomes a gigantic object itself, objecti­fying something with a very theatrical environment. It is all based on the intention of using something with a true local relevance, while making it mean something globally. The meaning of the blanket extends to England, where mothers cover their children at night with blankets. So, it is essential that the work means something in a global sphere. 

RP: Is it fair to say that your works are catalysts for social and cultural mobilization? 

The Blanket, 2014. Leather, wood frames, satin ribbons, cotton lace, and spray paint, 7 x 5 meters. View of installation at Manchester Cathedral

CR: There is always a narrative around the object, which suggests that my work is never finished. When I look at my work, I feel like I can always add something to it, and I perceive all of my works as unfinished. With The Blanket, there are several versions of the same work, which were made by different groups of women and are therefore very different. But essentially the idea is that it be an exercise in democracy and an exercise in how you regard gender in society. The first time that I exhibited it, in the cathedral, local politicians from the socialist party in Portugal came to see it, and I explained that “this work is dedicated to all the women in the region, and that you should look at the work as the sons of the women who have participated.” Remarkably, they all started crying, because everyone has stories, especially in environments like this that are very rural, where society is still very conservative. These are places where women have often suffered psychological and physical violence. During the making of The Blanket, I would hear stories like, “I got married when I was 19 (the majority of these women were 60 and 70 years old). I had no freedom at my parent’s house. And so I wanted to get married really quickly so I would have some freedom of my own. But then I realized that I would not have any more freedom because the conservatism was transferred from my parents to my husband, who ruled the home entirely.” So, they gained little or no freedom at all. And their notion of marriage, which was romanticized from the moment when they were born and deliberately promoted by the popular media, fed into how they perceived marriage. Unfortunately, marriage was nothing like that notion, and they were unprepared for it. Such cultural misunderstandings show how resilient women are, because they adjust to their circumstances, and that fascinates me. 

The Blanket, 2014. Leather, wood frames, satin ribbons, cotton lace, and spray paint, 7 x 5 meters. View of installation at Manchester Cathedral

RP: Essentially you give your works back to the people as a generous act of solidarity. 

CR: Yes, the works are born from the people and they return to them. It becomes a circle, because there is no commercial value to how I generate these works. Because of this, I am often asked questions such as, “How are you going to sell this?” or “What do you aim to do with it?” And I think that it was never meant for sale. I don’t do work of that kind. I do work that feeds into narratives and includes people. Therefore, I do work for me, which is an exercise of citizenship and democracy. This kind of work can be very subtle and not in your face. I am not putting extra graphic content into my work, but at the same time, it is a very strong idea—which is like a female figure; if you consider human nature, it is similar to that. You do not reveal everything, only parts of yourself, and the whole is surrendered to life itself. And you can think about the work like that. 

The Queen, 2014. Silk paper flowers, satin ribbons, galvanized metal sheet, and spray paint. View installation at Manchester Cathedral, England.

RP: These are obviously not neutral objects that you select; every one is loaded with its own immense social and cultural history. Is that how you see them? 

CR: Yes, these are objects with memories, and so, it becomes about the memory of the object. I work a great deal with the memories that come with these objects, which is why the leading curator at my studio is an anthropologist and ethnographer. Our first approach is always to interview people—understanding objects and the places they come from—in order to become familiar with the density of the narratives. Then we present as much of that as we can in the artworks—or pres­ent it in some way in the artwork. Ethnography is very relevant to me. It is always my starting point—collecting, photographing. My first work, The People’s Wall (2013), contains photographs of everyone whom I had interviewed in the past, all of them significant to a certain community. 

RP: Is your disinterest in neutrality one of the reasons for your choice of spaces?

CR: I do use white spaces sometimes, but I make them part of the narrative. They must always become important to the narrative. That is part of being an architect and perceiving scale—determining space and the nature of buildings. And the second part of that approach is that, having studied medieval and renaissance history, I am a follower of the École des Annales, or the School of Mentalities, which was centered in France, at the Sorbonne. Historians like Jacques Le Goff, Georges Duby, and Lucien Febvre influenced how I think about history and how I think about society. Back in the 1940s, they said that we are writing history only about noble men, and that represents only 10 percent of society. We are not writing people’s history correctly, and so this does not give us a correct perspective. These eminent historians found ways to research and understand how ordinary people were living and behaving in medieval times and then wrote about them. I think that, even in the 21st century, we still give a lot of importance to the Queen of England or to how the prince moves around with the princess. But we do not stop and pay attention to how ordinary people live and perceive life, or to what we can learn from them. The People’s Wall is about just that. 

Rajesh Punj is a writer and curator based in the U.K.