Melissa A. Calderon interviewed for DisillusionsWednesday, December 28th, 2011 Categories: ARC Partners, Interview, Updates
Melissa A. Calderón comments on expectation imposed on her gender through her performance and installation Linger. In the gallery, the artist constructed a nest of twigs and moss, which she inhabited during both opening receptions of Disillusions. Wearing a white dress made of tear-stained tissues, she sat meditatively in the nest, embroidering little eggs onto squares of tan-colored cloth. After finishing each egg, she would get up from the nest, pin the cloth on the wall, and return to the nest to continue her embroidery. She repeated this activity for the duration of the reception. After the performance was complete, Calderón left the dress in the nest and the little eggs pinned on the wall as silent memories of the event. The maternal and nurturing actions of the performance represent the artist’s enactment of motherhood and her assertion that her works of art are akin to children. Burdened by the social expectations that a Latina should be a mother, the artist responds by likening the process of artistic creation to motherhood. Linger could also be read in relation to the artist’s diasporic self. A New York-born Puerto Rican, Calderón has always been highly aware of her displaced identity. The 2011 performance Nevermine marked her futile attempts to fuse her body to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, site of United States military operations and bombing range until eight years ago. Wearing a plastic body wrap, the artist lay on the beach and covered herself with sand as the waves washed over her. In Linger, the artist creates a shelter in an unfamiliar place. She marks the nest as her own space, a personal little island to call home.
Excerpt from: Disillusions in the Expanded Caribbean by Tatiana Flores.
Allison Harbin: You came to art relatively recently, so I’d like to start with your decision to become an artist. Was there a specific project or experience that made you decide to pursue art? When did you realize that you were an artist?
Melissa A.Calderon: I was very serious about art in high school and was even prepared to go to art school with a scholarship for college, but I lost my confidence completely and decided to pursue art history instead. I often wonder what if I had gone to art school and pursued art sooner, but I don’t think I was ready to be an artist then. I’m glad I began when I did with the experiences I have had. I came back to my work in 2001; I had drawn sketches for this one piece a few years earlier but had no space to realize it until I was given the opportunity to execute it at Longwood Art Gallery. The project turned into the tissue piece titled Permanence of Pain.
It was the first sculpture I had ever made, and I figured it out on the spot. Looking back on it, I see how I could have improved it sculpturally, but at the time I didn’t even have a single sculpture class behind me, so everything came through the process of actually building it in the gallery space. The piece got the attention of El Museo del Barrio, and it really started my career as an artist. I was learning as I was going, and curator Edwin Ramoran really encouraged me to push the piece and keep making.
AH: It’s amazing that the piece was never physically realized until it was for a formal exhibition. That’s a lot of pressure. How did it end up working?
MAC: Looking back on it now, I see the kinks in it, but it was a learning process. As soon as I made it and it looked beautiful, I was done, and I knew I was going to continue doing this. Seeing it finished in the gallery space was when I felt like an artist.
AH: Can I ask you about the content of the piece, and what it means to you, and what you hope it means for the viewer?
MAC: It was a very personal piece. It came from my experience of seeing a tissue box attached to a wall at an abortion clinic while I was waiting. I thought to myself, there is so much pain in this room that they had to attach a tissue box to the wall, and then I began thinking about what that meant in terms of difficulty, sadness, or even relief. I began to imagine how many thousands of tissues had come out of that box on the wall, and from there, I conceptualized them pouring out of the wall. I actually drew the sketches for it during a blackout in New York City; it was something that I felt I had to make, something I felt that many, many people, especially those in the Latino community, had gone through but never talked about. Abortion is in many ways very common, but it is also very taboo. I wanted to be able to talk about it and allow people to register their pain when they looked at the piece in a way that was therapeutic for me as well as, hopefully, for the viewer.
AH: That’s such a powerful and politically loaded piece to tackle as your first project as an artist! It’s very daring, and the intensely personal content has clearly carried you on to other projects and has had a very powerful resonance in viewers as well. Thinking back to your gallery talk for Disillusions, as you were speaking about your decision to not have a child and to allow your art to be your child, so to speak, I remember there was a hush across the room, which was filled predominantly with women. I think everyone reacted very strongly to that because it is something very personal that nearly every woman with a passionate career has thought about.
MAC: Yes, it’s one of those things that I never thought to conceptualize, but I’m so happy that I did. Permanence of Pain definitely feels like the nest piece that I made for Disillusions. It was something that I had to make, that I had to do, not just for myself, but also to bring attention to things that aren’t normally talked about but are so common.
AH: I love what you said in your gallery talk for the Disillusions show, that “every woman can make this nest.” You are touching on something that is very difficult for many women—this reality that we all have the capacity to become mothers, but that it is still something we can choose to do, or not to do. You made a conscious decision not to have children, yet your engagement with motherhood is very intimate and personal. This is such a beautiful connection to make between art, or creating, and children. It’s a very empowering way to look at your position as a woman as well as an artist. Can you speak more about this?
MAC: You see that struggle between career and children that happens all the time, and I really have always felt that the cards are stacked against the female artist. I have nothing but respect for women artists because it is so so difficult to become an artist and balance a family life. When I think about this, I’m always reminded of the work of Janine Antoni. I decided that, for me, it was impossible for me to make as well as be a mother. I couldn’t do both adequately, and this piece was about me working through that decision and becoming confident about it. It was a piece about affirmation as well as about the loss associated with the decision to not have a child.
AH: I really like your conception about art being just as nurturing as having a child. Through your passion about your art, you demonstrate that it is OK to pick an unorthodox route in life. How do you negotiate the conception of a biological need to be a mother and channel it into your art?
MAC: You know, I am always confronted with this desire to have a child. Whenever I see a cute child’s toy or piece of clothing, there is this tug in my uterus, and I think “Oh! I want one!” And to an extent, there is always that part of me that hopes that in the most ideal situation imaginable I could have a child. As there are fewer and fewer of my friends without kids, I frequently feel that need. I think maybe if I had a very supportive husband and were wealthy, I could afford to devote myself fully to my art as well as to a child, but I know that right now, when I think of my reality, having a child just won’t work for me. I take such pleasure in my art making and felt very lost without it in my 20’s when I wasn’t making, and I don’t feel lost anymore. In a way, I feel addicted to making art, and I don’t want to give up my art, even if that means not having children. It is about that fear and reality that as soon as you have kids it becomes all about them, which in many ways, it should. It’s also so easy to abandon making; it’s such a fight to keep doing it, and it’s something that I feel very passionately about.
In my work, I try to talk about things that everyone feels and has experienced. I want to put it out there, such as talking about abortion with Permanence of Pain, and openly acknowledge that it’s something many of us go through. The piece itself has been interpreted as something very stereotypically Latina, even though no one in the community wants to talk about it.
AH: What do you mean by stereotypical Latina?
MAC: The stereotype is that Latinas are very dramatic and emotional, and in popular tradition, there is this figure of the wailing woman who goes from village to village crying and scaring children in a folk tale. Drama and emotion are definitely there in the piece—I mean, thousands of tissues are pouring out of a tissue box on the wall! But I also think that there is an element of common pain in the piece, something about loss that we all experience and that, especially in the Latin community, no one wants to talk about or deal with.
AH: Going back to your nest piece, when you were speaking of the small embroidered eggs in the nest, you said that this nest was not about gestating, that the nest was as far as you went with it, as in, no child would be produced from this process. However, I feel that something does come out of this gestation, or rumination, that occurs within the nest and that the meaning of the piece is a result, your outcome, so to speak, of sewing those eggs within the nest. Can you speak more about this?
MAC: The first time I did the piece, I made eggs cast in tissue. Then, I would sew them together and place them outside the nest. I wanted to do something different with the next iteration of the piece. I thought I could sew, which is something I really love to do. A nest is a place where life is given; in order to hatch, the egg has to stay in the nest. By taking the egg out of the nest after I sewed it, by physically removing it, I emphasized that it would not gestate—the egg would always be in a suspended state and never go beyond that. I wanted to do that because that was how I felt about my life—I was treating my life this way, making my art in the way a mother would be nurturing her belly. It would be my art that would be there and not a child, and it would always be that way. No child would be produced in the nest, just art. In this way, the piece became an affirmation of me declaring that it was my choice not to have children.
There is a lot of teenage pregnancy in the Latino community, and women without children are often seen as spinsters. I can’t tell you how many family members have said something along these lines to me: that I’m the only one without children, that I’m a lesbian, etc. My relatives make up excuses for why I don’t have children and never acknowledge that it is my choice, so I wanted to say that in that piece, that this was my choice and that I embraced it. I wanted to make this statement through this beautiful but thorny and unwelcoming nest. I love that it is prickly and not approachable, it hurts to sit in, and it’s certainly not an environment that would be comforting for a child.
AH: Several of your pieces, such as your labor-intensive embroidery work and your piece Nevermine, in which you insert yourself into the landscape of Vieques in Puerto Rico, seem to be about your process of working through your memories and experiences. What do you consider your art in Nevermine, the process of you physically trying to become one with the land and water of Puerto Rico, or the film that resulted from it? Are we looking at documents of a performance or pieces in their own right?
MAC: I think it is the beach and my experience and performance that happened there, not the video that is my true art. I wish I had had 100 people there to watch me do it because it was a performance; the film is just a way of documenting that. For that piece, I thought, “What could be the closest way for me to get back to Puerto Rico?” The piece came about from some criticism I received from the Latino community about my big “Spic” earring from the Cultural Osmosis for the Native Gringa series—an artist in Spanish Harlem confronted me about it. It was very controversial because people saw it as an affirmation of negative connotations. For me, the piece was about confronting how we are seen negatively but offered an affirmation, an opportunity to deal with the stereotype directly. This was a very difficult period for me because I felt that my own people had rejected me, that I’m seen as a white girl and not Puerto Rican enough—which is reverse-racism and a way of excluding me as a legitimate part of the community.
My response was to show them how much I wanted to be Puerto Rican, how much I wanted to be a part of the community. I filmed it in Vieques, which has a long, difficult history of bombing ranges and US military occupation. Half of the island was divided by a big fence that the people of the island couldn’t cross. However, it is such a beautiful, beautiful place, but it is a false-beauty. When I was there all I could think about was that I could live here; however, the reality of the island is that 30% of the population has cancer from the contaminated water from the naval bombings. Even just being there dramatically increases your chances of developing cancer. It has this history of not being fully there, or not fully belonging to itself, which is how I felt about my own identity as a Puerto Rican raised in New York. When I look at the video now, it is really hard to look at myself naked—I’m wrapped in Saran wrap at six in the morning. But I just love the video, even for the simple notion that I have this beautiful video of myself from my life making art.
AH: There is something about it that seems like you are re-emerging from your origins. It seems like it is this way you found of giving birth to or re-birthing yourself, your fractured identity, and embracing it. It’s really beautiful.
MAC: I wanted to leave there feeling more Puerto Rican, I went on a two week trip with fellow artists, and we camped out. I just explored the island without visiting family. It was a very physically demanding trip that was full of a lot of technical hangups, but ultimately the challenges made me more resolved to do the piece, to work through what I had gone there to do. All of my camera equipment got destroyed the first time on the ferry going there; it all got soaking wet, and I lost my gorgeous HD camera, so my performance was shot on a flip camera; it was all I could afford, but I was so happy I could do it.
After I did the performance on the beach, I did feel more Puerto Rican. When I showed the piece at the same gallery I showed the earring, I got a very warm welcome and also the acceptance I had been craving. Now I feel like I’m an artist every single day, more and more and more. I feel very happy about that; it’s been 10 years since I’ve been working, and I’m just glad I can do it.
AH: You also speak about being in this “in between” state of deciding what to do, or how to negotiate this heritage that is foreign to you, or your decision to not become a mother. I love that in your pieces there isn’t necessarily a true resolution and that you demonstrate that exploring this duality, this indecision, can be just as satisfying. Would you agree?
MAC: I felt like I needed to do that for myself and to resolve this part of me that I felt very disconnected from. Other Puerto Ricans in the Bronx feel this way too; there are all these Americanized Puerto Ricans who feel very alienated from their identity. I appreciate where they are coming from, and I wanted to resolve it for them as well as for me. I feel like it’s a chapter that I’m very glad I got to.
AH: I’d like to ask about your embroidery pieces. I know enough about embroidery from my aunt to know how intricate and difficult they must have been to make. They also seem to me to be very much about the process of making them and the contemplation that comes from doing such a laborious and detailed activity. It’s also a very feminine practice, a traditional skill set that is reserved only for women.
MAC: Oh my God, they’re like my children now! I go to the gallery to visit them. I spent an entire year making four pieces. The embroidery of my remote control took me about five months; it was the first one I did. I embroidered every day. At the time I was on unemployment, and I didn’t want to go out in order to save money, so I watched TV and embroidered. I had just gotten back from Puerto Rico and was completely broke and unsure of what to do next.
Embroidery is something my grandmother taught me to do, and the entire process reminded me of her and was a way of honoring her. When I was a girl, we had a business—she would make clothes for Cabbage Patch dolls, and I would sell them out of my backpack at school. I remembered that experience and how sewing was something that took up a lot of time, which I had quite a bit of. I wanted to do something meaningful. I was unemployed and had literally worn the numbers off my remote control I was watching so much television. I was uninspired, in a funk after coming back from Puerto Rico.
So, I decided to embroider my remote control and couch. I also do Lucky Number 7 scratch-offs all the time, just in case, whenever I have a spare dollar. I constantly wish I could get some money. Then, I thought about the booklets of food stamps and how I had been denied because I was single and without kids. So I embroidered those things. The couch was the last one that I did, and it is my favorite. These pieces represent a period of my life when I was going through major life changes. I had moved out of the Bronx and got out of a relationship. The pieces allowed me to pass a year, to recover and collect myself. At first I didn’t think much about the embroideries; I thought they were kind of tongue-in-cheek, but now I realize that they got me through something that was very difficult for me. Ultimately, it is all about my grandmother, who is no longer with me, and how she taught me to get me through it.
AH: I’d like to ask you about your decision to leave the couch unraveled, especially since it was the last piece you did. Did you feel you had reached an end to the project and didn’t need to complete it, or was it a choice from the beginning?
MAC: I really wanted to have this idea that the couch was so worn just like the person who was making it and sitting on it, that it was just starting to come apart at the seams. I thought I had it all together, and then things started to fall apart, which is exactly what happened to the couch. Once I completed it, I had total postpartum withdrawal, I was trying to embroider everything, but I had to stop because I had other projects to do, but it is something I plan on coming back to. I’m doing embroidered graffiti now, which is a lot of fun.
AH: Burning out is definitely a real threat to artists, especially in really intensive environments. Besides abandoning art making when you were in college, have you experienced it since? The New York art scene is so cutthroat and intense. I got one look at it as a studio-art major undergrad and had a complete change of heart. I didn’t want to be a part of that world. How do you negotiate how difficult it is to be an artist in New York?
MAC: I know what you mean. I worked at Skowhegan in this really intense job. It was strange, because I was living alongside this elitist art community as a worker, not as a peer, and it was very hard to be there.
AH: Can you speak about your engagement to revitalize the arts in the South Bronx?
MAC: I call myself a Bronx artist in exile, and as soon as I can afford a studio, I’ll be back. It’s hard being away from there and I go back as much as possible. There was always a tightknit community there; there aren’t a lot of artists, but we stick together, and the ones that are there stay for 2 years, the length of a lease, or they stay a really long time. I lived there from 2002-2005 and we did a lot of stuff, we did some community organizing and loft events called conversions, and we did a bunch of things to let people know that there were things going on in the Bronx. We really wanted recognition that there were good artists there; however, it turned out to be a real double-edged sword. We were getting written about in real-estate sections, and the landlords were raising our rents. Eleven of us had to leave because the landlords jacked up the rent. So the community that was built ended up destroying itself. I moved to the northern Bronx but would still come down south and do studio tours. We were still keeping the community alive, and that’s what we’ve continued to do. I also grant write for free for the local gallery Bronx Art Space. It’s the only gallery in the South Bronx other than Longwood, so we all try to keep it afloat.
AH: That’s really too bad, that recognition in this artistic community would in many ways challenge its viability. So much about art is about systems of exchange and communication, and it’s always a problem when that collaborative aspect is so severely challenged.
MAC: Yes, at first we were so excited about being in the New York Times, and then all of a sudden, my landlord raised my rent 1,000 bucks! Because I was the person who was giving interviews, I wanted to shoot myself. I hadn’t realized this would happen from our increased visibility. We all got together and agreed to do no interviews to real estate sections, but a reporter would find an artist who would do it regardless, just to get their name in the paper. Our community is always in movement now, as a result.
AH: I’d like to ask you about your Cock series. It is your decal of sorts when you first enter your website, and it also seems to stand apart conceptually as well as visually from the rest of your work. Do you see it as defining an important aspect of your identity as an artist? On the surface, it seems impersonal next to your other work, so I am curious about the story behind it.
MAC: After the tissue box piece I had this experience in Spanish Harlem, which happens all the time—so much so that you don’t notice it after being there a while— but which was a very shaping experience when I noticed it anew. I went into a bodega, and there was this group of men standing around talking, and it got very quiet. This is typical when a woman walks in: she’ll go to the back and get her drink, and the conversation resumes only when she’s leaving. It’s a very insular masculine experience, which I felt very isolated from. I realized how foreign this was to me, how foreign these groups of men were to my reality.
I thought about how this gendered action was very much about the dominance of a place and decided to place a golden cock in the very spots where these men marked their territory. It was my tongue-in-cheek response to this reaction I was getting from these Latino males and to masculine things that I don’t understand. I always dream of proposing a 12-foot golden rooster for the middle of a Bronx park, which I think would be really great. I wanted to talk about how I just didn’t understand or that I’m this observer of something that’s happening that’s beyond my knowledge in its masculinity and “bro-mance.” I wanted to have this as opposite to the feminine in my tissue piece, which was criticized as womanly and emotional, and this cock was it, literally, ha-ha. And I thought to take the rooster to places where men seem to congregate, where guys naturally get together, and the cock is one of them, this perfect idealistic thing that tells them, “I’m making fun of you” and “I see you.” In the photos, I always made sure guys were around, and a shadow of a man ended up in one of the photos, which was really great. I was exploring Puerto Rican stereotypes and making it obvious. I wanted to show them in the light that others would see you in.
AH: Would you consider your work to be an engagement with feminist art?
MC: Hmm…I don’t know. I guess subconsciously the work that I’ve done has been about my experiences as a woman, and I guess I shouldn’t have a problem saying that because I’m enjoying what I’m making, and I enjoy that other people understand what I’m trying to say. Having people come up to me and say “this piece really meant a lot to me” is important to me, and it’s mostly women. If I get to do that with someone, then, I guess I’m a feminist artist.
I especially admire Janine Antoni. I found her on my own, and I just couldn’t look away. She always stays in my mind when I’m looking for inspiration because she keeps it simple and beautiful. I try to do that in my head, but there’s always this tendency to overthink something or overdo it, and I need to rein it in. Going back to that tissue piece, because I wasn’t taught as a maker I am learning in public, and it is nerve-racking. As I’m doing it, like with the nest, I keep telling myself that this is something that anyone can make. When I first opened the boxes of branches to make the nest, I thought I had bit off more than I could chew, but I recorded the whole process the first time and I learned on my way; it came to me. It is such a feminist piece. I’m proud of it, and I’m excited to do it again in the New York venue of Disillusions. I love performance, and really feel that it is a very important part of my work.
This interview is brought to you through the kind courtesy of Tatiana Flores curator of Disillusions: Gendered Visions of the Caribbean and its Diasporas.