Jose Bernardi, who spends much of his time researching contemporary design in Latin America, writes on the relationship between design and ideas in cultural settings. It’s no huge surprise, then, that for his latest project, he ventured into the adjacent field of contemporary Latin American art.
Bernardi, an associate professor in The Design School at ASU and the program coordinator of the Interior Design program and the Master of Interior Architecture program, is the latest participant in ASU Art Museum’s Encounter series, where artists and scholars reimagine and recontextualize the museum’s collection to address larger issues related to the current social and culture climate in Arizona and the world at large.
Individuals who participate in the series work closely with a curator at the museum to select pieces to exhibit in ASU Art Museum’s main facility on the Tempe campus. They are also encouraged to create their own work for inclusion in the exhibition.
Here, Bernardi discusses his experience working with the museum’s collection and the intersections between art and design:
Question: How did you come to curate a show at the ASU Art Museum?
Answer: “The Violence of Truth” originated in the summer of 2016 when Julio Morales, curator at the ASU Art Museum, extended an invitation to curate an exhibit as part of the museum’s Encounter series. After initial conversations with Julio, several visits to explore the collection, and interactions with the museum’s professional staff, the theme and narrative slowly began to emerge as a response to the artwork selected, combined with my previous research and creative work.
I saw this exhibit as a possibility to be part of our reality today and creatively contribute to the discourse by highlighting current topics that affect all of us.
Q: Does this exhibition relate to your research as a designer? How so?
A: My research is focused on modern and contemporary design in Latin America, how it adapted elements from other cultures and how it transformed and innovated those influences in response to particular situations in different areas and complex economic and social realities.
Now, I see this exhibit at the ASU Art Museum as an opportunity to reflect about issues impacting our communities. It is also an exercise in design. The visit is structured in a sequence of four interrelating distinct rooms, reinforcing spatial characteristics already existing in the configuration of the gallery.
Three basic design elements contribute to experiencing a different atmosphere in each room: the use of a few crucial thresholds and walls to transition between spaces, suggesting a distinct character for each area; the use of color on two walls to reinforce the meaning of a particular artwork and its relationship with other pieces; and finally, the use of light and shadows to heighten and differentiate the atmosphere of each room. The southern wall remains empty and silent through the exhibition, except at a critical, culminating moment.
Q: This exhibition is named after a short story by Borges — can you talk a little bit about why you chose the name “The Violence of Truth” and what it signifies?
A: The larger topic of the exhibit reflects society’s search for certainty and order during a time in which we seem divided by conflicting and irreconcilable beliefs. The title of the exhibition references Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story “The Library of Babel.” In the story, the Library (a metaphor for the universe) is an orderly arranged place, where all knowledge is contained. In search of ultimate meaning, the Library’s inhabitants are divided between unrestrained joys and excruciating sadness; they turn to violence and fight amongst each other, destroying whole sections of the Library. In Borges’ story, the search for truth, instead of a collaborative quest, becomes a violent quarrel.
Q: What was it like to work with the collection and the curators at the ASU Art Museum?
A: As a researcher and educator this was an enriching learning experience. The museum staff is a cohesive team of experts, focused, professional and friendly. Their technical help, from lighting to mounting the work to organizing the administrative details, made this process very fluid. I am particularly grateful to Julio Morales, who dived in through the storage rooms with me to find the pieces that would be part of the exhibit. His knowledge about the collection was crucial, and I tried to absorb as much as I could. This was really a collaborative work, with a group of individuals who enjoy what they do. Now I can transfer that experience into my design studios and apply it with my own students.
Q: Many of the artworks in this exhibition are from Latin America. Can you talk a little bit about why you focused on that region's artwork?
A: The museum holds a formidable collection from Latin American artists. The work selected here alludes to utopian visions, the daunting routines of every day, like the tensions between conflicting myths, the permanence of memory, and the expectations of moments to come. The exhibition advocates for the potential of critical thinking and the need for dialogue and empathy among opposites.
The larger room is structured by the central wooden sculpture “For Cuba,” an elongated and winding artwork that divides the room in two. The eastern wall offers daunting reflections on violence in its different manifestations, on the opposite side, “Refloating of Utopia,” by Francesc Torres, and the larger piece of the exhibit, Eduardo Sarabia’s “City in the Clouds.”
Rufino Tamayo’s “Figura en Rojo,” seen from the entrance, illuminates the transitional space leading to third room. This is the central space of the exhibition, charged with powerful contemporary themes, exploring the tension between conflicting ideals and myths. Dominating the narrative of the room, the central wall is painted with a Barragán pink color, full of strong allusions while holding the painting “Northward Course of Immigration Makes Its Way.”
The last room evokes the quiet atmosphere of a chapel. It is the most intimate and withdrawn area in the exhibition, imbued with personal memories. Almost in shades, it contains a kneeling, emptied figure in silent dialogue with a vibrant terracotta Tree of Life, a symbol embraced by different cultures and religions through time. This is the only piece on the southern wall of the gallery. Full of energy, joy and hope, it transcends our differences and beliefs. Serenely, beyond our fears and misunderstandings, the “Arbol de la Vida” remind us of our common human condition.
Q: Many of your collage works are featured in the exhibition. Have you always made art, and is it part of your design process?
Modeling using different media was part of my education. I continued using fragments, removing parts from its original context, employing them as letters of an alphabet to assemble a different story. Collage with raku is particularly challenging for its weight and fragility, and appropriate for my work, based on multiple iterations of few themes and metaphors. The material I use offers an opportunity to explore joints, connections, color and tectonics; they are all integral parts of designing interior places that exalt human experiences.
Q: What connections do you see between the disciplines of art and design?
A: The whole transformative experience of modernity was propelled by the uneasy relationship between the aesthetics of the avant-garde, revolutionary technological applications and utopian social aspirations. That creative tension and collaboration between design and the arts have been present since then. My research explores that relationship in the work — among others — of Le Corbusier, Luis Barragán or Alejandro Aravena. One of the important characteristics of their theoretical frameworks is the fluid connection between patient research, art and design.
At The Design School, we have the unique opportunity to teach all the disciplines of design, from the larger urban and landscape scale to the intimacy of the room and the human scale. Being part of the Heberger Institute opens multiple opportunities of collaboration between design and the arts. I hope this exhibit is one more example of that potential.
Top photo: Sandow Birk’s “Northward Course of Immigration Makes its Way,” 1999, hangs on a central wall painted with a Barragán pink color. Photo by Craig Smith