the ephemeral sculptures of HELEN ESCOBEDO
Do your students know the meaning of the term "ephemeral"? Webster's Dictionary defines it as "lasting a very short time." What might: that mean when applied to outdoor sculpture? How could a sculpture or installation be ephemeral? Why might an artist choose to create ephemeral artworks? How would an ephemeral work be different from a permanent installation? All of these questions can be addressed through an investigation of the work of an artist especially noted for her ephemeral environments: Helen Escobedo.
Helen Escobedo is an internationally known site-oriented sculptor whose work depicts a thoughtful sensitivity to both natural and human-made environments and their consequential connections with individuals and communities. Fluent in five languages, the artist has created installations in over 30 countries, often through collaborations with students and local residents. Escobedo lives in Mexico City where she has served as the Director of the Museum of Modern Art (1982-1984) and the Director of the Museums and Galleries of the National University of Mexico (1961-1978). Her commissioned works encompass site-based sculptures, installations, and architecture and her many accomplishments include publications, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and participation in international sculpture symposia and exhibitions.
Escobedo designs ephemeral artworks, not meant to last, that enhance rather than interfere with a chosen or designated environmental site. This intention is sometimes a surprise to people only familiar with permanent installations. The artist reasons that "so much in life is ephemeral, leaving only memories, travel experiences, friendships, sounds and smells, stories told." Escobedo does not want her installations to interfere with the natural environment. Instead she wants to enhance what is already there: "To create a rhythmic interruption of space repetitive sequences to sculpt the light, to use space as iridescent volume rather than solid matter; this is the subject of my present inspiration and the object of my research."
The artist prefers to use materials readily available at or near the site, including metal mesh or screen, car tires, bales of hay, ladders, umbrellas, and other natural and manufactured materials of all kinds. Her work is planned to be built on site from locally available materials with the participation of the community. Her designs eliminate excessive costs, avoid a need for constant maintenance, and are planned to withstand vandals and climbers. Contrasting geometric forms, panels, colonnades, slats, ladderlike structures, moire patterns, or steel cable often find their way into her work.
For her outdoor pieces made with steel mesh, usually varying degrees of open grid, Escobedo oftentimes prefers warm colors such as yellows, reds, and oranges against the sky or green vegetation and cool colors against neutral backgrounds such as a desert environment. She suggests that, in most of her works, color plays an important role, perhaps due to her Mexican heritage.
To those who might argue in favor of permanent installations, Escobedo points out that "a nonpermanent environmental sculpture can be recorded on photographs, slides, cinema film, and videotape to show its structure and people viewing it." Other artists who focus on the environment, such as Andy Goldsworthy and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, work from similar viewpoints.
Encourage your students to explore Escobedo's ideas and intentions about environmental sculpture through two-dimensional "sculpture collages" or three-dimensional models or maquettes for real spaces they encounter. Invite them to follow Escobedo's example to "merge with the spirit of the place to enhance what is already there."
Discussion Questions to Consider
Compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of ephemeral and permanent installations. Which do you prefer? What are your reasons for your choice? What natural materials are available in your vicinity that could be used for an ephemeral installation? What message might they convey? What manufactured materials are available in your vicinity that could be used for an ephemeral installation? What message might they convey? What design would you propose for a site-specific installation for your school? Would you choose natural or pure colors for the work? What reasons would guide your choice? Why are scale and proportion so important in Escobedo's environments? What is the importance of color in Escobedo's installations? Are all sculptors capable of designing an ephemeral environment? Why or why not? Compare and contrast the work of Escobedo with that of Andy Goldsworthy and Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
How to Present a Public Sculpture Competition
Assemble a planning committee, including teachers, students, and local artists or other community representatives. Choose the site for an installation, perhaps on the school grounds or within the community of the school. Determine if the sculpture should be ephemeral or permanent. Decide on the rules and restrictions of the proposal. Request a two- or three-dimensional model or maquette for each entry, along with a written proposal. Design, write, and distribute an invitation or calls for entry. Secure judges for the entries. Accept entries, and then have the judges choose a short list of the three--five best entries. Publicly display the entries on the short list, providing opportunities for feedback from viewers. Display the entries at school or in the community, such as at a public library or bank. The planning committee should consider community input and then make and announce the final selection. Work collaboratively with the artist to create the installation, again. involving as many people at school and in the community as practical and possible. Unveil the installation at a dedication ceremony. (Invite the press!). Note: If it is not possible to install a public sculpture, display the entry models or maquettes along with the written proposals that accompanied them.
Try some of Escobedo's working methods to plan a design for a specific site or environment. Find a magazine photo of a natural environment or take a photo with a digital camera and print it. Make several photocopies of the image to use as working copies. Draw on the photocopy with desired media, planning a three-dimensional sculpture to scale within the pictured environment. Markers, colored pencils, charcoal pencils, and other drawing media can be used or other papers can be collaged to the background. Actual models can also be constructed then attached to the background. Escobedo often uses small pieces of aluminum sheets for this purpose. Keep Escobedo's intentions in mind: "to redesign by transforming or extending what is already there, to seek inspiration within the given time and the genus loci or spirit of the place."
INTERVIEW: JANUARY 25, 2000
NW: When did you know you wanted to become an artist?
HE: I knew by age five I wanted to be a sculptor. I loved to work with modeling clay and plasticene. I loved to model. My mother was very artistic and she opened all the doors for me--violin, ballet--I was brought up in three languages in Mexico.
NW: Where did you study?
HE: I had a three-year scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. One of the visiting professors while I was there was the British sculptor Henry Moore. Much later (1982-84) I mounted an enormous Henry Moore exhibit when I was the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.
NW: Can you describe the way that you work now? I know you are very concerned with environmental issues.
HE: I am very much into ephemeral installations that intentionally do not last very long, that disintegrate over time. I use found or cheap materials or recycled materials. I am site specific; I carry nothing with me. The materials I use for an installation have to be available very close by and have to be cheap. I am an ecologist, and I work with other people--students, teachers, locals, or volunteers--because it is the way that I want it. I have worked all over the world, in Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Jerusalem, New York City--using steel scrim, mesh, broom, branches, umbrellas, old tires--anything I can find or have donated nearby. With ephemeral art I am free to occupy any space that strikes my fancy.
NW: What messages do you want to convey in your installations?
HE: I like to point a finger--both critical and humorous at the same time. I want to make people angry, make them smile. Humor makes criticism easier to swallow. I don't want to offend anyone, but I want to make people look and react.
NW: I was excited to find photos of your installation, For the Turtles online [www.artistavenue.com/ artpages/artist/art200ga.htm]. How did that project develop?
HE: I was invited to do an installation in Costa Rica, and I was asked to do something in relation to the giant turtles that live there, the turtles that are dying despite being protected. When I arrived I spent the night on the beach watching the turtles lay their eggs and then paddling back out into the sea the next day. With the help of local people--students, Boy Scouts, volunteers--I made 100 blue-black giant turtles along the shore using umbrellas donated by a factory. We made flippers out of old tires cut into halves and quarters--in Costa Rica old tires are used to build coral reefs offshore so they were readily available. It took an old shoemaker to tell us how to slice the tires!
On the other side of the road I made an installation that was a series of stands that appeared to be selling turtle meat and eggs. The eggs were made with balls of tissue paper and sand sprinkled over them. The public would come up thinking the items were real, then discover they were not.
All the people I worked with knew much more about turtles than I did. We used the installation so that the children there would learn more about the turtles.
NW: Are there artists who have influenced you or who you admire?
HE: Henry Moore and his exact opposite, Alberto Giacometti, back in the sixties. Later, Ephemeral artists such as Robert Smithson, Christo, Halprin, and The Art Povera group.
NW: How has your work changed over time?
HE: My sculptures between 1969 and 1973 were more permanent, with materials such as concrete. After 1973 1 began making installations that were ephemeral--temporary. Permanent works attract graffiti, tend to weather badly, and trees and bushes grow up around them, or the city encroaches upon them, dwarfing them and suffocating their original space.
NW: What is your current project?
HE: My Magnum Opus is my retrospective at the Museum of the National University of Mexico. There will be a book and a CD-ROM with 500 images to accompany the show, hopefully to be inaugurated this coming August.
NW: Are you exploring any new areas in your work?
HE: I've become interested in adding sound to my installations, sounds of machines faxing, blipping, beeping--sounds of office noises, electronic warfare on human robots, and the use of neon and plastic garbage that can be constructed and recycled.
NW: What would you most like to convey to art teachers?
HE: Teachers share their knowledge with their students, not just by talking to them, but also through their actions. It is an action of give and take, seeing and feeling whether you are getting through, learning as you teach, reaching farther and feeling the feedback. As I work I teach, I question, and I learn from others. Working with others I have more pairs of ears and eyes and hands that can do so much more that just my own. I have learned one thing after all these years, and that is, I shall only stop growing the day I die.
Escobedo, Helen, with photographs by Paolo Gori. Mexican Monuments: Strange Encounters.
Escobedo, Helen. "Reflections on my Non-permanent Environmental and Permanent Outdoor Sculptures." Leonardo, vol. 13, pp. 177-181, 1980.
Escobedo, Helen. "Site-Specific Sculpture or the Mythology of Place." Leonardo, vol. 21, pp. 141-144, 1988.
Nancy Walkup is the Project Coordinator for the North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas.