Can we say with certainty that animals dream when they sleep? How is our notion of “dreaming” married to language and to other non-animal criteria? What would we see if we could see inside a dream of a non-human creature, and how could we translate this vision back into language? These are some of the questions posed by Mexican artist Rodrigo Hernández (1983, Mexico City) in his new exhibition stars around this beautiful moon hide back their luminous form.
In Hernández’s practice, he often invites us to suspend our beliefs and give space to an imaginative awareness of the world. In his second solo exhibition at the gallery, Hernández speculates about the possibility of decentering the discourse around dreaming from the ever-prominent framework of the human experience, contemplating the many uncertainties but also the emotional universe surrounding the notion of consciousness.
The exhibition is introduced by Flux of Things (Human & Monkey), a large hand-hammered stainless steel piece constructed in a grid-like pattern of eight individual panels.1 It appears airy and light, as if a cloud were passing and on whose surface the visitor’s reflection would hover, distorted through the dents thrust on the hard material. Based upon a simple line drawing, this piece portrays a monkey embracing a lingering human figure. In this rare moment of bond between two different living creatures, we might first infer a sense of perfect empathy and commonality, but it also serves as an introduction to the many scientific, philosophical, and ethical questions raised by this relationship.
In the second room, one finds a monkey head cast in bronze resting directly upon the floor and, on the surrounding walls, a series of small oil paintings depicting animals asleep. The slumbering creatures – bats and monkeys – offer no further details to interpret what they’re experiencing, but their silent rest nevertheless leads to many questions. This position of the viewer vis-à-vis a painting, Hernández suggests, is a replay of other occurrences related to both the world of dreams and that of animals; in all of them, the most important feature being phenomenal experiences such as sensing, feeling, and perceiving (in contrast with rationality or representational consciousness). In essence, this experience is radically subjective and untransferable, perhaps wholly inaccessible to others. This unconditional mine-ness, this inner life of a dream, of a painting, and of an animal is what keeps us guessing and what makes the visitor of the exhibition not only an observer but an active “imaginator”.
Central to Hernández’s research for this exhibition was the idea from Mexican philosopher David M. Peña-Guzmán that “dreaming represents the art of subjective world formation, and that dreams are odes the animal mind sings to itself during sleep” suggesting that while asleep, animals run “reality simulations”.2 The author builds the case that our efforts to grasp some understanding of the domain of nonhuman consciousness are rarely rewarded with certainty, and, at best, with only some fragments of it. This notion is referenced in the title of the exhibition, taken from Anne Carson’s If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho. In it, Carson translates the Archaic Greek poet’s remaining lyrics in a broken stanza:
stars around this beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth
Can the reader observe this as one complete poem? Or is there more to this silvery moon who shines down upon us? Originally paired with a lyre, the vast majority of Sappho’s lyrics and music have been lost and what is left are only glimpses into the poet’s mind. As with the artwork on display in Hernández’s exhibition, we are tasked to interpret the evocative blank spaces by ourselves.
Hernández proposes with this new exhibition to understand art making as a dream: an active phenomenon grappled with the tentative and the indeterminate, a state of consciousness with its own independent rules and an act of “self-projection”; that is, a channel to explore the world from multiple possible perspectives.
This exhibition is followed by the artist’s solo exhibition on the same subject at the Wattis Art Institute in San Francisco, California opening on December 14, 2023.
1. This work was originally produced by and exhibited at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover earlier this year.
2. When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness by David M. Peña-Guzmán, 2022, published by Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, p. 193.
3. If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson, 2002, published by Virago Press, London, p. 69.
Rodrigo Hernández (b. 1983, Mexico City) lives and works in Mexico City. He studied at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2014) and obtained a BA at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe (2013).
Hernández’s highly idiosyncratic visual vocabulary invites, in a similar manner as fiction, the suspension of belief and the adoption of imaginative perception. Each of his installations is constructed as a rebus of various sources, such as poetry, philosophy, narrative, and dreams. The myriad of historical and aesthetic references in his work serves not as a statement in itself, but rather as an experiment on synthesis, which the viewer navigates through like a cosmos of possibilities. Hernández’s paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and installations operate like machines for flexing the imagination, triggering encounters between imagery and meaning-making, and between forms and their environments.
Hernández was awarded with several international awards and grants, including the Campari Art Prize, 2018; Cité International des Arts Paris, 2016; BBVA-Museo Carrillo Gil and Jóvenes Creadores, 2016; National Fund of the Arts-FONCA, 2016; Laurenz-Haus Stiftung, Basel and Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg, 2015; Jan Van Eyck Academie Stipendium, 2013; Graduiertenstipendium Landesstiftung Baden-Württemberg, 2013; DAAD-Preis zur Jahresausstellung, AdbK Karlsruhe, 2012, among others. He was a finalist of the Future Generation Art Prize in 2019 and attended the Istanbul Modern residencies in 2020; Pivô, São Paulo in 2018; the Residency Unlimited, New York, 2013; Christoph Merian Stiftung, 2013; the Salzburg Sommerakademie, 2013.
His recent exhibitions include: Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art, Gothenburg; Künstlerhaus Bremen, Bremen; Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover; Museo Jumex, Mexico City; Swiss Institute, New York City; Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Medellín; Culturgest, Porto; Kunsthalle Kohta, Helsinki; Istanbul Modern, Istanbul; Pinchuk ArtCenter, Kyiv; GaMec, Bergamo; ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe; Kunstverein Nuremberg; Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht; Gladstone Gallery, Brussels; MendesWoodDM, Brussels; 12th Biennial Femsa Monterrey, Monterrey; 5th Moscow Biennial, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Moscow; Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich; Kunsthalle Basel, Basel; kurimanzutto, Mexico City.
Photos by Marjorie Brunet Plaza