Review of Maria Fernanda Cardoso's Woven Water: Submarine Landscape at the MFAH

Suzette Mouchaty

Simplicity of form and exquisite choice of materials lend elegance and a psychological edge to Maria Fernando Cardoso’s work, Woven Water: Submarine Landscape, recently on exhibit in the show, “Contingent Beauty,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  This installation has twenty-six pendent gray mesh forms occupying over 500 square feet of gallery space.  Viewed from outside the work, the gently undulating movement of these strange creatures seems frozen in suspended animation.  Basket-like forms hanging a few feet off the floor have an eerie cavity that speaks of entrapment, while open, human-sized forms glide overhead as graceful and preternatural as a manta ray.  Gray walls and soft lighting contribute to a sense of tranquility.  Entering the installation produces a sense of movement caused by shifting perspectives and an awareness of the flutter of line and shadow.  An invisible current carries these weightless forms along and for a moment, one may recall the feeling of floating in balmy water.  However, this seduction gives way to unease upon the realization that the geometric subunits of these networks are in fact hundreds of dried, gray starfish wired together at the pointed tips of their long slender arms which form regular arrays of polygons outlined in space.   The bodies of these fantastic creatures have been dredged up from the ocean floor, killed, dried, and commodified: these have become a work of art, but most are purchased by vacationers who will leave them forgotten in a junk drawer. 

Maria Fernanda Cardoso was born in Colombia  in 1963 and currently lives and works in Australia.  Her work has been included in shows internationally, and she represented Colombia in the 2003 Venice Biennale.   Since completing an MFA in Sculpture and Installation at Yale in 1990, Cardoso has produced artwork from natural materials, often obtained locally.  Her early works are of indefinable forms that seem oddly familiar: a floor mattress of lumpy gray, sinuous shapes reminiscent of gigantic intestines, or irregularly shaped, smooth gray clay forms with tender bean sprouts emerging on the surface like a shock of hair left on a freshly shaved head.   Cardoso is probably best known for the Cardoso Flea Circus in which she created a miniature circus arena occupied by live cat fleas.  In this exhibit, tiny objects are glued to flea bodies so that when the insects walk or jump they appear to be performing circus acts. 

Woven Water seems to relate to Cardoso’s early work in being minimalist in form and presentation.  The starfish bodies are curious.   They’ve been coated with a gray tint resulting in a distancing uniformity.  The work was originally designed for a more vertical installation, but a change in venue resulted in a horizontal arrangement of the present installation.  This is fortuitous because walking among the forms stimulates both physical and emotional responses.  I found the space peaceful, meditative and timeless.  The geometries trigger the notion that one could be drifting among the galaxies in outer space, floating among creatures of the deep sea, or suspended among organic molecules within a tiny drop of water.  The dead starfish bodies resonate with concerns about environmental degradation.  Too often installations feel hackneyed and lack coherence; Cardoso succeeds in producing an environment layered in metaphor, while retaining a poetic simplicity.