Rebeca Méndez

Rebeca Méndez Guest Curates “Selects” Exhibition at Cooper Hewitt Museum (2018-10-29)

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Link to Rebeca Méndez Selects Brochure on Cooper Hewitt Website.

As guest curator of the next exhibition in Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s acclaimed “Selects” series, artist and designer Rebeca Méndez investigates the interaction of humanity, nature, design and science. Drawn from the diverse collections of Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Libraries, “Rebeca Méndez Selects” is the 17th installation in the series in which designers, artists, architects and public figures are invited to guest curate an exhibition. It is on view Oct. 5 through June 16, 2019, in the Nancy and Edwin Marks Collection Gallery.

“Within the design world, Rebeca is an impassioned voice for environmental awareness through a multidisciplinary body of work rooted in her identity and elevated with her knowledge of science, history and visual culture,” said Caroline Baumann, director of Cooper Hewitt. “For this ambitious installation, Rebeca has assembled objects, from an extraordinary Resplendant Quetzal specimen to an autonomous flying microrobot about half the size of a paperclip, to illuminate design’s interplay with the natural world.”

“Rebeca Méndez Selects” spans five centuries and examines the spectrum of human interactions with birds, from observation and study to extraction and eradication. Among nearly 80 objects on view are 30 specimens representative of the birds that ruler Moctezuma II collected in his extensive private aviaries in Tenochtitlan, the city-state that served as the center of the Aztec empire in the 16th century. Following the capture of Tenochtitlan by Hernán Cortés and his soldiers, the aviary was burned. From the vantage of this calamitous moment of cultural contact, Méndez’s installation probes how Europeans amassed material wealth at the expense of the environmental resources of the Americas. The exhibition’s digital experience enables visitors to listen to birdcalls that would have resounded through the aviary, and to view historical codices.

Explorers’ accounts ignited exotic visions of the Americas that for two centuries manifested as allegorical depictions of the region as a semi-nude indigenous woman adorned with feathers or accompanied by a bird, as in America Figure ca. 1760, manufactured by Meissen Porcelain Factory. Materials and resources extracted from the Americas, including birds mounted in lifelike poses, supplied Kunstkammers (cabinets of curiosities) like the one documented in Dell’historia natvrale di Ferrante Imperato Napolitano libri XXVIII.

In contrast to the indiscriminate bird collectors of the past, ornithologists today are driven by conservation, education and research. A photograph of Smithsonian forensic ornithologist Roxie Collie Laybourne (1910–2003) among drawers of bird specimens evokes both the Kunstkammer and Laybourne’s life-saving work consulting on airplane-design modifications in response to bird strikes.

The study of birds spurs innovative design experiments. The Smithsonian’s first curator of birds Robert Ridgway (1850–1929) standardized the names of colors that ornithologists used to describe birds, work that is foundational to the color systems that designers and manufacturers employ today. Contemporary designers experiment with a range of techniques and materials to capture avian characteristics. Overlapping rows of hammered, flattened steel nails in a 1983 necklace designed by Tone Vigeland resemble feathers; the digitally printed textile Auden, 2009, designed by Rodarte and produced by Knoll Luxe shimmers like plumage.

In addition, Méndez’s video “CircumSolar Migration I” focuses on the nesting and breeding season of the arctic tern, a species that travels from the Arctic to the Antarctic to complete the longest recorded migration of any creature on Earth. The work serves as a meditation on human movement and survival in an era of ecological disaster and social unrest.

“As humans, we cannot continue to think of ourselves as outside the planetary equation,” Méndez said. “If we desire the survival of our own species, then we must change our ways and become more attuned with the natural world and other life-forms. Design can help us do this by creating narratives that help us understand the world and our place in it. ”

“Rebeca Méndez Selects” is made possible by the Marks Family Foundation Endowment Fund.

Link to Cooper Hewitt Museum Article

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