When I spoke to Ana Carolina Rodrigues in her Latimer Road studio, she had just returned from a residency in Shenzhen, the energetic Chinese boomtown just north of Hong Kong. She described experiencing a city that has undergone rapid change in a relatively short amount of time; one of the fastest growing cities in the world, it expanded from small market town to ten-million-strong megacity, in only a few decades. Shenzhen hums with relentless activity, embodying China’s conversion to consumerism and fixation on ‘progress’, whilst also invigorating the burgeoning local art scene of which Rodrigues’ residency was part.
At the same time, the artist sensed a disconnect between the city’s accelerated urban development and the agricultural way of life it has replaced, transforming both the surrounding landscape and the lives of its millions of migrant workers. As we talked, it became apparent that some of the questions facing cities like Shenzhen are ones Rodrigues is considering in her own sculpture, drawing and performance work: how to find balance between human activity and the natural world and what role art plays in finding that balance.
Born in Portugal, Rodrigues has spent lots of time moving between town and country. Her family cultivate oranges and olives in the countryside and she grew up feeling a deep connection to the land, often lost in contemplative observation as she helped out her parents. She studied Fine Art in Lisbon, which shares Shenzhen’s bright ocean-facing light, before doing an MA at Chelsea, moving to London where she has lived and kept a studio since. She has complemented working in the city with regular residencies that have mostly been based in rural areas, producing a variety of work in different mediums that nevertheless all share the same spirit of artistic enquiry and blending of the methodical with the intuitive.
As artist in residence at Charlie Whinney Studio, in the Lake District, Rodrigues became experienced in woodworking, using steam bending, carving and sanding to create smooth, flowing sculptures that follow the natural curves of the salvaged limbs they are made from. By coating some of these wood works with a vibrant patina of coloured pigment and graphite, worked into every groove and indent, they are detached from their natural origin to become stand alone pieces that inhabit the gallery space instead of the forest floor.
On another residency at the Elterwater Merz Barn, last studio of German artist Kurt Schwitters, Rodrigues embarked on a project to reconstruct the ‘green roof’ of plants that formerly completely covered the top of the barn, researching alongside locals with botanical expertise to correctly identify the native flora with which to replant it. The project drew on collective knowledge and memory of the past to create something new that worked in tandem with the surrounding natural world, something that recurs throughout her work.
More recently, whilst in the urban environment of Shenzhen, Rodrigues returned to drawing, making large-scale works consisting of repeated, energetic strokes of soft pastel and charcoal that accumulate into blurs of swirling colour and form. Though purposefully avoiding depicting specific landscapes, these drawings are more like atmospheric suggestions of natural elements, as well as being records of the artist’s physical gestures, revealing her movements through space in relationship to the drawing surface during the making process.
Whether made in the city or the country, Rodrigues’ works take their lead from nature in more than just aesthetics. She tries to let her drawings, sculptures and performance works develop organically, seeing where the materials take her without pre-planning; the artist has few set ideas or expectations when she sets out to make a new work and is always open to chance and the unexpected. As the work unfolds she often stands back, checking she’s avoiding the desire to revert to obvious, familiar paths or reference points; in this way, she tries to balance the human urge to control things with the uncontrollable, unpredictable creative essence of the natural world.
For Rodrigues, art is a means of trying to work out that balance between human activity and the natural world. Making work isn’t meditative or transcendental; it is investigative and enquiring, a way of gaining knowledge about life and trying to answer a question that is not itself fully formed. She seamlessly combines her studio work with her everyday ‘real world’ experiences, in the city and in nature, and her constant switching from one medium to another means she avoids ‘unhealthy’ fixations on single art forms and their associated theoretical dead-ends; instead, she gains multiple perspectives that give a better sense of the whole that is not yet known to her. Art making for her is a way of continuing to explore that whole, a way of searching for a balance with nature even when in an accelerated, man-made metropolis like London, Lisbon or Shenzhen.