Fernando Palma Rodríguez’s Robots Cultivate Life While Technology Destroys It

A version of this essay originally appeared in Reframed, the Art in America newsletter about art that surprises us and works that get us worked up. Sign up here to receive it every Thursday.

It had been a while since I last felt attacked in an exhibition, but the serpent made a move and the situation could’ve ended up a lot messier than it did.

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It helped that the serpent was animatronic and super stylized—but it took a moment to remember this while my body recoiled. The exhibition was Fernando Palma Rodríguez’s at Canal Projects in New York, which features a cast of robotic contraptions on view through July 27. A lone corn stalk greets visitors at the entryway, its weathered husks suggesting this corn, like other stalks throughout the show, have seen some things. Walk up a few stairs and you stare down at a large pile of dirt on the floor, above which hovers a snake with mechanized wings that flap on occasion. This is the Cincoatl snake, and it’s the star of the show.  

The snake, it turns out, is the corn’s protector. In Mesoamerican traditions, the Cincoatl snake (which is often translated as “snake-friend of maize corn,” per the wall text) defends the crop from forces that might keep it from growing. Surrounding the snake are four Chinantles, barriers made of corn stalks that are said to be an avatar of the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, a feathered-serpent deity “related to wind, Venus, the Sun, arts, knowledge, and learning.” With fangs and disquieting marble eyes, the serpents jut and lurch around the exhibition in the four cardinal directions, marking a sacred space. (One of those was the artwork that tried to attack me, but I had come in peace and survived the ordeal. The corn stayed safe, too.)

This installation—commissioned by Canal Projects, a nonprofit space in Lower Manhattan since 2022—tells of corn’s origins while meditating on Indigenous technologies. The wall text refers to the work of Chilean sociologist Luis Razeto Migliaro, who defines Indigenous technologies as tools with the capacity to cultivate life. Indeed, Rodríguez’s sculptures all come to life: Vasijas de barro con cucharas (Clay Pots with Spoon), from 2024, is an arrangement of motorized wooden utensils that clack together, like castanets. Tezcatlipoca (2017) is a tower rising above a cardboard coyote skull and topped with an old CD/cassette/MP3 boombox; from time to time, it swivels on a wheel that rolls below. Cincoatl snake (2024), the centerpiece, goes up and down, seeming to fly, albeit in a very rudimentary fashion.

Wooden spoons affixed to motors amid a nest of multi-colored wires.
View of Fernando Palma Rodríguez’s exhibition “Āmantēcayōtl” at Canal Projects.

Using decidedly DIY aesthetics—lots of unkempt nests of wires and circuit boards—Rodríguez makes a show of his contraptions’ elementary qualities in a way that seems to be part of the premise. In a time when technology has started to feel like an inescapable force hell-bent on destroying life, his creations serve as a reminder that it can be a tool for both destruction and creation. The hand-wrought nature of Rodríguez’s intervention offers signs of hope: the made-ness of his robotic forms suggest that some things can be taken apart—and perhaps reassembled anew.

Source: artnews.com

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