Transforming Landscapes

For award-winning artist Daniela Rivera, speaking about her work in front of the school community on October 2 was familiar and a bit frightening. Back in 2007, she was a Middlesex faculty member who taught visual art and, she recalled, likely made a nervous assembly announcement or two in the Old Wood Theatre. Having moved on in 2008 to accept a position at Wellesley College – where she is now the Barbara Morris Caspersen Professor of Humanities and a professor of art – she was honored to be invited back to campus as a visiting artist and was “blown away by the beautiful facilities” that have replaced the ones she remembered.

Among these new spaces is the Ishibashi Gallery, within which Professor Rivera created an original installation, Carried by a Whisper, that conveys movement across all three exhibition walls with tilted drawings, angular lines, and slanted text drawn with her own handmade copper tools. As background for experiencing and interpreting this site-specific piece, she talked about two of her previous museum installations that also relate to what she called “the title of my life”: dislocation and relocation.

Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, Professor Rivera immigrated to the United States in her late 20s, having already earned a B.F.A. from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. While her earlier paintings had often centered on the human figure, she felt that the work was somehow “failing” in its new American context and made a decisive change. “I decided to remove the body from the work,” she explained, “and let the people in the gallery be the body, addressing the space instead.”

She illustrated this dramatically altered approach with images of The Andes Inverted, her 2017 solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Exploring the complex issues associated with Chile’s lucrative copper mines – including the thousands of people displaced by the industry’s expansion and pollution – she transformed enormous gallery spaces with materials, drawings, and sounds of the mine itself, as well as the voices of those who are both employed and relocated by it. In walking through the installation, visitors became the only bodies in the work, inspiring them to think about the myriad effects of mining on laborers and landscapes alike.

The second, related project that Professor Rivera discussed was titled Where the Sky Touches the Earth, part of a 2019 exhibition at the Fitchburg Art Museum. In trying to establish links to her own Chilean history, she spent three years researching, traveling, and recording video interviews with people who had relocated because of the mine. With her camera positioned at the level of their hands, Professor Rivera captured their gestures as they shared memories of their former homes.

Subsequently creating giant paintings of a few pairs of these hands – each 30-feet wide and 12-feet high – she effectively turned them into landscapes that filled the walls of one gallery. In this novel way, Professor Rivera again provoked discussions about laborers’ experiences and industry’s influence on land and the people who make their livelihoods and homes there.

Leaving plenty of time for questions – “because I want to hear your voices” – Professor Rivera clarified why she focuses on “addressing the space” instead of including figures in it. “I was always addressing the space,” she noted, “but when I removed the body, I turned it into a space for the body. As you enter the space, you are transforming it; I’m sharing agency with you.” Through that act of sharing, dialogue about difficult subjects becomes possible.

During the weeks she spent at Middlesex making this new work especially for this gallery space, Professor Rivera met with Advanced Placement Studio Art students to offer them advice on assembling their AP portfolios. She was also interviewed about her artistic journey and intentions by School Co-president Kennedy Mason ’22 and Antonio Ometeotl ’23 for a new student-led podcast, Inside Ishibashi.