Next week, Christina Teruel graduates with her Masters of Fine Art with a concentration in Sculpture. We sat down with her to talk about her thesis show, The Temporary Arts exhibition, experimentation with materials, her experience in the M.F.A. sculpture program, and upcoming plans.
Welch School of Art & Design: Your artist's statement says that you're currently investigating the themes of time in place. You also state that growing up in a tourist community affected your “perceptions of truth and emphasize that nothing lasts forever?” This really fascinates me. It feels very “Wizard of Oz: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Can you elaborate on that and how your thesis kind directly points to some of those themes?
Christina Teruel: I was born and raised in Myrtle Beach just like my mom. My family owned a breakfast restaurant that was very much the center of tourism; we were right across the beach and surrounded by these bright pink, yellow, and teal hotels. I was constantly immersed in a setting where we always had to be happy and cheery all of the time. And it was just always normal to me. As I grew older, it just became very performative, because I started developing my own personality and my own opinions and emotions about things. But when you're working, especially in the hospitality industry, your job is to make your customers have the best day of their vacation. So there was never really an opportunity to have a big sick day, or if you’re upset, you still have to go to work. We were always performing.
It was as if environment was constantly performing too because Myrtle Beach is also the miniature golf capital of the world. There are over 50 places to go putting within a 10 mile radius. So, these outdoor areas were also performative: fake green grass, fake palm trees, constructed lakes. Everything was intended to look real, but it wasn't— it was just a grand illusion that I was constantly living in all the time.
WSAD: And probably the same season all year long.
CT: Right. The season started in about March and then that extended to the end of September. It was really the same thing every day, every year...the same kind of lower to middle-class tourists. All of the shows stayed the same. The restaurants stay the same. It's not like a city where things need to change; some tourists come back because they want to eat at that same steak restaurant year after year. I often heard, “Oh, this is our 20th year coming to the beach. And we love doing the same exact things every single time.” So there's this monotony for the people working there because we're all aging, but nothing around us changes. It's kind of bizarre. Once I started to get older, it was strange, almost dreamlike.
WSAD: That makes me think of your very iconic installation at the Temporary Art Center with melting ice cream. And can you speak more to how materials or specific works point to these themes?
CT: Yeah! The Temporary Arts show was the very first time that I felt really free in my work and on. I was really concerned about the materials because we were told we can do anything for the show and with the space—as an artist that's so cool. I first started thinking about these ideas I mentioned and I thought it was a great opportunity to try ice cream in a sculpture. I feel like ice cream is an immediate trigger of nostalgia for most people: the scent of ice cream, what ice cream represents, often a treat after a long day of vacation. These are foods that signify leisure or a moment that's supposed to be cherished. So to illustrate time, that was the perfect material for me to use. I wanted to immerse the TAC audience in this experience that's not only visual, but it also performative, sensory, and surreal.
WSAD: Yeah, I remember you could smell it from a couple of booths over, which was really captivating.
I know that when you first joined us, you were discussing communication and repetitive, hollow gestures. You also talked about cultural heritage and the absence of those connections. Do you see some of those themes tied into your current work? How your work has evolved over the last three years?
CT: My early work was very heavily focused on my cultural identity from my dad's side, who was a first generation Filipino immigrant. Making work about that was a very therapeutic experience for me. It was extremely personal. So I felt like I just needed to get it out; and it came out in these performances and videos. As I moved on from that, I felt like I was completely abandoning that idea and shaking my hands clean... but then I realized my current work was very similar. Artists say it’s easy to end up making the same piece over and over and over for years—you try to move away from themes—but they all connect in some way.
So my new work is really focused on the tourist experience and local/workers’ experiences in the hospitality industry. This work is really about exposing the truth of things, and I felt that kind of parallels my old work about cultural heritage because I felt like I was missing truth about my identity. My father was not necessarily deceptive, but he was just a very closed-off person about everything that he knew before moving to America. So to me, that was like some sort of truth that I didn't have access to. So I've always been interested in reality and facade: what is real and what is fake. I felt like he, my sisters, and I were living some sort of fake life because we didn't have access to that culture. I would think, ‘Is it fair for me to identify this way, because I was never really taught much about that culture?’ ‘Is anything I do cultural appropriation because I am an outsider?’ These ideas dive into truth and reality—whether that be from the identity perspective or place and memory.
WSAD: You did have a video in your thesis show that juxtaposed waves and the folding of the silverware in a restaurant, which incorporated repetition—it did feel connected. Speak about your video and performance work. Even when you aren't present in the space, it still feels a little bit performative.
CT: Yeah. I actually had planned a performance for my thesis show before COVID. I had an idea that I would be doing maybe some sort of restaurant work or carnival-esque work, like handing out like food or like spinning cotton candy for the audience. I had to change that with the COVID restrictions, but I think that that ended up really benefiting my work. With the absence of my physical body, as you said, I felt like the message became stronger and clearer of what perspective gallery viewers would have. I originally wanted the viewers to be tourists. I wanted them to feel like they were maybe on vacation, like in this strange dream, either by pleasure or indulging my work.
But in my thesis work, I think they felt the workers’ perspective. And I wanted them to see a different side that is often masked by all the glittering lights, scenery, and smiles. I wanted them to see that at the end of the day, these people that have been working in the same restaurant for 20 years aren't always really as happy or content as they show you.
I did a similarly-themed performance in one of my classes: a pancake performance where it was supposed to simulate like the average workday from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I performed the job of the entire restaurant staff. I think that was important because having an audience directly engaging with my work became an experience—not just a visual experience, they were eating the food, they were interacting, they were smelling the cooking process...I don't think that performance is necessarily where I'm going to be heading at this moment. But it definitely was instrumental in leading me to my exhibition.
WSAD: I was actually was going to ask you about how your restaurant industry experience or service industry experience has informed your work.
CT: I think it's pretty evident in my work that a lot of my ideas are based on service industry. I think it's because I grew up in the restaurant, and ever since I could walk, I had to work. It's just embedded in me. And that was my personal perspective. And when I started planning out what installations I wanted to be included in the show, it was important for me to have other spaces—such as a souvenir shop in the ice cream shop —that became more general. So it wasn't just such a personalized focus experience, because if I felt what I was focusing on the restaurant, it became more about labor than just hospitality in general.
WSAD: Speak more specifically to the format of installation and how it how your work fits within it.
CT: Oftentimes when the word installation gets mentioned, art people automatically think like these big spaces, completely transformed. But to me, even just having some sort of audio installed—anything that alters the space—to me is installation. My thesis exhibition was quite literally three separate installations. As you mentioned, even the performances that I did, like serving the pancakes, became an installation too because there were sounds, spills, smells...it started to slowly not feel like we were in a gallery. Installation work is really about the combination of the senses to me. It takes your mind somewhere else. That's what I really wanted to focus on, thinking about installation, because if I could transport someone’s mind —through the smell of ice cream or the the feeling of a fan hitting you while watching a video of the ocean—that to me is creating an installation.
WSAD: A tourist destination is a place that we've all visited or understand. A lot of us have been tourists.Tourists are often so absorbed in their vacation experience, that they are not always thinking of the locals or the labor force that keeps that town running. And I know that you were obviously hoping the viewer will think about that through your show. But your show also made me think about how the pandemic has really impacted those communities and the economy there. Has covid made you think differently about your work?
CT: I spent the majority of my quarantine in Myrtle Beach with my family, which was really interesting to see. And I think it really did end up inspiring my thesis show because I was there for the first time during the summer season when nobody was there. Everything was still and empty. It was like a horror movie: abandoned amusement parks, ice cream shops that have been closed and now looking moldy, empty beaches. So it really made me think about the hospitality industry, because with the absence of these people, it finally looks like how the locals feel from time to time. I mean, I can only speak from my perspective, but anybody who's gotten stuck in that, service life, maybe working from like 5:00 p.m. to like 1:00 a.m. every day, it gets tiring after a while. If we get into like socio-economics, like these people are often stuck. Lots of people start working to make fast cash so that they can afford school, but the cash is so good that they end up never going to school or the hours make it so hard.
Additionally, during COVID, businesses were affected financially and the city wasn't paying for the things to be kept up. The fake lakes got drained and all the mini golf grass was deteriorating—it was gross. I was just such a strange experience to see a place that is activated by people, not.
CT: What was your experience like in the Georgia State sculpture program? I know that you all had a really strong cohort!
WSAD: I think I just ended up getting really lucky because I came into my first year with two other sculpture grads that I connected immediately with—my entire cohort really. I think what really made us bond was having a lot of studio practice classes together. We all seemed to be on the same page as far as understanding each other's work and being mindful and respectful of each other's ideas. We genuinely wanted to help each other. Even though we had the COVID shutdown for our third year in the majority of our second year, we still stayed connected and bonded about work. think that kind of speaks a lot to the program itself because we had already created this bond with our cohort.
I also felt like overall my experience was really great because Georgia State was so interdisciplinary. I felt the freedom to bounce back and forth between so many materials and mediums: objects to video, even thinking about still images (I took a photo class, which was great). Thinking about photography helped my thesis as far as what perspective I want the viewers to have.
WSAD: Is there a memory or a class or an opportunity from the last three years that really stands out to you or was particularly formative?
CT: The Temporary Art Center show was the best opportunity I think we had in our entire three years, because not only did we get to have the opportunity to show our work without any restrictions or parameters, but we also were surrounded by prominent, working artists in Atlanta. For me, coming from a small town, I really appreciated it because stuff like that doesn't happen where I’m from. There's not like a population of artists working and collaborating. It was an invaluable experience having face to face contact with these people, getting feedback, and working alongside them is so rare. Having their work downstairs and artwork upstairs, it kind of broke the ice in a way that wouldn’t happen at a gallery opening.
WSAD: You’re graduated! What’s next?
CT: I'll be teaching at GSU in the fall. And I also got a remote temporary part-time position at California State University—Stanislaus. My goal in pursuing my M.F.A. was to just be in higher education. I think this is a great opportunity to find a balance between my teaching practice my personal art practice. As far as my personal practice, I really want to start working collaboratively. My work right now is so focused on a specific place, maybe meeting with other artists or talking with other people about their hometown childhood experience and how it influenced their adulthood. I think that general idea can be translated in many ways. And again my work will always be somewhat of an experimentation with my materials because I don't think I'll ever be an artist such as like sticks to one thing...although the ice cream is fun. I'm excited to just experiment. I feel super confident with the direction my ideas are going.