August 21, September 25, October 23, 2021
CHICAGO, IL—The Four Seasons, a group of violin concerti by composer Antonio Vivaldi, was published in 1725. Accompanied by a series of corresponding poems, the work exists as one of the earliest examples of what is now known as ‘program music’—a composition built with a narrative intent. Nearly a century later, Giuseppe Verdi composed three operatic works (Vespri Siciliani, 1855; I Lombardi, 1843; and Il Trovatore, 1853) that became the basis of Jerome Robbins’ 1979 premier performance of The Four Seasons at New York City Ballet. The trope of the seasons—spring, summer, fall, and winter—are cemented in the lineage of the ballet, from Les Saisons, composed by Alexander Glazunov in 1899 and performed by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century, to The Seasons with music by John Cage, choreography by Merce Cunningham, and design by Isamu Noguchi at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York in 1947.
In Chicago-based contemporary artist Brendan Fernandes’ 72 Seasons, conceived as a public artwork and installation, the movement-based piece engages with this ballet history to envision the same passages of time demarcated by seasons for the twenty-first-century. Rethinking humans’ relationship to nature within the context of Chicago’s prairie landscape, the title of the work is derived from the Japanese calendar—a changing of the world that is divided into micro-seasons known as kō, each lasting around just five days. With seasons such as “fish emerge from the ice,” “mist starts to linger,” “caterpillars become butterflies,” “distant thunder,” “swallows leave,” and “rainbows hide,” the minute description of ecological phenomena in this calendar comes closer to a sense of time that is lived instead of passed. Departing from a Western vision of phases, where the division of all perceptible change in our environment is collapsed into four categorical types, Fernandes encourages a deeper observation of humans’ relationship to the natural world.
Initiating the project in the Lurie Garden within the City of Chicago’s Millennium Park, Fernandes’ performative intervention brings together a group of dancers in acts of utilitarian choreography. The movement of the dancers, informed by practices of tending, foraging, and propagating, positions an ethos of sustainability within its score. In response to the garden itself, designed by Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, the visual aspects of the work are rooted in the needs of its maintenance, which is determined by human hand as much as it is by natural process. As a perennial landscape, the often-preferred manicured aesthetic of North American public space is replaced by the ecologically beneficial—while far from wild, the Lurie Garden presents the illusion that it exists without the interference or involvement of people. This underlying fantasy, a type of camouflage of labor, underscores the original aims of The Four Seasons ballet works; from the predominant use of plant forms in the costumes of Robbins’ 1979 performance, to the recollection of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova holding strings of dark blooms as a Bacchante in Les Saisons, or Noguchi’s angular set design that transformed the figures of the dancers into equal elements of geometry. In each performance, the aim was for the dancers to disguise into the backdrops of their stage—literally becoming one with their environment. In 72 Seasons, this sense of camouflage takes on new meaning with costume design developed in collaboration with Rad Hourani, who contributed to Fernandes’ 2020 installation Contract and Release at the Noguchi Museum in New York.
As with Fernandes’ past works, the impulse to call forward the ‘invisible’ aspects of labor that form our built environment similarly permeates the approach of 72 Seasons. For example, Clean Labor (2017), which took place at the Whythe Hotel in Brookyln, NY, whose choreography was derived by six dancers shadowing the housekeeping staff as they cleaned and arranged the guest rooms. Re-performing these gestures to an audience, the motifs of cleaning and task-based actions became the subject and narrative of the movement presented by the dancers, adorned in crisp, white jumpsuits. In the case of 72 Seasons, the dance finds its counterpart in Indigenous knowledge systems—the interconnection of adaptive, cumulative, dynamic, and holistic tenets of what is needed to maintain a perennial landscape such as the Lurie Garden.
Following this series of performances, whose visuality corresponds to the specific movements and needs of tending the landscape at that point in time of the season, Fernandes’ proposal for a permanent garden within the City of Chicago seeks to define a space that is built with these concepts of choreography in mind. Investigating the histories of ornamentation, as well as the symmetry of French and English gardens that surrounded foundational sites of the royal ballet, the artist questions how land acknowledgement can be performed and enacted in our current moment through the intention of the location itself, which sits on the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations.
Outdoor spaces and common areas have taken on new meaning in a post-pandemic world. Researching modes of how bodies flow and traverse across public gardens, Fernandes will use the layout of the permanent installation as a means to question how humans, the most ‘invasive’ species on the planet, occupy a ‘native’ environment when the baseline of such terms are in a constant state of being and becoming. 72 Seasons addresses what it means to create habitat and protect species in the space of our current impact, suggesting an application of labor that has the power to shape gardens of the future.
Returning to Vivaldi’s concept of ‘program music,’ a series of texts and interpretative materials written by curators Stephanie Cristello and Ellen Hartwell Alderman will punctuate the permanent garden in the form of plaques—a familiar form that provides context or dedication—and programs that allow visitors to question how their body exists in relation to Fernandes’ manufactured space.
A site where the city, the garden, and the body become one.