Fernando Bryce on History and Hope

April 17, 2018
Artist Fernando Bryce discussed his installation The Book of Needs with curators, conservators, students, and members of the public during his recent visit to the Harvard Art Museums.

Fernando Bryce isn’t interested in explaining history—he prefers to show it. The Peruvian-born artist calls himself a “para-historian” and has built a career around an extraordinary creative process he terms mimetic analysis.

Delving deeply into archives, Bryce discovers original, 20th-century historical materials with striking subject matter or imagery, such as newspaper and magazine covers, movie posters, and advertisements. He then re-creates these documents entirely by hand with ink on paper—but in the process often makes changes to the layout or size of various elements, in part to draw special attention to key images and themes.

“In the source, [original images and text] are condemned to be prisoners of the archives,” Bryce said during his recent lecture, “Drawing History and the Image as Memory,” at the Harvard Art Museums. “The document is part of the past, whereas the art is something new. The original is being put in relief and there is a sense of transformation.”

His 2015 installation The Book of Needs exemplifies this approach. Currently on view in the Harvard Art Museums’ University Research Gallery, the multipart work is comprised of 81 drawings that selectively reconstruct images and text from early issues of the UNESCO Courier. The international publication began in 1948 and addressed such pressing postwar issues as science, education, race, and international strife—topics that remain relevant even today.

  • of Bryce discusses his work with Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
  • of A visitor looks at The Book of Needs.

After his lecture, we asked Bryce to share more about his artistic process and the inspiration and ideas behind The Book of Needs. (Watch this video to hear Bryce discuss how he created the work.)

Index: What made you choose UNESCO’s Courier as your inspiration for The Book of Needs?

Fernando Bryce: An administrative magazine like the Courier is the best material I can have to do my work, because in some ways it’s a kind of re-edition of a historical period through text and images. And in a certain way, my work becomes a little bit like an illustrated magazine or newspaper, especially as a cultural product. This idea of building a new constellation by association of images is a basic principle of my work.

Index: Do you have criteria for which archival images you select for series such as The Book of Needs, and how do you determine the size of your series? For instance, what made you include exactly 81 individual parts for The Book of Needs?

Bryce: The process of making a series is a process of permanent selection of images. There are many steps; the first one is when I work in the archives. I take hundreds of photographs and look at a lot of primary material. And then I select some images and text that I think are relevant for the themes.

“The document is part of the past, whereas the art is something new. The original is being put in relief and there is a sense of transformation.”

In the end, it also depends on how much space I have for a specific project. For example, The Book of Needs was made for an exhibition in New York for the Alexander and Bonin Gallery. I had a certain amount of space to work with.

Index: How long did it take you to create each sheet of the 81 in the installation?

Bryce: It depends. I needed less time 15 or 20 years ago than I do now. Now I take my time . . . . I like a certain slowness. Maybe 15 years ago I could draw [a section] in one hour, half an hour; now I might take two hours. For a whole drawing, it takes . . . seven hours, eight hours, or a full day.

Index: You’ve lived in various cities around the world, most recently New York. How has your international background shaped your perspective as an artist?

Bryce: I was born in Lima, Peru. I moved to France in the middle of the 1980s to study art there. I moved to Berlin in 1988, one year before the wall came down. I stayed in Berlin until 2015.

Berlin was more formative for me than other cities. It was in Berlin in the ’90s when I began to build something, the beginning of [the style of art that] I am doing now. It was a time of looking for things, ways to give a form to ideas.

My work in this way related to the idea of archives and the reproduction of documents. My first series was about Peru, even though I created it in Berlin. It was this questioning about my origins, with the distance made by being in Berlin.

2016.110 A single piece of Bryce’s 81-part The Book of Needs took up to a day to create.

Then I began to work more with the idea of world history in a particular artistic way, [in order] to deal with other subjects like relations between the United States and Latin America, and colonial history of the 20th century. I used many kinds of documents that I found at archives or libraries, in many languages.

Index: For The Book of Needs, you didn’t faithfully reproduce each page of the Courier, but in some cases changed image size, layout, or text placement. Is The Book of Needs making a statement about the dissemination or representation of news and information?

Bryce: Yes. That is [part of] the way I make my art: through drawings reproducing documents, which I put in new constellations. On one level it is [about seeing] this history from today, and reflecting on some things that I think are very relevant for our time.

For example, what could we say about . . . [the period of] rebuilding after the destruction of the war? You can see that some of the same problems are not resolved today, even many years afterward. But we have a big difference in the sense that [after the war], the discourse of UNESCO [was filled with] enthusiasm about the idea of progress and also a universal sharing of values—human rights and so on. We failed, so many decades later, to resolve these challenges for humanity. 

In a sense, there is a parallel between that time and ours. Both are kind of transitional times; after the war, we were looking toward the future with hope. Now we are looking at the present and at the past in order to find some answers for our time.