Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Artist putting a Belfast face in space

Belfast Festival artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada tells Ivan Little about the high-tech methods behind his latest artwork

Bird's-eye view: Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada is creating a special piece for this year's Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's
Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada is creating a special piece for this year's Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's
Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada is creating a special piece for this year's Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's

You wouldn't expect one of the biggest names in the art world to do things by half measures. And the massive artwork which Cuban-American Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada is planning for Belfast in the autumn is out of this world – a stunning image of a young girl which will be visible from space.

Jorge, who will be the first artist-in-residence at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, will create what will be one of the largest pieces of art in the British Isles on a two-hectare site opposite the entrance to Titanic Belfast.

And he will be enlisting the help of community groups and individuals from all over Belfast to turn the green area into his enormous piece, called Wish, which will feature the face of a young girl who has already been picked out by the groundbreaking artist.

"I saw her walking with her family in Belfast and thought she was ideal," he says. "I told her parents I wanted their daughter to be the protagonist for Wish and they were happy with my plans."

The girl will never be identified by Jorge, who says: "Sometimes I use the first name in the title but in Belfast not knowing if the girl is a Protestant or a Catholic or from a mixed background is really what it's all about.

"It's not about making a reality show celebrity. It's about putting together an icon to make us contemplate our future. Not just in Belfast but on an international level.

"I want to create a piece that really talks about purity and beauty and that speaks about the future. The girl will be gazing out from Belfast into that future and into space.

"The purity of her look and the joy in her eyes at being alive are simple and beautiful enough but when you add it all into the context of Belfast it becomes profound."

Jorge, who was raised in New Jersey, is famous for similar large-scaled works across Europe, the US and Latin America.

They're often huge charcoal portraits of anonymous figures on the walls of 60ft buildings in cities and are part of his Identity series.

His subjects are also anonymous and the drawings are "meant to question the controls imposed on public spaces and the role models that represent us".

But Jorge is also renowned for his Terrestrial series, especially his land art painting in Barcelona of Barack Obama made with 650 tons of sand and gravel and timed to coincide with the US Elections which brought him to the Presidency in 2008.

Jorge's interest in art was nurtured in school but after a series of disagreements with his professors he left university without his degree. The rows centred on what Jorge was doing outside class, work which he says was "outside the box".

He'd founded the culture jamming movement in New York, a self-styled 'guerrilla art group' who would alter billboard advertisements to show the harmful effects of products like tobacco and alcohol. Jorge changed street signs to give them different meanings too.

"I was doing what has now become the basis for street art," says Jorge, who quit the culture jamming movement after he moved to Barcelona so that his son, who was born with a neurological condition, could avail of different therapies there.

And it was in Spain that he moved in a different direction too. "I wanted to make poetic statements with photographs so I trained myself to do academic hyper-realistic charcoal drawings on walls which would eventually fade with the wind and the rain."

Jorge is acutely aware of the importance of street art in Belfast where the painters of murals on both sides of the divide have, through the years of the Troubles, given a visual expression to terrorists waging a war on the streets around them.

"I did the bus tour, which was amazing," says Jorge, who has also watched documentaries and "dug into the history of Belfast" as part of his research into the place.

Jorge will soon arrive in Belfast to prepare his art work in time for the festival opening in October. After photographing the girl and turning out an etched design, he will start work on the ground, utilising the different tones of the earth and grass, with the addition of hay to finish the piece.

Jorge will use the latest technology to put Wish together, using a vector image and GPS positioning poles to map it out on the ground.

"Basically the image will be programmed into a satellite and that satellite will have co-ordinates so that when you walk around with the pole you will able to draw the image without losing resolution. The pole is essentially the pencil."

Passionate about social issues, the themes of Jorge's work in the past have included global warming and women's rights in Europe and Mesoamerica, but he exhibits more permanent pieces of art in galleries and he's also a sculptor who searches salvage yards for old discarded architectural material for his work. But for the moment, all his thoughts are focused on Belfast and he can't hide his excitement about living and working in the city.

"I really believe that the greatest invention by modern man is the city," he says. "Cities are incredible. Each one is so beautiful just like the people who are there."

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