Maybe our concept of time is a trivial way for us to grasp at otherworldly powers we were never meant to have. Instead, artist Kumkum Fernando doesn’t measure life with something as insignificant as time, but rather with the many memories, dreams, and moments he collects. Because isn't that what our being consists of–the intimacies and intricacies of experience that lingers in every aspect of who we are.
At this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Kumkum introduced one of his physically largest works, The Messengers which comprises of three towering entities that at first appear to be giant robots. Arranged in a row to create a colorful gathering space, Kumkum calls the 65 to 80-foot-tall monolithic figures his “idols” and pulls inspiration from the colors and architecture of South Asian art as well as the folk tales of gods and demons from his youth to execute his artistic vision. Each figure has its own poetic story written by the artist entitled “The Flying ilo,” about his son Kai-ilo, “Lotus one,” and “The empress of the garden,” and in the evenings are illuminated by spotlights.
His creative process begins by collecting objects, patterns, and items with different iconography that evolve into reinventing these materials as contemporary objects. “Whenever I travel, I collect and document,” says Kumkum. “I have a library that I go through at different points in time. When I put them together, I often see unexpected things. I made a series of works completely out of window grills, another series from patterns from Persian rugs, and another from temple patterns. One day, I was arranging objects, and they appeared to form a figure. Then I thought I should make figures with these patterns."
See here, Kumkum Fernando, revisiting his own precious moments, holding our hand on the way.
Can you talk about what you collect, and as the son of an antique and curiosities collector, what purpose do you think small and random items serve throughout our lives? Do you think the urge to collect is innate with being human?
My fascination with the concept of time led me to start collecting interesting objects that I believe have stories behind them. I'm drawn to the idea that these objects had a life of their own at one point. The items I collect don't fit into a particular category; they can range from old jewelry to spoons, as long as they have an intriguing aesthetic. Additionally, I collect patterns and colors from the places I visit, which I save in my library as swatches and vectors. I frequently revisit these collections and borrow from them to create my artwork.
Although these items may seem small and random, they hold great significance to me. They trigger memories of the past and provide comfort, allowing me to feel as though I'm time-traveling and revisiting places and people through feelings through these objects.
I believe everyone is a collector in their own way. You don't need to collect physical objects to be a collector; it could be you collect moments, dreams, and memories.
What was the process of creating and constructing The Messengers–What were the biggest challenges in terms of production and transportation? Did you have to trade in any creative pursuits for technical ones? And, how does it feel to create something that is personal and larger than yourself, that hundreds of thousands of people come across and interact with?
I was approached by Paul Clemente, the art director of Coachella. He had seen my work somewhere on his feed and wrote me an email. We got on a call a few days later( in July 2022.) I remember him saying in one of our initial chats that he envisioned my artwork scaled up to around 8 meters at Coachella. My work is usually 2-3 feet.
Paul gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. After a few meetings of sharing my drawings and ideas, Paul decided that we should make them as big as possible. So, it went from 8 meters to 20+ meters. The size was determined by the maximum load that could fit into the biggest truck.
The work was fabricated entirely by the Coachella art team of 30+ people, taking them hundreds and thousands of hours to achieve the detailing of the artwork, which took them months to complete. What was shown at Coachella was pretty much exactly what my 3D renderings of the artwork were.
All my work is very personal to me. I can’t make something if it doesn’t mean anything to me. I feel people interact with the work in their own way, creating their own story and memories tied to it. I think that’s the beauty of it. One of my favorite things was listening to people talking about the work, even though they had no idea I was listening to them. Since Coachella, I have received many messages from people saying how the artwork and the stories behind them touched them. This is the reason I started making art to begin with.
Do you have a favorite folktale you think about frequently in your life? Are there similarities between our modern stories and ancient/traditional folktales and art?
I don’t have a favorite folk tale, but I have fond memories of many. We have stories of ancient flying machines, portals to other dimensions, gods, ghosts, drunk giants, and misunderstood demon kings. As a child growing up in Sri Lanka, I was surrounded by the supernatural.
Even today, I'm fascinated by these tales and often draw inspiration from them when crafting the backstories of the characters in my art. They remind me of my cultural roots and the rich storytelling tradition that shaped my imagination.
Your poem “The Flying ilo” is particularly touching–do you ever have a hesitation to share something so personal with strangers? How do you find a middle ground in creating for yourself and creating for an audience?
I usually find it uncomfortable to talk to strangers about something personal to me face to face, but with my artwork, it's different. I can talk through it, and when I do, I feel like I don't exist. Only the message does. If it means a lot to me, I am not hesitant to share it.
There is no middle ground when I create my artwork. I don't usually change my artwork to fit an audience, but I would rather create something relatable to a specific audience. For Coachella, I felt like I wanted my artwork of the flying Ilo to be the centerpiece because I felt like a lot of people could relate to the story behind it.
What do you do in your downtime to keep yourself inspired? Do you ever deal with lack of inspiration?
Walking the streets of Vietnam always keeps me inspired. I've been living here for the past 11 years. The people, sounds, and sights have always inspired me to keep creating. I regularly visit artisan workshops, secondhand markets, and temples in my downtime. If I'm uninspired, I go to one of these places or think of someone whom I long to meet.