Featuring works by Olga Grotova, Nika Neelova, Yelena Popova with a special contribution by Mira Calix
Curated by Daria Khan
XVII. The Age of Nymphs explores human and insect affects and the archaeology of trauma. The exhibition looks at cycles of history and the possibility of regaining time through repetition and doubling. Confronting the stagnation of our time, the artists consider posthuman gestures and insect behaviour as a way of subverting human politics.
XVII refers to the year of the Russian Revolution and to cicadas which live underground for 17 years before reemerging and shortly after completing their life cycle. The title also relates to the seventeenth year in power of Russia’s present ruler.
Daria to Olga: In your recent essay ‘The split’ you talked about the monument in St Petersburg dedicated to Igor Kurchatov and his splitting of the atomic nucleus. In your description of the monument you mention how it is reflected in the still waters of the oval fountain beneath. Your story creates a very vivid image of the monument in our minds, but in reality there is no fountain under the monument. This creates the split you refer to in your text – between an existing object and its reflection in an imaginary fountain, between reality and fiction. It made me think of a quote by the entomologist William Morton Wheeler: ‘no two events are identical, every atom, molecule, organism, personality and society is an emergent and, at least to some extent, a novelty’. What this suggests is that repetitions are always repeating a difference.
In your new video work ‘The Ice Rink’ (in which you also convey the image of a self-contained elliptical shape, this time filled with still frozen waters), there is a hypnotic repetitiveness of phrases, gestures, and wandering around without direction. It evokes a state of stagnation without exit or hope, emphasised by the glacial theatricality of the play.
Repetition is a key element in your works: what are you trying to get at through its insistent use?
Olga: In structural linguistics, a word takes on its value because it is different from other words. A single word thus becomes an element in the discontinuous system of differential elements, a system with many gaps and spaces. For me those gaps are akin to cuts between the shots in the digital timeline, voids separating the ‘before’ and ‘after’ and silences in
conversation which conceal the absence of that which cannot be spoken.
The same act repeated can never be the same because it already carries the context of the first. The context is words in the shape of memory, which moves alongside us like a moving mirror, as Bergson puts it. Thus we are not capable of total repetition in the way algorithms are, for example.
In ‘The Ice Rink’, the continuous circular motion of the camera is interrupted by cuts, repeatedly returning the viewer back to the starting point whilst the dialogue carries on. When I think of it, I imagine walking backwards in an airborne plane or in a Sputnik. The language is the orbit we circle, a key to the systems we inhabit. In the case of this video, language quite literally materialises as a key that one of the characters places in the other’s mouth.
Daria to Nika: I know you did extensive research into cicadas for your new audio work. I’m fascinated by some of the facts about cicadas I learned thanks to you. For instance, that nobody can explain what makes them emerge all together at a specific moment in time. The same holds for the mysterious temporality and collectiveness of swarming. Lastly, the coded ways of their acoustic communication are equally elusive. Instinctual and intelligent in dealing with organisation, space and temporality, insects and their behaviour were used as models for technological and political systems.
What has inspired you to study cicadas and which element of their life have you chosen as the basis for your works in the show?
Nika: When humans were first introduced to music, some became so enthralled by it that they lost interest in everything else in life. They slowly wasted away, their bodies transcending their physical presence, to reach a higher level of unity with sound. To reward them for such devotion, the Muses transformed these humans into cicadas.
The magicicadas – otherwise known as ‘periodical cicadas’ – spend seventeen years underground to emerge as nymphs in springtime, synchronously and in swarms of prodigious numbers. After several weeks of fervent, delirious mating, their life cycles are complete and the new nymphs mature underground waiting to emerge again in their seventeenth year. Observations that cicadas were ‘born of the earth’ led to beliefs that they were capable of resurrection; they therefore became symbols associated with immortality, spiritual realisation and spiritual ecstasy.
It is thought that predators have difficulty predicting the emergence of their prey on prime number years and 17 is a natural prime number. In numerology, it comes down to number 8 which is the sign of mathematical infinity or the lemniscate – the external and continuous spiral of perpetual motion which is the supreme signature of all evolutionary cycles.
Russian cosmism predicted a future where people would eliminate their gender differences and become transsexual. By defying and redefining their relationship to nature they will thus reach immortality and reproduce infinitely throughout the universe. Today only technology and technological reproducibility offer the promise and charge of immortality. Fear of death is what separates us from machines. As human corpses lay decomposing underground, the cicada nymphs are preparing for another cycle of mad emergence. Such opposed practices of burial rites point to other non-anthropocentric cycles occurring on earth and the distant possibility of finding synergies and intersections with non-human beings.
Mimosa derives from the Latin for ‘mime’, so called because some species fold their leaves when touched, seemingly mimicking animal behaviour. In my new audio work, made collaboratively with Mira Calix, two women replicate the mating calls of male and female cicadas. Through imitation and technological reproduction their voices dissolve into a cicada chorus. Humans that were once cicadas become humans mimicking cicadas.
Daria to Yelena: I recently reread ‘The Spiral’, a short story by Italo Calvino, and it made me think of your ‘Evaporating Paintings’. The story deals with the evolution of molluscs and how at some point they start secreting in order to produce their spiral shell. The shells are striped and colourful and never the same; they help to distinguish one mollusc from another. The creation of shells resulted in the production of shell images and it played an essential role in the formation of sight for the species. Referring to his beloved female mollusc, the protagonist mollusc says: ‘And I felt at the same time she was radiating an image of herself so perfect that it would impose itself on my foggy, backward senses, developing in me an interior visual field where it would blaze forth definitely.’
Likewise, your ‘Evaporating Paintings’ transmit primordial, formless and essential images, which could further take shape on our retina and develop in our imagination.
Your work is often viewed in the context of nonhuman world of technology. I wonder how the nonhuman nature of the animal is reflected in your work?
Yelena: What a beautiful idea, that of secreting in order to produce an image: a caterpillar spinning a cocoon around itself, a spider weaving a web as if following certain rules, or a painter revolving around the work. The image grows from the gestural process of layering thin veils of shapes, and then later the image comes into being through the experience of looking.
The ‘Evaporating Paintings’ series started with my awareness of a painting’s temporality. A lot of images are now available online and as soon as an image becomes digital it somehow enters eternity as a fixed or permanent entity. But a painting is much more than its own image. A painted canvas is burdened with its own materiality and it slowly changes in accordance with the law of entropy. Still, most paintings can outlive their makers and collectors – traditional painting materials last longer than human flesh. So I dreamt about making a series of paintings with a much shorter life span, like that of a butterfly perhaps, for the duration of a show or a season. However, I felt it was important not to use any chemical tricks or light-sensitive pigments in the paintings but to work with traditional and natural foraged materials like local soil, calcined shells and wood ash. The present continuous title (‘Evaporating Paintings’) suggests the paintings are changing or have already changed. As viewers we don’t really know. Just as when looking at paintings by old masters we don’t know if the image we see today is the same as the image when it was first painted. Or has the passage of time changed the image in unexpected ways?