XVII. THE AGE OF NYMPHS OLGA GROTOVA ― NIKA NEELOVA 10 NOVEMBER 2017 – 13 JANUARY 2018 ― YELENA POPOVA ― MIRA CALIX
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 completing their life cycle shortly after. Nymphs are both immature forms of insects and female divine spirits of nature in Greek mythology. The title also relates to the seventeenth year in power of Russia’s present ruler. The exhibition layout is divided between two spaces representing antithetical states of agency in historical and biological cycles. The lower gallery space is the “underworld,” a territory of stagnation and slow time, where history repeats itself and insects go through their long 17 years underground. The shapes and materials are soft and ambiguous. It’s a space of passivity and suspension where actions are replaced by gestures, dispersed in an endless repetition. The upper gallery space represents the accelerated overground section of the life cycle, the space of emergence and exit. Shapes obtain rigidity and borders solidify to reclaim their territory.
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 NIKA: In your new work ‘Folded Rooms’ in the upper space of Mimosa House you reference Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” which suggests that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. This quote refers to female labour and personal and political freedoms. I like how your sculpture obtains definite shape and versatility, expanding itself within the existing gallery space, in comparison to its vulnerable and transparent ‘shadow' ‘Exuviae’ in the downstairs space. The quote also suggests that creating fiction is a form of empowerment. You mentioned that the contour of ‘Folded Rooms’ reproduces the exact perimeter of your studio, and inside its folds is a shifting fictional space dreaming of new configurations. Here another Woolf's quote comes to my mind: “Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners”. How do you envisage the potential of the above mentioned fictional space in the context of female empowerment? Is there a chance of its transition from fiction to reality?
NIKA: In her essay Virginia Woolf suggests that having a private space is one of the basic requirements for creativity and freedom of expression that were historically denied to women. A room of one's own is the metaphorical space separated from the rest of the world assuring the possibility of female empowerment and not complying with generally accepted norms. Tracing outlines and borders is a way of suggesting a transition from the rest of the world to a defined area of difference - tracing the limits that defy other limits. Folded Rooms is seemingly reclaiming the territory of my studio by retracing it in Mimosa House. It is attempting to escape the confines of its allocated space, not aligning itself firmly to the architecture of the building. Only fully unfolded it takes up the perimeter of a room. A room that suggests the possibility of a constant search for new configurations, dreaming of being transformed and reborn. It is attempting to reinvent itself through its forms and folds and thereby generate new fictional spaces within itself. Through shape shifting it assumes and follows contours of imaginary spaces developed through its proposed transformations. In biology, moulting is the manner in which an animal undergoes transformation by casting off parts of its body, either at specific times in the year or at specific points in its life cycle. Exuviae is the soft replica of the studio sculpture, its casing, its discarded skin. Disposing of the harder geometrical angles in favour of softer folds, it is retreating back into a vulnerable residual state. Focusing on the ‘skin’ of the contours is an attempt to break down the layers that constitute limits and expose the different components of borders that establish the ‘aesthetic distance’ between different states. As Timothy Morton states in Hyperobjects, “[i]n the jungle lifeforms abolish all sense of aesthetic distance. The temperatures is roughly human body temperature, constantly, so it becomes hard at the level of deep sensation to maintain a boundary between where one’s skin stops and where the rainforest starts”.