Natalia Manta’s first solo show, hosted by Kappatos Gallery and titled «Ε.Σ.Α.Ε.Ι», a word-cum-acronym meaning forever, is an immersive experience that showcases the artist’s multidisciplinary and imaginative approach in exploring her conceptual universe. Tracing a five-year creative journey, the exhibition unfolds in five sections that demonstrate Manta’s evolving method and ideas, her effortless switching between mediums, and her enduring preoccupation with making the invisible visible.
Text by Eric David
Images by Natalia Manta, via the artist's Facebook page
Although there is no prescribed order to the five sections, a good place to start is the one cryptically named “Inertia of the King” that revolves around an architectural competition Manta participated in when she was 16. In response to a brief that asked for the design of a town square in Italy, Manta came up with an intriguing proposal that features three large sculptural masses of abstract bodily forms placed around a central mechanical structure equipped with a photovoltaic-powered motor that would on occasion make them wobble. This planetary-like set up, emphasised by the plaza’s glass paving that would have made the masses appear to be floating, is reverberated in the section’s set up where a a scale model of the plaza is surrounded by a great amount of drawings that hang densely on the adjacent walls. Inspired by the plaza's design, the drawings explore in exponential urgency—in both great detail and liberating abstraction, and in both monochrome and more colourful compositions—the concept of the human body as a universe in its own right.
This heliocentric arrangement is the blueprint for the entire exhibition both spatially and conceptually: every section has at its centre a focal installation surrounded by a series of works that both inform and are informed by it. The peripheral works—peripheral only in spatial terms, not importance—can be preparatory, expository or analytical, sometimes all at the same time, as they zoom in or out of the section’s conceptual core. Together with the sculptural work in their midst they form an organic entity that esoterically represents the ideas Manta is working on.
In “Silence”, a lengthy matrix of hand-stamped plaques and clusters of plaster ears is set out on the gallery floor under yellow fluorescent lamps while a clunky revolving mechanism produces a recurrent thumping sound. The key to deciphering the artist’s intention here is in the surrounding drawings, the product of a very peculiar ritual the artist came up with: writing on a piece of paper whatever came to her mind so as to fill it from top to bottom with a stream of consciousness, burying it in the ground, and after some time retrieving it in order to draw in great detail upon its soiled surface a plant root. She would then close her eyes and paint an impression of that same root on another piece of paper meticulously hand-dotted. This process, which was repeated numerous times as the number of twin drawings hanging on the walls attest, allowed the artist to enter into a trance-like state of meditative isolation and cathartic lucidity. This esoteric state of mind is what the installation attempts to convey: her repetitive gestures of stamping the plaques in lighter or darker tones reflect her oscillation between positive and negative sensations, while the severed ears allude to being cut off from the external world, attuned to an inner dimension that flourishes in the greenhouse-like environment that the installation evokes.
Repetitive and absorbing tasks seem to be an essential component of Manta’s modus operandi. Her sketchbooks on display are filled with densely hand-written pages, intricate drawings and tightly set out grids filled with alphabet letters. For the section fittingly called “Repetition”, she sketched countless faces she encountered on the Athens metro, some of which are showcased in the form of glass etchings. The continuous recycling of faces that Manta experienced evolved into a mechanical installation consisting of a water tank inside which several sculpted heads float, occasionally goaded by a propeller into swirling motion, a poetic allusion to the flow of people in and out of our lives.
Undoubtedly the most eye-catching installation in the exhibition is the taxidermied crocodile that hovers mid-air inside an ethereal vitrine created by green laser beams and a smoke machine. The installation’s set up brings to mind Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” where another exotic predator, in this case a shark, is suspended, mouth gaping, inside a tank. The stuffed reptile was in fact discovered by chance in a relative’s house in a state of decay and Manta took it upon herself to return it to its initial glory, hence this section’s title “Return”. This process sparked a conceptual exploration of our archetypal humanity, a return to our roots so to speak, expressed through the conjuring of Krok people, a union of man and crocodile, depicted in the accompanying drawings as a variation of the Vitruvian man. Seen through the latter reference, the parallel laser beams that engulf the crocodile only to be deflected by an angled mirror, constitute notional lines of perspective that signal that the “return” that Manta envisions is a journey across both time and perception.
For the fifth section, “Agony”, Manta has visualised in vivid colour the nightmare narratives that fellow students and faculty members at the School of Fine Arts have encountered to her. Tiptoeing between the absurd and the surreal and etched in small marble slabs, the depictions are whimsically hallucinatory, their nightmarish nature deepened by the section’s central installation of two cool white fluorescent tubes hovering on either side of a pedestal-mounted block of ice. To reinforce the sense of alienation and distress, “Agony” is housed in a separate space that was cooled down during the opening night for maximum impact. The ice was eventually replaced by a block of wax but not before it slowly melted, nail-bitingly bringing the whole installation crashing down. Yet, however abruptly nightmares are disrupted when we suddenly wake up, there is always the following night. Dreaming, similarly to Manta’s work, is after all a recurring experience that perpetually seeks to detect and illuminate our ever-evolving, multidimensional psyche.
The exhibition Ε.Σ.Α.Ε.Ι. is the first solo show of Natalia Manta. Presented at Kappatos Gallery (12 Athinas st., Athens), from Thursday, October 5, 2017 to November 25, 2017. Tuesday – Friday: 12:00 – 20:00 Saturday: 12:00 – 15:00. Kappatos Gallery is on und. Athens's Art Walk No.0 (City Centre).