Mendes Wood DM republishes an interview with Daniel Steegmann Mangrané to Jacarandá Magazine, in 2017. Read the full conversation:
The first time I met Daniel we were having dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the Liberdade neighborhood of São Paulo. We were seated at a large table, shortly after the opening of the 30th São Paulo Biennial, in 2012, where he was exhibiting his watercolors, Lichtzwang, and the video 16mm. There were few Brazilians at the dinner and I was busy talking to the foreigners who I had brought directly from work so I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Daniel at the time. However, I had the chance to get to know him during the workshops and meetings he hosted at Universidade de Verão, an experimental art and theory school run in partnership with Capacete Entretenimentos, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2012 and 2013. These debates were crucial for better understanding of the issues that interest him as an artist, as well as his work. Daniel Steegmann Mangrané was born in Barcelona in 1977. He has been living and working in Brazil since 2004. This interview contributes to a wider research project, which focuses on the creation of the image of the other – the creation of what is perceived as otherness – throughout the history of art. This research (which I am also developing as an academic essay) engages with different fields of knowledge, such as anthropology and history of art, always centering on political perspectives. In this conversation about Mangrané’s work, we have attempted to establish a relationship between these different fields by instigating a series of reflections that are dear to anthropology, such as the plurality of ontologies, Perspectivism, and questions concerning certain modern divisions, such as the dichotomy between nature and culture or even, in relation to this, the dichotomy between subject and object. The interview aims to flow from a dialogue with Mangrané and with his work. This type of dialogue, which evokes a sort of contemporary anthropological practice, allows fluidity in the themes approached. A convergence of layers is present in conversations about specific works (Phasmides, 16mm, Lichtzwang and the publications of Abstract Specific) that attempt to understand the ways they relate to discussions in the fields of anthropology, semiotics, biology and the notion of abstraction itself. The following text is the result of this conversation, which began informally in January 2013 and was expanded throughout the year via written and spoken interviews.
Could you tell me about the origins of your work Phasmides, your solo show at Galeria Mendes Wood DM in April? I’d like to know more about how you came up with this game of camouflage and the project in general.Daniel Steegmann Mangrané:
I’ll start with the project’s origins. I’m deeply interested in the relationships between nature and culture, which are always present – often in a very formal way – and derive from the opposition between a natural and chaotic form, on one hand, and a cultural and organized form on the other hand.For example, in my work Equal, which I developed at Ateliê 397, I cut a straight line in the cemented floor and let plants grow inside the groove. This theme can also be seen in my film 16mm, in which a camera traces a perfectly straight line through the chaos of the jungle whilst being engulfed by the forest.
This formal opposition between cultural and natural elements is always present but, at the same time, I try to break with it by showing that the geometrical form can be organic, and that the organic form is, in fact, also a geometric form that is extremely more complex. This is an attempt to think about the relationships between forms, rather than about the forms themselves. The stick insect proved very fitting for many reasons. It all began at the Museu do Açude, in Rio de Janeiro, where I came across a stick insect in an empty swimming pool. I was wandering around and I was absolutely amazed when I saw it. I had seen a stick insect before, but I had never seen one so close, looking so much like a living stick. This was an intense encounter for me. The stick insect inhabits the margins: it is obviously an animal, but it truly resembles the object it imitates. You’re unsure if you can grab it and split it like a stick or if it’s going to bite you like an animal. Anyway, I was fascinated looking at it when I suddenly realized it was not able to get out of the swimming pool. It had fallen in there and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be able to scale the walls on its own. I grabbed a twig to help it out of the pool. As soon as I placed the twig on the floor the insect climbed onto it. At this point, I turned back to ask my friends to wait for a little and when I turned back to the stick, the insect appeared to have vanished. Had it jumped away? I was worried I was going to step on it, but it wasn’t on the floor. I looked again at the stick, shook it, and, in fact, the insect was still there. In many ways, this experience had a significant impact on the way I think about images.
The term ‘Phasmida’, which is the name of the artwork and the order of insects that resemble sticks and leaves, suggests a game that, in your work, is developed with an insect that can be camouflaged both amongst ‘natural objects’ (even if these are removed from their environments) and ‘artificial objects’ (abstract geometric forms) that you build. I would like to know more about how you thought about this camouflage game in your work.
What was the text? And how did it influence you in the research you were starting?DSM:
It is called The Paradox of the Phasmid, which can be found online. He talks about the stick insect and tells a story very similar to mine: once he was walking around the Jardin des Plantes and he thought a vivarium full of stick insects was a display under repair with dry twigs until he suddenly realized they were living creatures. Obviously, I was astonished by his account, as his experience of the stick insect appearing and disappearing was analogous to mine. This relationship between background and figure seems to be very important when thinking about art today: in some ways, for the work of art to ‘work,’ we need to place it before a suitable background so it’s revealed as a significant figure. There I was facing a metaphor for the status of the image and how art operates.FZ:
In Phasmides, the stick insect – that can be mistaken for the natural background or abstract geometric forms – highlights this idea. It does not seem to exist per se, rather it’s defined in relation to what surrounds it, gaining a new meaning depending on what is closer to it, and assigning a meaning that is different from what surrounds it. In this sense, what are you trying to say with the idea of placing an image on a ‘suitable background’ in order for it to work? What kinds of formal and conceptual issues are raised from this correlation between the stick insect’s mimetic procedure in relation to its environment and the way in which you transfer this to your work by bring – ing it closer to abstract geometric or natural forms?DSM:
In fact, the stick insect is not only camouflaged in the natural setting and highlighted in the geometric background. It is camouflaged and highlighted in both. In some way, it is highlighted when it moves, and it is camouflaged when it is stationary, which is something that was of particular interest to me when thinking about the cinematographic image. The notion of the background-figure – which is so important in cinema, painting, or photography – seems to be ideal to think about numerous issues within art in general, within language more generally and within form even more generally. In semiotics, a sign must be transparent in order to transmit its meaning, that is, when a sign is legible it becomes transparent. Contrarily, if the sign isn’t legible it becomes opaque, for example, when we look at a text in Japanese without knowing the ideograms. In this case, we are stuck at the (opaque) physically of the sign, its color, form, and trace, without being able to see through it.
By appearing and disappearing, the stick insect repeats the logic of opacity and transparency. More importantly, it is only legible because it disappears or takes a detour to the territory of linguistic sense creation. The fact is that things change meaning when brought closer. Deleuze wrote a short book about Foucault, where he talks about the processes of individualization. If we have A and B in a continuum and we put them together, we have a fold. The inside of this fold becomes subjectivity, as it is isolated from the rest. I don’t believe Foucault thought about subjects and objects as we are discussing here, but it is interesting to think about this in relation to our conversation.
FZ: In his book Métaphysiques Cannibales, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro presents a proposal that questions the classic notion of generating knowledge in anthropology and focuses on the political outcomes related to this transformation. For him, relevant anthropology would be able to generate a version of a native theory and not a study made by us about the other. That is, to generate knowledge that takes into account the worldview of other people by studying with them, and not just studying them. Going back to your work, there seems to be a similar movement to the procedure described by Viveiros Castro in anthropology, in which you explore, in an artistic-cultural sense, the procedure of the stick insect in relation to its environment, that is, you mimic, you make a new version of an existing procedure, you consider new issues with it.
DSM: What attracts me to indigenous ideas is precise that they can be used as an alternative ontological model, a model that allows me to look at our culture from outside. If we think with the other (as opposed to about the other) we gain a new point of view, that is no longer within us but with us. In his “On the Mimetic Faculty”, Walter Benjamin argues that the faculty of mimicry (of a child in relation to an adult, for example, or of an inventor in relation to another invention) is the basis of our civilization. Benjamin always adopts a theological tone, but it is true that everything is culture: the idea itself that something is natural is cultural.
FZ: Phasmides evokes an abstractionist tradition, and the similarities to Lygia Clark’s Bichos (Creatures) come to mind. When analyzing Clark’s work, art critic Ronaldo Brito helps us think about some aspects of her exhibition, mainly when he highlights the dissolving nature of Clark’s propositions. He points to her creatures’ ability to propose organic mutations and to “break with the world’s form, the twice millenary Western idea of ‘being’ as a stable figure” (idem, p.287). Her work – by bringing to the surface this procedure of dissolution/prominence of a body in space – seems to be dealing with the same issue of stability. What sort of developments emerge from Phasmides in approaching the issue of instability in a different moment, in a different artistic and social context and through different procedures?
It sounds stupid but it was only very recently that I thought about the link between Lygia Clark’s Bichos and my Phasmides. This happened when I was working on another exhibition (Black Tropicalia, which opened a few months after Phasmides at the Museo Experimental el Eco, in Mexico). I created an architectural device that brought together the series Kiti Ka’aeté, which I had previously produced, one Metasquema by Hélio Oiticica and one Bicho by Lygia Clark.
Above all, my interest is in understanding and demonstrating that ‘being’ is a process, even in those things we see as fixed. An object is a process itself. For example, a rock in the Middle Ages was very different from a rock today, as we now know what silicon is and what to do with it. What changed in this piece of plutonium since we discovered radioactivity and its potential uses?
As Ricard Salvatella once said in a series of paintings: Cézanne’s apples no longer exist. An apple today is a legal battlefield against Monsanto, the product of a genetic lab, regulated and deregulated pesticides, perhaps it involves slave or semi-slave labor, and its presence in the market 12 months per year generates a massive migrating flow of illegal workers to harvest them. Today, 500 laws must exist for each apple. In the same way, our notion of what and how a body or object is (a sculpture, not to go too far) is radically distinct and different from Clark’s time and, in part, thanks to her.
The instability of the object, which Ronaldo Brito calls transience, appears in your work as a reflection on the dissolution of a body in its surrounding environment: as the stick insect gets closer to the objects, it is reconfigured.
It’s interesting you mention dissolution, as the other text that helped me understand what I was doing was Roger Caillois’ Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia, in which he talks about crypsis, the phenomena through which some animals are similar to things in the world.
Caillois challenges the common perception that this procedure is the animal’s defense mechanism, and he demonstrates how this is futile by opening and analyzing the contents of insectivorous birds and amphibians stomachs: half of the animals found inside them have the power to mimic the surrounding environment, thus as a defense mechanism it is a failure.
Therefore, he develops the theory that these animals become similar to things due to a mythological desire to disappear in the world, to be dissolved in the world. I found this image absolutely beautiful and I often wonder: aren’t the different uses we make of forms, all of them, attempts to dissolve ourselves in the world? I’m referring to language, dance, visual arts… every use of forms seems to hold an implicit desire to be dissolved in the world.
In the exhibition, as well as the video and holograms, there was a sculpture that created a very interesting game, as we looked at the stick insect amidst artificial structures (both in the holograms and the videos), we were simultaneously standing amidst huge sculptures ourselves, placed in the middle of the room. Therefore, we could see that we are also in the margins that you mentioned when talking about the stick insects; we are also in this zone without definition.
How do you perceive this third extra layer, in which the stick insect’s procedures of dissolution/apparition are present not only in the exhibition’s works but also integrate the way the viewer sees the works?
To me, this third layer is fundamental. The artwork must be a personal experience. After all, it’s a work about perception so the phenomenological experience must match the conceptual proposal. I always aim to reach the moment the spectator is no longer looking at the artwork but at his or her own experience.
Today, in the visual arts, there’s an increasing interest in the use of 16 mm – which has become a trend. What led you to use this medium, both in the film in the exhibition Phasmides and in the film entitled 16mm?DSM:
I suspected that something would work very well between the nature of the film and the nature of the insect. And, in some way, if this project had been made in the video, it would have been very different. Video is like a pen, it’s endless. The film is like a paintbrush and paint, you can draw but when the paint runs out you need to get more paint. The film can always end. The roll finishes are undone, burnt, or ruined by the excess of light.There are many instances of irony in the film, for example, the fact that everything in the film is cellulose: the decorations are wood planks and corkwood and the geometric forms are all made of cardboard or paperboard (which are also made of cellulose, through a process of transformation of the same matter). The stick insect itself also wants to be cellulose (laughter) and the film’s negative is also cellulose. Therefore, everything is the same matter: from everything used to record the image to everything that appears in the image. Everything is cellulose!
This work started with the film 16mm. Previously, I spent around four years thinking about making a video but I struggled to decide on a subject. One day I decided to learn the length of a film roll and I found a Kodak table that explained the number of meters of film you needed to film a certain amount of minutes. Or you could add the number of minutes you wanted to film and the table would tell you the amount of meters you needed. You would insert the parameters and the table would give you the answer. The full idea of 16mm came when I saw this. I think it is fundamental to reflect on the medium you’re using and why. The work must always be a reflection of its own medium.
The first time I saw 16mm I immediately thought about Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which the main character is determined to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon forest. In order to do so, he needs to trace a straight line that crosses a mountain. In your work, we are faced with the chaos of the jungle, and there are a line and a camera that is taken inside the bush in order to shoot the film. In a way, 16mm re-enacts an issue that we talked about at the start of this interview, that is, the confrontation between a natural and chaotic form, on one hand, and a cultural and organized form, on the other. This is precisely a dichotomy you confront in your work. In one of the most beautiful and enigmatic scenes in Herzog’s film, this tension culminates at the moment the protagonist hears with delight the sound of an Enrico Caruso opera projected across the forest.
This is interesting. Firstly, of course, 16mm was my little Fitzcarraldo. Obviously, I wasn’t trying to build an opera house or taking a boat up a mountain (laughter) and I was also not intending to cut any trees down.
I’m now working on a new project, which I’m also going to film in the forest. When observing the mistakes that happened during the shooting of 16mm, I realized that when you’re filming you make a pact of non-aggression with the spectator, in the sense that you’re creating fiction, an environment, an idea, and hiding everything that is making this pact possible. You don’t allow a microphone to appear in the take, you use the clapperboard at the start and the end of each scene so you know the order they were made, but this is all removed in the end – as if it had never existed – to allow the emergence of a filmic truth.
Herzog deals with this in a beautiful way. There is a take in Fitzcarraldo and an even more powerful take in another film – Aguirre, The Wrath of God – which is fantastic in this sense. They are going down a river in a boat filming, and all of a sudden water splashes onto the camera. Instead of getting rid of the taking, Herzog selects precisely this one. You are watching the film and all of a sudden the camera lens is dotted with water drops. The presence of the camera is asserted in such a clear way that it evidently states: ‘this is a film, I am doing a film and these are the actors’.
FZ: This brings us back to the issue we talked about before, that is, the artificial and the natural as constructions. Like in the film about the stick insect. You also remove the camera and show that the setting is not real. You reveal that the setting you are presenting is made of cardboard and cellulose when you turn the camera and show the studio where you are working. That is, the film is as (un)real as the context in which it was made.
DSM: Exactly! And this is why it seemed so fundamental to keep the last scene. Many of my friends told me to remove it but I just couldn’t. When you watch Phasmides you start to enter the film’s mental space. And the film evolves from a space that is darker, more organic, and more concentrated to an environment that is lighter, more psychological, and more abstract. At this point, which is the only movement the camera makes in the whole film, it retreats and moves to the side, revealing the setting, and the viewer goes back to the studio space.
FZ: In the last São Paulo Biennial, in 2012, you showed a series of watercolors called Lichtzwang, which means something like ‘forced light’.
DSM: Lichtzwang is a book of poems by Paul Celan, who borrowed the term from Hölderlin, who uses this word to describe the moment in which you can’t see because of the excess of clarity. I gave this title to the series of watercolors due to the translation André Vidal, a Catalan poet, made of Paul Celan’s poems. He translated them as ‘Light Constriction’, and when I read this I thought: this is exactly what I’m doing with the watercolors!
Perhaps this is linked to what we mentioned before about anthropology’s ‘thinking with’ and the ability of subjects and objects – that are often treated as passive – to have an active role. The watercolors’ constructive limitations generate concerns that enable this work to progress and others to develop. How did other works develop from your experiments with the watercolors? In which way did the formal issues related to completing the watercolors trigger your later research?
With the watercolors I developed work and a rationale that we can call structural, which became the basis of everything I did after that, hence my statement that everything I did result from it. The truth is that despite – or perhaps thanks to – the simplicity of this series I started to work with structures, variations, permutations, loops, and with time, duration, and color… ideas, concepts, and realities that I later explored with other media. I can’t explain a clear transition (I wouldn’t dare sum it up in a brief explanation) but, for me, it’s very important that one workflow into another, that each new work opens doors to new experimentations.
You often mention your interest in writers such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Bruno Latour. Is there any link between their research in the field of anthropology and your research in the field of arts?
When I arrived in Brazil I didn’t know the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. By reading him I managed to understand a lot of things, including the artistic practice itself. In very simple terms, in Perspectivism there is the idea that there are no subjects or objects per se. In the West, our understanding is based on a system of oppositions, according to which everything is divided between what is alive or not alive. Within the living category, we have animal and vegetal kingdoms, and within the animal kingdom, we have rational and irrational animals, and so on. We devise smaller categories until we get to the group that belongs only to us, humans. However, for the Amerindians, everything is people. Not everything is human, but everything is people.