Art & Science: Mariana Manhaes’s Breathing Machines

Mariana Manhaes, Mas (vasos de vidro branco), 2014. Installation view at Vancouver Biennale.
Mariana Manhaes, Mas (vasos de vidro branco), 2014. Installation view
at the Vancouver Biennale.

Mariana Manhaes is an interdisciplinary artist living in Rio De Janeiro. Her work has been shown in numerous contemporary galleries and museums in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Brasília, and internationally in Pittsburgh, Shanghai, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris. Otherworldly breathing machines made by this fascinating Brazilian artist comprise humor and eeriness, beauty and intelligence, ingenuity, and a strong, unique vision.

Bojana Ginn: You graduated in psychology and you have a masters in communication culture. Were you formally trained in art?

Mariana Manhaes: I studied art at Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, which is an art hotspot in Rio de Janeiro. Parque Lage is one of the most important schools of visual arts in Brasil, although it’s not a “formal” school. Anyone can attend the courses there; most of the teachers are established artists, and I believe that’s what makes it so special.

I actually graduated with a degree in psychology but never worked as a psychologist. I always wanted to do something related to art, but my parents convinced me to graduate in something else in order to get on with my life if I didn’t succeed in art. So I went to university but wasn’t happy there and almost gave it up. What convinced me to go forth were some very good friends I made there and a couple of teachers. I got my degree in 2001, got past graduation and was finally able to deepen my art research.

I’ve always disliked institutional learning. I didn’t like to go to school during my childhood and adolescence and didn’t adapt to university either. It’s funny because I used to read a lot before university, I really enjoyed it, but when I joined university I got completely blocked because I was so overloaded with boring texts that reading became a burden. I simply couldn’t understand why most of the times I had to study texts by certain authors just to confront them with their opponents instead of trying to get the best of each one. To give an example, at the university I graduated from, most of the teachers were Freudians so I didn’t learn anything about Jung during the five years I spent there. Not one word! I never understood this.

After getting my degree, it wasn’t in my plans to go back to university or anything like that again. But then, almost 10 years after, two artists, friends of mine who are also teachers at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, convinced me that I should apply for the Masters program at their school. I was accepted with a very high grade and got a scholarship. It was a good experience and most of the classes I had to attend were really interesting, especially because teachers there were also artists and we discussed a lot about art and artistic practice. But, even there, I missed my lonely days at the studio, reading the books I really liked and doing my own stuff. When you are studying for a Masters there comes a time that you have to dedicate yourself almost entirely to your thesis, and this made me move away from my artistic practice for a longer time than I wished. You have to concentrate in only one theme, and to produce my artwork I need to digress, to get lost. There is no time for that in a university or a learning institution. Some people may adapt to this, but I can’t.

I think that maybe this is a symptom of the fact that, in Brazil, the academic system doesn’t give much importance to “nonverbal” activities, like exhibitions, artworks etc. Also, if you are an artist with 10 important published texts by established critics, books about your work, important exhibitions in the most wonderful museums in the world, it doesn’t matter. An academic with a single page article published in an unknown magazine would score more points than an exhibition at Tate Modern. This is just incredibly disappointing. I hope this changes someday. Once I read an interview with Brian May, and he said: “at school they told me that I couldn’t be an artist and a scientist at the same time, that I would have to choose. But the Victorians were both, and that’s why they have made so many discoveries in such a short period of time.” Brian May is not only guitarist from the band Queen, but also a PhD in Astrophysics. I totally agree with him, that’s the way it should be.

BG: When did you build your first machine? How did that happen?

MM: In 2004, I showed two works using these animations I make with talking pottery and objects from my house, and then I started to realize that the videos should not be mere “components” of the works but that they should “act,” make something move and be active in the whole system. So I asked my father (he’s an engineer) if it was possible to build an electronic circuit that would perceive the sound of the objects in the videos and turn something on. He said “yes,” and then not only did the first machine get made but our partnership too. My father has been my engineer for more than 10 years now.

BG: You mentioned that instead of seeing your work as art and technology, you see it as painting or as drawing. You also refer to your creations as machines rather than sculptures or installations. Why?

MM: I don’t believe in categories. My works on paper, for example, can be seen sometimes as drawings or as collages or as something else. I like to say that I don’t know what my work is, but I know what it isn’t. Anyway, words are only words and I have to admit that in my everyday life I call them drawings because it’s easier to make people understand. This at least gives people a more precise idea of what to expect.

There are artists who I admire so much that I keep reading and watching interviews, movies or whatever is published or online about them. They are mostly painters, some are filmmakers, installation artists … And I don’t recall any of them working with what is called “high-tech”! I mean, would you call Roman Signer an art & tech artist? Only because he sometimes works with engines and video? What about Jean Tinguely, with those huge machines? I don’t think they are easy to categorize. Their works might raise questions about technology, but I believe there is so much more to talk about.

I feel that I connect more with the thoughts of some painters and sculptors, for example, than with game artists. But I also think that once the work is out there, in the world, you have no control over it, so any associations might occur. This is quite good, actually. If it’s difficult to categorize, maybe it’s because the work is in some kind of nonplace. It can be both tech and non-tech at the same time, and many other things, depending on the person who is seeing it, or the moment, or the context in which it is shown. The work should really speak for itself.

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