Art & Science: Mariana Manhaes’s Breathing Machines

By August 17, 2015
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.

Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors is on view through May 9 at the High Museum of Art

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.

Dana Haugaard at Swan Coach House Gallery through May 20, 2021

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.

Mariana Manhaes,Thesethose, 2011, at the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

BG: The interplay of digital and analog in your work is fascinating. Please give us more insight into the mechanics of this relationship.

MM: I’m interested in systems, in the puzzle, how things connect to each other. The microcosms within the macrocosms. In machines, systems are very evident: you see the machinery, the clockwork, the interdependent micro events, and the way each component can make everything work or even destroy it. But it also happens in drawings and other medium-based works. They are maybe less evident but it’s still there: things connect to each other and that’s the point where the work takes place.

As for my machines, there isn’t a computer coordinating everything in the works, as some people might think. What I do is a mixture of digital – the circuits, that perform simple tasks like perceiving a sound or light and turning on an electric blower – and analog – the plastic bags, when inflated, create movements and sometimes swallow one another. And, because of that, sometimes it all goes “wrong.” These unplanned interactions and reactions are very important for me. In 2007, I created a series of sculptures that can connect to each other. They could operate separately or in symbiosis with one or more pieces. There are cables in these works, and I can connect them the way I want and they will respond by exchanging information, which affects their behaviors. They don’t respond to the visitors, they only react to each other (or to a dramatic change in the atmosphere of the exhibition room, like wind).

In my recent works I’m still exploring this idea, but instead of doing it electronically I’m connecting their bodies: the installations that use plastic bags can be attached to one another and the bags inflate and deflate pulling each other. These connections between works create systems that can be modified each time I set up the pieces, which allows me to respond to different spaces and architectures. I’m beginning to do a series of drawings that are being “constructed” in the same way, using the same logic: at the end, I hope to have a group of drawings that can be put together or presented individually.

BG: The construction of your site-specific installations mimics biological growth. What is your thought process regarding the relationship of your machines and the space?

MM: I like to compare the way I construct my installations with the logic of plants when they grow in a certain terrain. They have to navigate around objects, walls, in order to get light, so they can grow. In a way, I believe all works are somehow site-specific, because they always respond to the place they are installed.

Some years ago, I started to make notations on the titles of the pieces after showing them for the first time. I knew that I would create a new body of work made from its old parts. The result is a new version of the same artwork, and that’s why I give it the same title, but with a single quote mark at the end. In mathematics, the single quote mark is used to indicate a derivative, which is a measure of how a function changes as its input changes. In other words, it’s the same work but with such a different installation that it could be seen as a new one. It’s still the same body but built to adapt to the new exhibition space.

BG: Use of language and sounds is another bio-mimicking element in your work. What prompts you to incorporate them, and what kind of words and sounds are you attracted to?

MM: I’ve used my own voice to produce all voices and sounds in my animations. I’m especially attracted to breathing sounds. Actually, the air is a very important element in my process. I also create a language for the objects I animate and, when I do that, I use universal phonemes so people from different places can “understand” what that creature in the video is saying. I couldn’t say it’s intentional, but it happens a lot. Sometimes, people do believe they understand sentences! I think this is a place where sounds are not words yet, it’s a kind of gap between what we can understand and cannot. This place quite interests me.

For some new stop-motion animations I’m working on right now, I’m experimenting with other sound sources, but I still don’t know how this is going to work. This has to do with something that is going on with my process. A friend of mine recently told me that he believes my works are becoming more “dark” and I kind of agree with him. I think in the drawings this is perhaps more evident, maybe because the drawing practice is much more intimate than constructing a large installation, for example, which demands a lot of planning, a team of people working … When drawing, it’s only me and the work, and that’s why my drawings are so valuable for me. With this quest for new sources of sounds, I think that what I’m seeking is something more profound. Maybe what’s happening is that I’m getting older and life keeps going on and it’s impossible not to be influenced by it. Maybe I don’t see as many happy things in the world as I did a decade ago, or maybe my pessimistic dark humor increased in order to help me survive in this world, and this reflects on the things I am doing.

BG: In your work, you appropriate everyday objects. What is the significance of these objects?

MM: The first objects were from my parents’ house. I started to make these animations when I still lived with them, and, as my mother collects objects, I’ve lived with these “beings” all my life. They are some kind of repository, more than just collectables for me, because they are impregnated with memories. Gaston Bachelard talks about how space contains concentrated time. That’s how I see these objects. After I got married and started living in a house of my own, I started to use things that are in my collection and architectural elements as well, like windows. Also, I like things that contain air. Most of the objects are hollow, or can be opened so air can pass through them.

BG: Currently, you are working on video animation of objects rather than filming objects that you manipulate as puppets. As your practice is changing, where do you see your work going?

MM: I call the manual manipulation of objects “non-stop-motion” animation, and these new ones I’m doing right now are “stop-motion.” I’m taking photographs and putting them all together in a sequence so objects seem to move. This enables me to create movements that wouldn’t be possible to achieve when doing “non-stop-motions.”

I think that in my most recent works there is a more bruising dialogue with the space that surrounds them. I’m becoming more interested in the body of the work, its volumes. Another important point is that in the past 10 years I have constructed works that talk about things that come from a more intimate universe, like objects in the houses I lived in, and I perceive that I’m becoming more interested in what’s outside the house: the landscape. I’ve been silently working on drawings and projects that involve landscape, especially mountains, caves, and minerals. I haven’t shown them yet; I’m waiting for the right time. Let’s see where this will take me.

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