Writing about the work of the Rio de Janeiro-based Catalan artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané feels like it has as much to do with confronting a series of philosophical propositions as it does with grappling with his production as an artist. This is not to say that his very considered and delicate output – which comprises drawings, paintings, sculptures, films, installations and interventions – even or especially on a formal level, is by any means negligible. It just means that in order to begin properly to apprehend it, one is obliged to engage with the densely structured armature upon which it is theoretically and finely plaited. Such a way of working is not without a number of more-or-less recent historical precedents, ranging from the likes of, say, Robert Smithson to (most significantly) the lesserknown but increasingly celebrated Chilean-born, longtime New Yorkbased artist Juan Downey (1940–93). Indeed, for all their many differences, a few crucial similarities exist between Downey and Steegmann Mangrané.
For this artist, Amerindian cosmology offers a way out of the cul-de-sac of post- Enlightenment dualities and cloistering
To wit: where Downey was programmatically influenced by cybernetics and its corresponding preoccupation with feedback, Steegmann Mangrané is influenced by the philosophy of the increasingly influential Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Herewith my attempt to summarise at least one of the essential features of this radical thinker’s thought: in addition to the idea and catchphrase ‘decolonising thought’, Viveiros de Castro is known for his notion of multinaturalist perspectivism, which is predicated on the Amerindian belief that everything is human or animistic or, in his own words, characterised by a ‘spiritual unity and a corporeal diversity’, and that consequently many of the dualities and separations – such as subject/object, immanence/transcendence and most importantly nature/culture à la Bruno Latour – that have governed society since the onset of modernity no longer apply. Steegmann Mangrané wilfully mingles this particular decolonisation of thought with a short but radical essay by the French intellectual Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ (1935). In this text, the former partner-in-crime of Georges Bataille and cofounder of the Collège de Sociologie basically contends that the mimetic function of certain insects and animals is not, as is popularly believed, an evolutionary passive-defence mechanism, but rather evidence of a will to dissolve into the environment. Not so far from one another as one might initially think, these two modes of thought speak to an impulse to imbricate, to intertwine, to become part of, as opposed to separate, isolate, divide and subdivide, categorise, so on and so forth. (This is a will that, incidentally, finds a historical and theoretical counterpart, if not precedent, in Downey’s cybernetic preoccupation with feedback that registered in a number of aesthetic modes, including kinetic sculpture, video and architecture, as a means of entering into a symbiotic relationship of mutual transformation with the world. In the case of both artists, Amerindian cosmology – by way of the Yanomami tribe for Downey, and Viveiros de Castro for Steegmann Mangrané – offers a way out of the cul-desac of post-Enlightenment dualities and cloistering.)
This could be why nets, weaves, meshes and grids figure so prominently in Steegmann Mangrané’s formal vocabulary. I am thinking of everything from his penchant for cutting and reweaving images of fruit and baskets to his solo presentation Morfogenesis – Cripsis at Mendes Wood’s stand at Frieze Focus in London during 2013. This last, an eminently discreet installation, consisted of threemulticoloured wall drawings with so-called organic elements mixed into them, such that they became sculptural. (As if in keeping with his vested interest in porosity, a common impulse amid Steegmann Mangrané’s work is to confound traditional ontologies of the two and three dimensional.) One drawing, for instance, consisted of a pattern or mesh whose primary constitutive element was also its point of departure: a small twig. Replicated in ink and graphite like a motif on the wall in a gridlike pattern, the twig itself was also placed on the wall, as if seeking to blend in. Meanwhile, another drawing consisted of open mesh fashioned out of blue and yellow ink, upon which could be found a green phasmid (a mimetic insect whose anatomy is evocative of a twig or branch), as if also (presumably) seeking to blend in. In both cases, distinctions between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ feel patently ridiculous – especially in the case of the twig, which, despite the rigour and processual logic of the drawing, gracefully freefalls into something that resembles a paradox, but tends more towards aporia by virtue of the dichotomous collapse it carries out.
Perhaps the most pointed critique, or rather challenge to the dualistic post-Enlightenment categories mentioned above, comes in the 16mm film Phasmides (2012). This 22-minute work revolves largely around Steegmann Mangrané’s preferred entomological figure, the phasmid. Consisting all but exclusively of fixed shots, it begins with a series of images of what looks like a loamy forest floor, in which nothing happens. The footage soon shifts to an enclosed landscape overlaid with a sparse bramble of twigs in which the phasmid variously appears and disappears (transforming this part of the film into a spot-the-phasmid exercise). However, the naturalistic environment is gradually replaced by an ostensibly human-made, geometric landscape fashioned from cuts and folds on white boarding. Initially contrasted with such an ‘unnatural’ setting, the now conspicuous phasmid seems to forfeit its mimetic quality, but as the film proceeds, a different mimetic quality begins to emerge: the geometry of the insect’s anatomy blends in with the hard, dark angles of the cuts on the white ground. Significantly, the last segment of the film, which is the only time the camera moves, consists of a pan away from the small, table-size set we have just been watching to the window of the artist’s studio and then down below the table to the so-called natural materials (bark, dirt, etc) of the first part of the film. Bordering on allegory (artist’s studio as crucible), the film enacts a subtle sleight of hand wherein the nature/culture divide is shuffled out of coherence, as if from a deck of well-ordered cards.
An ongoing engagement and morphological perversion of the modernist grid meanders in and out of the artist’s work
Among the many motifs that this film foregrounds and which meander in and out of Steegmann Mangrané’s work is an ongoing engagement and morphological perversion of the modernist grid (present also in those meshes, nets, etc) – as if the grid, or some distant ancestor or descendant of the grid, were somehow embedded in the film the way faces or figures might be embedded in passing clouds. This perversion of the straight modernist grid can be seen in the central floor piece of his recent exhibition at Proyectos Monclova in Mexico City, which comes from his Systemic Grids series (2013–). The diptych consists of two groupings of laser-cut steel plates upon which one can walk. If the operative reference here is Carl Andre, this is not for superficial reasons. For unlike Andre’s floor sculptures, which are fashioned from the strictly impersonal logic of the grid, Steegmann Mangrané’s are drawn, cut and organised according to a logic that not only defies the grid, but even immediate human understanding (although this particular perversion of the grid evolved from a drawing featured in the Morfogenesis – Cripsis presentation mentioned above), transforming it into something if not more natural, then less inclined to impose order at the expense of the natural, while casting doubt upon what we traditionally assume to be natural.
It is for these reasons that Steegmann Mangrané could be considered a kind of unorthodox formalist who explodes the idea of formalism from the inside out, exploring to what extent the notion of autonomy that has been known to historically attend it is a myth. I am thinking, for example, of the sculptural element of his contribution to last year’s Mercosul Biennial, U and Quebreira (both 2013). At first glance, this skeletal, modular sculpture might seem like some charming riff on Modernism, but its elaborate structure is linked to the paths designated for labourers near an oil-drilling platform in southern Brazil. The primary structure, which consists of six partial U-forms connected end-over-end with the logic of, say, a Sol LeWitt, and which corresponds to the paths, are variously connected by three wires with magnets at the end, which correspond to the shortcuts between paths created by workers. Here again, ideas of the, say, ‘unnatural’, of the fabricated, collide and interweave with the ‘natural’– which in our arguably poor, dualistic understanding of the world, translate to ‘inorganic’ and ‘organic’, as if one were somehow more human than the other, while both methods, Steegmann Mangrané deftly demonstrates, are perfectly human, and what is more, reciprocally illuminate the respective humanity of each other.
Another red thread that runs throughout Steegmann Mangrané’s practice is its essentially graphic character
Interestingly, another red thread that runs throughout Steegmann Mangrané’s practice is its essentially graphic character. When they aren’t literally made of graphite, his works replicate or depart from some graphic principle in one way or another, by which I mean, his practice is intimately linked to drawing. What is more, that graphic principle is often procedural. Indeed, a handful of works bring to mind one of the quintessentially proto-procedural statements, La Monte Young’s compositional injunction: ‘Draw a straight line and follow it’. Consider for example Equal (Cut) from 2008. Featured at São Paulo artist-run space Ateliê 397, this simple intervention consisted of making a straight, unwavering cut in the gallery’s concrete floor, two cm wide and eight cm deep, that ran the length of the space from the door. The incision was then filled with dirt and weedlike plants, which were allowed to grow throughout the course of the show. This procedure is all but inverted in the 16mm film entitled 16 mm (2009–11). Here a straight line, so to speak, is imposed upon nature. For this work, which was shot in the southwestern Brazilian rainforest in the Mata Atlântica, a modified 16mm camera slowly travels along a zip line through the jungle filming 60.96m – the exact length of a standard roll of 16mm film. Reminiscent of structural filmmaking, this work is produced by a perfect synthesis between form, content and procedure, in which a straight line is arbitrarily imposed upon a landscape, which is at once structured by and totally indifferent to it. Indeed, akin to Equal (Cut), it carries out a (symbolic) incision upon the forest, yet this time without modifying it.
Curiously, after considering all this work (and there is much more to consider), Steegmann Mangrané’s almost pathological, albeit elegant preoccupation with the formal history of Modernism becomes pretty clear. Yet I think it is obvious at this point that that preoccupation is anything but fetishistic. If these forms and procedures play such a dominant role in his formal vocabulary, it is because they could be said to represent the apex of a form of thinking, and a thinking through form, which is predicated on, as far as he is concerned, the arbitrary and ultimately illusory division and opposition between nature and culture.
Daniel Steegmann Mangrané has solo exhibitions at CRAC Alsace, Altkirch, from 19 October through 18 January, and at Esther Schipper, Berlin, from 30 April through 5 June 2015, and his work is included in the exhibition for the annual Prêmio PIPA prize at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, from 6 September through 16 November
This article was first published in the September 2014 issue.