PERFORMING MATTERS
05.04.2024
11.05.2024

In VERA MOTA’s (Porto, 1982) artistic practice, sculpture is the encounter between the time of matter and the time of the body. When in 2002, while still a student, the artist presented a performance in which her body was immersed in tanks of fresh clay, the great forces that would become a constant magnetism in her work became evident: that of the body — sometimes active and inscribed; sometimes suggested by its ergonomic and functional traces — and that of matter. In a work in which the political body seems to act as a subliminal element in all pieces — in particular by highlighting both the understanding of the handling of matter and the revelation of the material properties of human existence itself — there is the announcement of a vertebral, motorised and malleable cadence disturbed by the phenomena of fatigue, severity and the mechanical repetition of a gesture.

In his 1920 essay, God is not cast down, Kazimir Malevich proposes, when reflecting upon the idea of totality in a context that equates the church and the factory with art, a lack of self-fluidity (dissolution of the self) in the body as matter. Somehow annulled as a stimulus and suppressed as a phenomenon, this is said to prolong the presence of contemporary man in his coexistence with the world. This paradigm shift, which does not exclude the pressing desire to find oneself immersed in the totality of the universe, has to do with the alteration of the reason for existence linked to an allegory of eternity. Similarly to what some currents of 20th century existentialist philosophy called the metaphysical state — so fiercely defended as an absolute end for those who dwell on spiritual endeavours — Malevich suggests a growing emancipation from the belief that eternity resides in places and forms linked to the idea of soul and spirit, reducing this expectation to the (we know, unattainable) image of perfect matter. The question then arises: does matter exist? Is what we call matter simply a series of spiritual movements, and is spirit perhaps what we call the movement of matter? [1]

Vera Mota’s artistic practice also manifests the visual symptoms of a body-object that moves in a perpetual attempt of self-optimisation, in an inner that is never closed — as the Weltanschauung [2] so well determines. Alas, this phenomenon which results from a sense of functional scarcity and unrealistic productivity, sickens the body — both machine and spirit — with a pathological compulsion towards alienation. By incessantly challenging the physical qualities of matter, it is through a sophisticated resource to gestural rhythm and industrial transformation that the artist’s work writhes and rises dually before the exercise of abstraction. In all its abysmal and devouring inaccessibility, it is, in a pure context, the will of the matter that dictates the never comfortable disruption of the crystallisation of the object; in the exhibition space, this is developed by Mota either through a deception of the natural processes of the masses she works with, enhancing a plastic farce; or, rather, in the compromise of a negotiated consent between the shapeless body and the conditions that allow it to adapt to her gesture.

The provocations of the elements to which the artist resorts, often with their own myriad self-transformations, then transcend the particularity of Performing Matters, an exhibition choreographed and, as the title suggests, performed under the aegis of the acting materials it holds and organises. If the transfer of the performative quality to the materials does not prevent us from foreseeing a body, it is in the relationship between the artist’s body and the plastic qualities of the body of the materials — be they marble, basalt, silicone or aluminium — that the post-metaphysical flow discussed above resides.  Their behaviours preamble the sculptural action-reaction chain at every visual, spatial and temporal moment for while on the one hand the apparent sinuosity and strange tactile tenderness of the materials is eminent, on the other the antagonistic reaction of the confrontation with their hardness, resilience and cold resistance suddenly invades them, disconcerting them and giving them what is a frequent perception in the artist’s œuvre— a sort of strange familiarity [3].

 It’s interesting just to create a situation where people come, and then it’s something. It has to be a certain element of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Just when you think you’re going to come back and see something that you know, it’s different. [4]

Returning to the image of a gesture that is repeated in front of an active surface, Untitled (Marble) reveals an enigmatic and almost encrypted drawing in its materiality. It is, in fact, the isolation of a micro-movement of the artist’s fingers on clay, now magnified in a material where the malleable inscription would naturally be improbable. On the other hand, the pendular movement that dictates the exhibition’s formal organisation — an iteration in which the body’s lexicon never escapes the memory of the objects — is flexed, the indentation of a finger that resembles a bone and the cartilage of a dismembered ear. This ghost that is the body also leads us to Untitled (Silicone), a suspended presence that very slowly rotates on its axis of balance. The texture of the silicone, whose milky transparency brings us closer to a materiality internal to the body, collapses in front of its multiplied cutout, revealing what appears to be a shapeless object. The reminiscence of a vocal structure, as well as the anatomy of a throat, emphasise its flexibility and relative impermanence, highlighting the limits of matter itself in the face of the conditions articulated to receive it. Despite all its movement, the form maintains the same physicality and does not deform.

As in her most recent installations and sculptural objects, in Untitled (Basalt) we confront the gravity of a large mass whose intriguing plasticity takes the viewer back to the field of fur and hair — that intimate place that is here so unsettling and uncomfortable. However, we know that we are dealing with a highly sophisticated industrial process that reduces the mineral to its liquid state and then solidifies it into very fine crystal threads. Resting on its apparent voluptuousness, the farce of the sculpture vis-à-vis the sculptor lies in the rehearsal of control and the consequent inability to prevent its constant movement, unravelling and reconfiguring its indomitable nuances in a slow exercise of falling towards the ground. The human wants to be an eruption but cannot tame the lava.

Perhaps Untitled (Aluminium) and Headrests (In the studio with Donald Judd) are the works where the influence of minimalism on the artist’s work is most evident. In these elements, the gravitational force is thrown to the limits of the walls and their punctuality, sometimes scenographic, sometimes performative, places them as beacons for understanding the exhibition. Thus, we could even say that the piece that openly references Judd’s work is perhaps the one that truly places us in the artist’s participatory body. Born out of an encounter she had with the minimalist’s house, it refers to the simple presence of an Ethiopian headrest on a rug in the corner of her studio. Summoned here not only as a memory of this detail, nor merely as an allusion to his iconic wall sculptures, the work shifts the notion of traditional contemplation towards a contemporary confrontation with the hierarchical distinction/dysfunction between the head and the remaining limbs of the body — a concern that cuts across all of Vera Mota’s work.

Once again, it is flow — that invisible and permanent energy that highlights the orbit that attunes the human being to their world — that first and foremost dictates rhythm and repetition as powers with resilient and transformative capacities. However, if the doubt of perfection remains unknown — whether it exists in a divine ramification or in a functional and mechanical extrapolation — the certainty of finitude would tell us that totality is not a plausible end to reach, for both spirit and matter in the image of the human, do not exist without each other.

All things are finite but all of them are involved in the infinite material flow. The materialist totality is then the totality of the flow. [5]

Eva Mendes

[1] Malevich, Kazimir, in God is not cast down, 1920. Free translation.
[2] A German term often associated with the idea of worldview.
[3] Term derived from Sigmund Freud’s essay Das Umheimliche (1919).
[4] Gordon, Kim, in Is it my body? Selected texts, Steinberg Press, 2014.
[5] Groys, Boris. In Entering the flow, Realism Materialism Art, Steinberg Press, 2015.

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