Stepping into Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s elegant exhibition ‘_/_____/_/__/________’ at Proyectos Monclova, visitors left behind the hustle and bustle of the city streets and entered an oasis of calm. A delicate black skeleton formed by two intertwined, leafless branches of a fern (Rama de avenca, Avenca Branch, 2014) welcomed viewers to the space. Beyond this, the gallery was almost empty, save for an arrangement of neatly cut steel sheets resembling a giant Modernist children’s puzzle on the floor (Systemic Grid, 2014).
Manipulating space to alter perception is something Steegmann Mangrané knows how to do well. This was effectively demonstrated here with Fólego (2014), made in collaboration with Joana Saraiva. A composition for seven flutes, the piece was played by musicians throughout the exhibition space, resonating within the near-empty gallery and contrasting with the clang made by footsteps against the steel sheets of Systemic Grid. This contrast was echoed in the tension between the clean-cut Modernity of the steel and the organic structure of the ferns in Rama de avenca. For the first few minutes of the 16mm film Phasmidea (2013), you see nothing but a branch, which, as you look closely, forms a pattern resembling the geometric cutouts of Systemic Grid. Then, you notice an inanimate object coming to life. As the title suggests, the film depicts a phasmid – or stick insect – the name of which derives from the Greek phasma, or ‘phantasm’, presumably on account of the insect’s ability to disappear into its surroundings, or to resemble an inanimate stick.
The insect slowly creeps from a branch, through the artist’s studio and into a origami-like white paper structure, which recalls the neat geometries of some barely-there pencil-and-watercolour drawings on the walls nearby. Both contrast with the organic lines of the insect’s body. The film works to highlight the moment at which we begin to discern movement from stasis, the visible from the invisible. This play with perception was also continued in the artist’s collages, Simetrías (Symmetries, 2014), in which photographs of natural forms, such as leaves, were cut into geometric shapes and recombined in assemblages that play with the perception of spatial depth on the flat surface of the image.
The show, whose title could be written but not spoken, articulated a gap between nature and culture. Steegmann Mangrané’s titles, the show’s musical accompaniment and the film Phasmidea made me think of Jean Painlevé, whose videos of underwater fauna crossed nature documentary with Surrealism (an element which is not foreign to Steegmann Mangrané’s work, either). Painlevé might well have enjoyed Phasmidea. As he wrote in his 1931 essay ‘Mystères et miracles de la nature’ (Mysteries and Miracles of Nature): ‘Nothing is so strangely splendid as the most static life forms, which leave us to freely dream each instant without imposing upon us what happens next.’