UAE: A unique art initiative showcases ancient marine life from Sharjah's archaeological site

The new works tell a tale of transformation and decay, where the artist engages with the extensive geological history of Al Madam Plain region


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 4 Jul 2024, 7:53 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Jul 2024, 10:06 PM

A solo exhibition by London-based artist Nika Neelova, Beghost showcases sculptures made from a variety of materials such as glass, clay, and fossilised shark teeth, presenting a speculative perspective on the ancient marine life that once thrived in Buhais Geology Park and Jebel Buhais, an archaeological site in the Al Madam Plain, Sharjah. The new works tell a tale of transformation and decay, informed by the collection of archaeologist Nirmal Rajah, who led a 2015 expedition to uncover fossils in the Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, contributing to the first English documentary on India's remains.

The artist engages with the extensive geological history of the Sharjah region, examining how rock erodes into sand and clay, sand with silica becomes glass, and clay petrifies upon exposure to air, solidifying into form. Reflecting on these natural processes, Neelova’s sculptures symbolise the endless recycling of matter on Earth, blending elements of chemistry, alchemy, and geology. In a conversation with Khaleej Times, Neelova, who was born in Moscow and grew up in Paris, talks about the relationship between the ancient and modern worlds, as reflected in her sculptures and how the history of the region has influenced her artwork.

Q. What drew you towards arts?

The desire to see the invisible side of things. To cut into the fabric of the world and see the fibres it is made of. The desire to see the dark side of objects, to turn them over so to speak, to reveal what is hidden. I am interested in drawing arcs between different time periods, connecting the dots between narratives, and finding modes of retrieving information latent in the various materials and artefacts and the multiplicities of histories concealed within them.

For me, art is a way of generating language and creating a system of knowledge through which to understand and interface with the world. A quote by Virginia Woolf comes to mind: “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.” For me, my sculptural practice can be positioned on this thin line between fiction and reality, occupying the subliminal space between two stages of existence, exploring the archaeology of places where myth meets reality, dreamscapes meet materiality, where worlds come closer together.

Q. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Beghost?

The story of Beghost began with a visit to the Buhais Geological Centre several years ago, going back across vast expanses of geological time to the prehistoric landscape and the planetary forces that have shaped it. This terrain, which is now a desert, was in fact the site of a prehistoric sea that covered most of Arabia until geologically recent times.

Surrounded by endless sands, I imagined the dunes being haunted by the memory of water and their watery ancestors. I imagined the ghost of the sea under the sand endowing the desert with the phantom of the water that has now disappeared.

Descending into the blue underworld, I imagined the landscape change slowly over 93 million years — there was a dance underway, the shells of the marine organisms that lived and died in these waters sedimented into beds of limestone, tectonic plates shifted, merging continents together, oceans closed and retreated through slow erosion and weathering by wind, water and gravity.

Among the layers of sedimented time and these prehistoric rocks, I observed the liquid colossus in front of me, and like echoes of this watery dream, the vestiges of the dead worlds appeared constantly changing and alive.

Q. How did the ancient marine life of Buhais Geology Park and Jebel Buhais influence your work?

I was very lucky to be able to work on this project in collaboration with Nirmal Rajah. In the exhibition, my works are placed in direct dialogue with fossils selected from his collection. Fossils are like gateways into pre-historic and pre-linguistic domains, able to communicate across vast expanses of time, exceeding human lifespans and carrying into the distant futures the archive of pasts otherwise lost. To me it is an exploration of how poetic geology can be.

Q. How do you approach the concept of transformation and decay in your art, and why is this theme important to you?

In his essay Undercover Softness philosopher Reza Negarestani describes a politics of decay as a malleable architecture that recreates itself in the processes of its own deconstruction. He argues that all structures, both physical entities and conceptual socio-political formations, are always in a process of undoing into something else and can only momentarily be perceived as a whole.

Decay and erosion can be seen as a form of architecture through which each stage of deconstruction is equally a stage of creation, conjuring new formations into existence. I am very interested in exploring this cycle of material exchanges, infiltrating the feedback loop of material interdependences.

The sculptures are often focused on the conversions involved in translating existing objects into other mediums, enacting the processes that were used to shape them, altering their internal structures and liberating objects from their meaning. This manifests itself in works that hover between the organic and the synthetic; between the remembered collective past and an attempt to glimpse into the future.

Q. Your work often blurs the lines between human and non-human, organic and inorganic. How do you explore these boundaries, and what do you hope viewers take away from this exploration?

These boundaries have always been fascinating to me, in the way that objects and artefacts may retain vestigial memories of human touch and presence, as a visual trace, encoded in the still discernible origins of the works’ forms.

For instance, in the ‘lemniscate’ series, I repurpose reclaimed handrails from demolished houses. The handrail is an architectural feature that is entirely based on human proportions, it is moulded to fit perfectly into the palm of the hand and then extruded to architectural scale. They were shaped by hand hundreds of years ago and spent a century guiding hands through space, during which they collected microscopic skin cells on their surfaces, thereby carrying the DNA of hundreds of people and through this, continuously choreographing the absent human bodies through space.

Formally, the sculptures always reveal the imperfect infinity symbol, referencing the mythical snake, Ouroboros, compelled for centuries to devour its own tail, representing the eternal cycles of destruction and rebirth.

Q. What are some of the challenges involved in working with materials like glass, clay, and fossilised shark teeth?

My work is highly controlled intellectually, but extremely intuitive in terms of making. My approach to materials is experimental, I like to push them to the edge or where they can still maintain their properties before collapsing, fixing the instability of the process, which gives the works their intrinsic fragility. I try to map the vanishing away of a moment, the gestures that were used to shape something, whether human, architectural, or geological.

Glass carries the memory of breath, as the hand-blown glass spheres trace the contours of an exhalation, the fossilised shark teeth carry within them the memory of pre-human pre-linguistic deep time as many of them belong to extinct shark species and clay carries the repressed memory of geological fluctuations.

Most of the objects I use in my work are repurposed, reclaimed and reimagined into new configurations. They undergo multiple transformations that bring them to the edge of recognisability, they are estranged from their identities and released from historical constraints.

Q. How do you see the relationship between the ancient and modern worlds reflected in your sculptures?

I see this relationship as a non-linear cycle, where ancient and modern worlds are interchangeable and in constant flux, flowing into one another. Through my exhibitions I attempt to create something akin to a ‘temporal knot’ — where the distant past touches the present moment abolishing chronological linearity, exploring time outside of periodisation and beyond human perception.

Q. How does the environment and history of the region influence your work?

It is always my intention to work site-specifically and explore the cultural and historical lineages passed from generation to generation. However, I also think that the practice of abstract sculpture gives one the opportunity to address more universal narratives, beyond geographies and periodisations, that address the interconnectedness of matter in the universe as a collective memory and background.

NIKA Project Space — founded in 2023 and serves as a platform for artistic discourse and experimentation and champions the work of female artists and curators.


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