Nika Neelova


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Beghost, a solo exhibition by London-based artist Nika Neelova, features sculptures, made from various materials including glass, clay, and fossilized shark teeth, offering a speculative view of the ancient marine life that once inhabited Buhais Geology Park and the Jebel Buhais archaeological site in Al Madam Plain (Sharjah, UAE). Narrating a story of transformation and decay, the new works are placed in direct dialogue with fossils from the collection of Nirmal Rajah, the archaeologist, who in 2015 led an expedition to discover fossils in the Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, contributing to the production of the first English documentary focusing on India’s remains.

Sheltered by the cooling shade of a sea urchin shaped building of the Buhais Geology Park I watched the vast Al Madam plains unfold into the distance in the scorching heat. The incandescent desert spilled dry sandy air as the temperatures reached 48 degrees Celsius. I felt the sun rays passing through me, singeing the edges of my skin. This terrain was in fact the site of a prehistoric sea that covered most of Arabia until geologically recent times. I imagined the ancient waters buried under the sand dunes, I imagined the landscape changing slowly over 93 million years, I imagined descending into the blue underworld, the watery ghosts breathing under the surface. There was a dance underway, the shells of the marine organisms that lived and died in these waters sedimenting into beds of limestone, tectonic plates shifting, merging continents together, oceans closing and retreating, layers of rocks and sediments reconsidering their stratigraphic and structural relationships, slow erosion and weathering by wind, water and gravity. Among the layers of sedimented time and these prehistoric rocks, it was time for magic—to cast a spell, to conjure the oceanic subconscious of the desert, of the sand dunes haunted by the memory of water, and their watery ancestors. I observed the liquid colossus in front of me, and like echoes of this watery dream, the vestiges of these dead worlds appeared constantly changing and alive.

Beghost traces the history of this land backwards, endowing the desert with the spirit of water that has long disappeared but has left its fossilized traces in the geological record, encrypted in the rocks. 

Rock erodes into sand and clay, sand and silica become glass and clay petrifies upon contact with air, hardening into form. All of the sculptures’ materials are engaging in a constant cycle of metamorphosis alluding to the never-ending recycling of matter on the planet, merging chemistry, alchemy and geology. The glass medusas are made of antique chandelier fragments, fused with handblown flame- like glass elements. As Daria Khan writes in her essay Hot salt, oily earth, liquid stone: “The medusas hold within themselves the memory of glass having once been liquid sand. An amorphous solid, glass has the disordered molecular structure that is typical of liquids, but it does not flow. The medusas likewise memorize the act of breath: glass is shaped by exhalation, the strength of which dictates the size and shape of the resulting spherical creations. When glass is heated it becomes soft and glowing, like molten lava. The flame-like medusas inherit their shapes from fire, reminding us of the primary purpose of their forebears – the chandeliers – to give off light and referencing Antonio Canova’s infamous sculpture Perseo Trionfante, in which the Gorgon’s hollow head was used as a candle holder.”  Jellyfish—known as medusas in many languages—glow in the ocean depths, but once cast out of the water they become transparent and evaporate. 

The inverted fragmented tree-like sculpture holds hundreds of decapitated rose stems made from fossilized shark teeth, some from extinct species dating over 30 millions years old, set into hardened clay, thereby bridging the futility and short life span of flowers with the vast temporalities of deep time. The rose, as we know it, dates back to at least the Oligocene epoch (about thirty-three to twenty-three million years ago). In ancient civilisations roses were associated with various deities, widely used to adorn temples, they also appeared in ornaments, cosmetics and cuisines. The rose acquired stronger symbolism and religious connotations during the Middle Ages, particularly in painting traditions and Gothic architecture. A notable medieval example is the Rose d’Or from 1330 by Minucchio Jacobi da Siena that can be seen at Musée de Cluny in Paris. This delicate rose is made up of thin pieces of gold leaf forming stems, petals and foliage. Thornless, the rose is an evocation of paradise. The oldest known records of fossilized shark teeth are by Pliny the Elder, who believed that these triangular objects fell from the sky during lunar eclipses. According to Renaissance accounts, large, triangular fossil teeth often found embedded in rocky formations were believed to be petrified tongues of dragons and snakes and so were referred to as “tongue stones” which were commonly thought to be a remedy for various poisons and toxins; they were used in the treatment of snake bites.

Referencing the mythical snake—the ouroboros—compelled for centuries to devour its own tail representing the eternal cycles of destruction and rebirth are the skeletal lemniscates strewn across the floor. Reminiscent of the remains of some prehistoric creatures, the sinuous flowing sculptures are made from reclaimed handrails from several flights of stairs. Recovered from houses that no longer exist, their shapes laced with the infinity symbol, they evoke the continuity of time and space where the human touch remains a vestigial memory. As Saira Ansari writes in her essay The choreography of the absent human body: “Never moving but always guiding, it has the ability to connect through touch and lead from one place to another. For Neelova, this relationship between skin and wood mimics a direct connection between a person and a building, and signals a continuity that runs through the human body, architecture and space. More seductive is the idea that the old wooden banisters, which she repurposes in her practice, were crafted over a hundred years ago by human hands, and spent the next century interacting with other hands. There is something intensely faithful and intimate about this private relationship…”

Shifting from the architectural into the geological perspective, The Ripple Stones, created by fingerprints left in soft beds of petrified clay, witness the moments of interaction of humanity and nature—mimicking the pockmarks on the planet’s skin: the thermokarst hollows that cover many northern territories. A great expanse of once vibrant azure filled concaves, teaming with life, now coalesce into vast networks of dying lakes. The fragile permafrost landscape bearing the thumb-marks of the collective interactions of our species as the planet warms and the frozen land gives way. In her essay Seepages, Sophie J Williamson discusses Undercover Softness by philosopher Reza Negarestani who 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 be momentarily perceived as whole. This is a world of stand ins; a constant flux of material exchanges, held together for a lifetime at different scales and temporalities. Fleeting and ephemeral, a mountain seems held with solidity and permeance yet it is only so comparatively. [Nika Neelova’s work] speaks of our reality: human and non-human, organic and non-organic, each only momentarily configured within a boundary, all eventually returning to a fluid, fluctuating, recycling of matter on the planet.”

Image courtesy Noire gallery & the artist

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