THAW a solo exhibition by Nika Neelova at Noire Gallery
Hot salt, oily earth, liquid stone.
On a chilly late-autumn day in Turin, fog envelops the squares and arcades, blurring the outlines of the trees. I inhale, feeling the cold air warm up in my lungs and then observing how it turns into a white vapour as I exhale. I watch the odourless carbon dioxide dissipate in the atmosphere.
A belief was current among some 17th-century scientists as to the existence of terra pinguis – “oily earth” – also known as phlogiston. This fire-like element was supposed to be the negative form of oxygen, released by materials during combustion. Phlogiston was conceived of as essential to all things in nature, and it was even believed that the very soul was composed of it. Scholars speculated that a soul, if captured in its gaseous form after death, could be transformed by means of high pressure and temperature into a liquid state. This belief culminated in attempts to solidify phlogiston into crystals and create a “soul-snow”. However, such experiments came to nought and phlogiston was eventually proven to have been completely illusory all along.
Alas, the soul catching and crystallisation experiments, along with many other alchemical efforts, all failed. However, they do serve to reveal the human fascination with the transformation of matter beyond and against conventional science, and our persisting desire to achieve eternal life, power, and gold. These goals were inspired by a long series of myths featuring the metamorphosis of creatures and substances: Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, Narcissus into a flower, while Medusa petrified all those who gazed upon her, and in a lesser-known version of the myth turned herself into stone on encountering her own reflection on Perseus’ shield.
Nika Neelova’s work engages with the cycle of metamorphosis, merging chemistry, alchemy and geology. Her glass medusas are made of antique chandelier fragments, with the addition of new flame-like glass elements. The medusa creatures 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 memorise the act of breath: glass is shaped by exhalation, the strength of which dictates the size and shape of the resulting spherical creations. I imagine them being shaped by the ether – that pure essence that gods were held to breathe – and this filling the medusas with their levity.
When glass is heated it becomes soft and glowing, like molten lava. The flame-like medusas’ souls and legs inherit their shapes from fire, reminding us of the primary purpose of their forebears – the chandeliers – to give off light. Neelova references 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 their bodies petrify, just as corals harden on contact with air.
The exhibition space is conceived as a paradoxical crucible, where matter is found in an endless process of transformation, suspended between chemical states. We are invited to take a whimsical quest through the science, museology and mythology encrypted in the objects on display. The smooth petals of lotuses with fossilised stems (hardened from contact with Medusa’s decapitated head according to the myth); the wooden curves of looped handrails infused with human cells accumulated over years of touching; the decapitated snake-like shape crowning the space; the ripple patterns of the stones; the rose stems with thorns moulded from shark teeth. Objects co-exist in consonance, sharing common denominators: allusions to decapitation and eternity are repeated throughout. Neelova converts geological, biblical and mythological references into her own apocryphal system of knowledge – a knowledge constructed via states of matter.
Thaw is the promise of melting, of coming spring and regeneration. The objects are released from historical and archaeological layers, with their provenance reimagined through a speculative lens. In this imaginary realm relics come back to life, Medusa’s gaze is reversed by the thaw, and solidified matter transmutes back to its liquid and gaseous state.
I notice my distorted reflection in the medusas’ transparent bodies, reminding me of Renaissance self-portraits in convex mirrors. Interestingly, Medusa has often been pointed out as the first image-maker in Greek mythology; one capable of fossilising people’s impressions with her mortal gaze. I defocus my gaze, capturing the nuances of transparent contours and liquid shadows against the grey cement floor; their glowing after-image imprinted on my retina.
Essay by Daria Khan, October 2023