Was that a gust of sweat? I stand among the sculptures populating Jumana Manna’s (b. 1987) exhibition A Small Big Thing at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. Looking around, a timber frame reminiscent of a sauna interior occupying the far wall of the room, acting as a plinth for two oversized casts of armpits made out of synthetic resin, calls my attention. I walk over, lean in close and inhale. Ah. Unprocessed pine.
Manna was born in USA, grew up in Jerusalem and is now based in Berlin. She also spent a few years in Norway while a student at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. In 2014 she took part in an exhibition commemorating the terrorist attack of 22 July, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Live on a Star) at Henie Onstad, presenting an installation that included casts of columns from Oslo’s government quarter. Now she returns to Høvikodden to show sculptural installations from the last three years, a new film called Wild Relatives, and a series of small collages.
The sculptures share a certain kinship with the mentioned columns. They consist of pieces or casts of bodies, nature, architecture, infrastructure or technology combined in various arrangements, several of which include support, such as shelves and scaffolding. Most are scaled to take on a prominent physical presence without veering into monumentality.
The armpit sculptures on the sauna benches are part of the Adrenarchy series, a reference to the ‘adrenarche’ stage of maturation in higher primates, associated with the development of, among other things, body odour. Adrenarchy also includes a plaster cast of a torso as well as two video animations, Balls and Flutter, the former showing two rotating spheres, the latter an undulating field of skin, played on a smartphone and tablet placed on top of some towels.
The sauna is an apt allegory for Manna’s studio. Her focus on tactile qualities and animating treatment of the materials and forms she uses, appears to aim at bringing the body of the other – in the widest possible sense – closer to our own. In Manna’s work, even architecture and technology take on a layer of skin, becoming receptive to tactile impressions. In Cache she has made clay replicas of compartments used to store grain and seeds in traditional Levantine agriculture. Their undulating, restless surfaces are full of indentations and blotches, and the industrial shelving units in which they are placed serve as a contrast that accentuates this aspect of ‘aliveness’.
The Contractor’s Heel was Manna’s contribution to the 6th Marrakech Biennial in 2016, where it was presented in the ruins of a sixteenth-century palace, its forms mimicking the porous textures and contours of the surrounding architecture. Shown at Henie Onstad, the objects lose this site-specific resonance, but they still carry the idea of sculpture as a kind of chameleon, as something whose form is cued by context. Chameleonic abilities are also on display in the film Wild Relatives. Despite its wide-ranging, global perspective where the turbulent situation in the Middle East becomes spliced with climate change and the future of agriculture, the narrative is largely propelled by Manna’s social agility and attentively receptive approach to individuals and their milieus.
Lasting just over one hour, the film is about the transport of seeds from an agricultural research facility in Lebanon to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The journey of these seeds is described through images of boxes being packaged and loaded, and via glimpses of the activities carried out at the research centre and the seed storage bank. However, Manna allows herself to be continually distracted: long sequences dwell on characters she has come in touch with whose stories are only tangentially connected to the main narrative, as exemplified by the patient account of the everyday life of a Syrian peasant who has fled his homeland, or the scenes where she follows a group of Syrian refugee girls out into the field, their monotonous work occasionally interrupted by the sharing of cigarettes or spontaneous bouts of dancing.
Panoramic views of fields are a recurring motif. Ears of grain wave in the wind as bent human figures move slowly in between the rows. Manna does little to alleviate the boredom. The slow pace imbues her film with a sculptural quality. Manna’s own voice will occasionally highlight the wider historic and geopolitical context, but this intervening voiceover is kept to a minimum. Towards the end of the film we see a priest wearing vestments and a bearded climate scientist balancing on the foundations of an abandoned coal transport system on Svalbard, discussing the future of the planet in a scripted manner. This theatrical scene breaks away from the overall documentary tone of the film, as if Manna feels a need to accentuate the alienating effect of the endeavours to overview our predicament attempted by science and religion.
Counteracting the abstractions of priest and scientist, Manna’s Wild Relatives unfolds as a sequence of intimate segments. This tendency towards intimacy and fragmentation is carried over from her sculptures, where objects frequently take on an individual, organic, even human form. In Wild Relatives, such traces of personal lives act as narrative and aesthetic hooks. This ‘animism’ never comes across as overtly speculative, however; the film is too patiently observing, its pace and structure too defiant in the face of narrative convention. Nevertheless, it imbues the film with an accommodating, almost ‘journalistic’ feel. Such emotional appeal is not without its risks: the empathic foreground can quickly fill out the entire image, leaving little space or scope for thematic exposition.