A Self-Sufficient Cosmos: Donna Huanca’s ‘Mortal Coil’

by Fionn Adamian // July 10, 2024

Few pieces so clearly deserve the epithet “Gesamtkunstwerk” as Donna Huanca’s ‘Mortal Coil.’ Asked to describe the bewildering, otherworldly nature of this enclosed installation at Number 1 Main Road, I would say that its mixture of painting, sculpture and performance comes closest to resembling a devotional space without a deity—a crypt, a mausoleum, a crevice between life and death, a site of a dispersed séance.

Donna Huanca: ‘Mortal Coil,’ 2024, installation view // Courtesy of Number 1 Main Road

In the way that it holds the outside world in abeyance, ‘Mortal Coil’ is interested in creating a self-sufficient cosmos with the originary tasks that accompany mythical beginnings, like naming and mark-making. Many seasons and biomes come together in a tight contiguity, with a resplendent white sand decorating the floor and richly encoded wallflowers — an impasto of cirrus, moss, and periwinkle — covering digital print images on the sides. The far-side mirror swerves so that the visions of the room not only reproduce themselves but also proceed along the glass’s curvature with the uncertainty of a dark highway bend. In the middle of the exhibition room, there is a sculpture, cast in aluminum, that resembles a large piece of platinum ore with padlocks and oversized barbell piercings wrought into the mold. Framed by a thick powerful braid at its base, the sculpture bears a range of somatic traces: the clay of the original form looks kneaded, massaged, whacked, scratched and cajoled into its altar-like shape. When shown in the dark, the sculpture’s phosphorescent paint gives off a heat-map of physical touch.

Donna Huanca: ‘Mortal Coil,’ 2024, installation view // Courtesy of Number 1 Main Road

But ‘Mortal Coil’ is not a monument to absence; it is concerned with the people that will come to fill the space, and make it whole with their participation. Tracing her artistic genealogy in a talk at the Belvedere, Huanca introduced a video of the indigenous Urkupiña Festival in Bolivia, which she visited on several occasions as child on trips to her parents’ birthplace, as an example of the chaotic flux that she tried to embody in her own work. “During this festival, people will just take care of each other,” Huanca said. “I was part of little gangs of kids, we didn’t know each other but someone would eventually take care of us and feed us.” Intertwining a formative exposure to couture and performance with a memory of improvised kinship, Huanca’s recollection speaks to her present ethos of artistic collaboration. Her installations serve as a holding space for the experimentation of performers (in the case of the opening of ‘Mortal Coil,’ the aloof Julija Zaharijević), who are free to interact with the elements of the artwork as they choose.

Donna Huanca: ‘Mortal Coil,’ 2024, installation view // Courtesy of Number 1 Main Road

As an organ, the skin might be too diffuse, too perishable, to lend itself to personification in the way that the brain represents intelligence and the heart stands for love. Still, Huanca’s muse is the androgynous continuum of skin—its vulnerability to address, the variety of its breathable folds, its strength in repose. Her installations are frequently accompanied by models and performers that regenerate her artistic motifs on the skin. Here, Huanca’s method is not so much to expose the organ, as to dabble with the ways that one can reinvent it with paint. At the opening of ‘Mortal Coil,’ Zaharijević navigated the space in an amphibious-looking coat of orange and grey-green paint, in a way that renewed my faith in the possibilities that the material has, outside its habitual use on canvas. People who need a canvas to paint—to borrow the phrase from Julio Cortázar—“are the same kind who need lines on their writing paper, or who always squeeze their toothpaste up from the bottom of the tube.”

Donna Huanca: ‘Mortal Coil,’ 2024, installation view // Courtesy of Number 1 Main Road

As in a zoo, a one-way panel of glass divides the audience from the installation of ‘Mortal Coil’: the audience can peer into the installation, but the performer has no view of the spectators in the lobby. I visited the exhibition space outside of the performance, and had the opportunity to sit inside of it alone. I wondered how it felt for Zaharijević to inhabit the space for a five- hour performance. On the one hand, it might be unnerving to not be able to monitor the audience; on the other hand, five hours might be just long enough to forget about the fact that you’re being watched, long enough to spread out, relax, get bored. For the performer, ‘Mortal Coil’ exists somewhere in this tension, as an oasis of seclusion and as a stage for the fugitive pin pricks of the audience’s gaze.

Exhibition Info

Number 1 Main Road

Donna Huanca: ‘Mortal Coil’
Exhibition: June 20–July 14, 2024
Closing Performance: Saturday, July 13; 5–9pm
Ossastraße 21a, 12045 Berlin, click here for map

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