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Mangano, Silvana and Gabriella Mangano - 2007.1 c

Silvana Mangano, Gabriella Mangano

If ... so ... then 2006
7 minutes 47 seconds
Purchased 2007

Dressed in black, two figures face each other and roughly trace the outline of the other’s body with rhythmic gestures that are almost mechanical: rapid, repetitive, precise. The movement of arms across the white background creates stark lines that double the charcoal inscriptions on the wall. The marks are just visible, but our attention is drawn to them by a soundtrack loudly emphasising the incessant scratching of charcoal on paper. Occasionally, a wipe-cut pushes the image aside, replacing it with the same scene. It is unclear if this is a continued action, split by the edit, or a new action. The figures may have swapped positions. It is impossible to tell, as the performers – who are also the artists – are identical twin sisters.

Collaborative art practice has a rich history, with female collaborations having had a resurgence in Australian art since 2000. In Melbourne-based Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano’s  work, collaboration is not incidental but the focus, generating actions and ideas. Historically, this links them to the performance work of Marina Abramović and Ulay during 1976–88. The Manganos’ video performances similarly create enclosed worlds and bear witness to intimate moments of synchronisation and non-verbal communication. Their statements have made explicit reference to the private language they invented as children. Certainly, their videos, children’s play and classic Abramović–Ulay performances all share a simplicity of basic materials (such as charcoal, paper or fabric), with their immediate environment and the interaction of bodies their primary tools. The Manganos’ background in drawing – particularly apparent in If … so ... then – emphasises the qualities of gesture, intimacy and introversion. As their careers have evolved through international residencies and expanded resources, their elemental approach has remained constant, restricted to what is at hand and exploring simple gestures and interactions in immediate and unadorned surroundings.

Visually, If … so … then recalls Imponderabilia 1977, an iconic work in which Abramović and Ulay stood naked, facing each other across the narrow entrance to an art gallery through which patrons would squeeze. Imponderabilia was unusual for Abramović and Ulay, as the performance, occurring in the space between them, was focused on the public. The Manganos invert this, returning Imponderabilia to an intimate world of mutual absorption. Yet, as a video it is a private moment made public, an event turned object, akin to the wider legacy of Abramović and Ulay, which survives via a carefully edited infrastructure of documentation, which ensures public consumption. The haphazard, off-centre, black-and-white framing of If … so … then, its occasional lapses of focus and abrupt editing, all allude to 1970s’ performance art documentation and emphasise the mediated construction of performance’s ‘immediacy’, more significant than the event itself. Even an apparently spontaneous moment, as one sister fixes strands of the other’s hair, is eventually repeated, mechanised.

If … so … then is exhibited as a loop, but within the work further repetitions emerge, marked by the wipe-cuts. Are these internal repetitions mechanical or gestural, a result of video loops or human performance? The charcoal marks are already visible as the video begins, and their accumulations are subtle, adding to the uncertainty. The tension in this unresolved question between biological and mechanical repetition reveals the central dynamic of the work: an indeterminacy that unravels a string of oppositions – original and copy, action and document, process and product, spontaneity and rehearsal, and private and public.

Kyle Weise is a curator at Metro Arts and co-director at Kuiper, both Brisbane.