Watching the sculptor Nnena Kalu at work reminds me of a word: ‘thing-less’. It’s a word Eileen Myles uses to describe a Robert Harms painting – Other Flowers (2013) – in her 2015 article, ‘Eleven Favourites’. Myles writes: ‘For me, [Harms] is one of the most feeling of painters. His work is thing-less.’ I interpret this thing-less-ness as a work’s resistance to serve any material purpose beyond documenting itself. An uncategorizable, uncollectable boundlessness.
Kalu takes simple, linear materials associated with packing and protecting – strips of paper, tape, cling film, plastic tubing – and collates them into bundles that she ties or wraps into a rhizome of spherical forms. Her process is repetitive and fractal-like, evolving these thing-less spheres into tubes until they bend back in on themselves, mutating and growing into bigger twisted shapes. Kalu’s forms are often described as cocoons, but that makes them sound too still. I think they’re more like chrysalides, pulsing.
Kalu’s self-titled exhibition, installed on the ground floor of 30 Old Burlington Street in Mayfair, is the first in a series of off-site shows that Studio Voltaire has organized for the coming year. The space is much larger than the corner she occupies at ActionSpace, a studio programme for artists with learning disabilities in London. Kalu, who is non-verbal, has been working with ActionSpace for 19 years, closely assisted by artist facilitator Charlotte Hollinshead. Hollinshead works diligently to provide materials, offer support (holding tape, cutting paper) and develop Kalu’s professional opportunities. While I watch Kalu work, Hollinshead is by her side, anticipating the next move. They move together, rhythmically wrapping, stretching and reshaping Kalu’s sculptures. Though they are old friends and colleagues, Hollinshead tells me that she is often surprised by Kalu’s direction.
Every weekend for the duration of the show, Kalu has been reworking her installation in front of visitors. The exhibition opened with three separate structures: a cluster spun around a pillar, a freestanding bulbous igloo and a wriggling corner piece. Since, the room has been filling wildly with saturated, tangled nodes of plastic and paper. Curator Nicola Wright explains that a lot of the material at Studio Voltaire is repurposed from Kalu’s 2019 exhibition ‘Wrapping’ at Humber Street Gallery. This recycling allows Kalu’s installations to grow from a different starting point each time, organically shapeshifting previous forms.
Kalu’s reusing of material means she operates at a pace with which galleries today are often unfamiliar. Though Kalu is productive, her practice does not orient around the production of objects. The installations are ephemeral and flexible documentations of her agile process. Her work might be better understood as a limitless cycle of transformation than a series of static artworks. There is no end to Kalu’s art: she may finish an installation in one space, but parts of it will reappear, dismantled and altered, in the next.
Not far away from Studio Voltaire’s temporary gallery is Europe’s busiest shopping road, Oxford Street. In an area dominated by consumerism, Kalu’s exhibition is resonantly quiet, thing-less by comparison. Through the windows, we can see her chrysalides of material frothing, growing and unfolding under her binding processes: a soft interruption to the noise of Mayfair. I imagine, were the exhibition not bound by walls, ‘Nnena Kalu’ would be a rolling infinity pool of forms, undulating and whirling.
Main image: Nnena Kalu, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Voltaire, London; photograph: Francis Ware
First published in Issue 211