On Sunday, June 10th, I joined Santina Amato in “activating” the third work of her solo show Monster at Heaven Gallery. We kneaded a dough together, filling one of the exhibited ceramic vessels, and waited for it to rise and escape.
“They are sperm,” Santina Amato said, elucidating the role of sugar in fermentation with a grin. Her metaphor, together with her mischievous expression, hinted that what we were conducting together—the mixing of a batter—would not be mere home economics. Throughout her practice as an artist, Amato has a predilection for using dough as subject matter. In many of her former videos, dough creeps out of a pipe, pushes off a cup then lures it back, disrupting a perfectly staged bowl of fruit arranged for a still life painting. This time, her capricious, restless doughs are acting out live in the exhibition space. Carrying a bowl of batter from our laboratory, the gallery kitchen, we headed towards the room where the ceramic vessels were on display.
On the floured wooden floor, Amato showed me how to knead the dough and invited me to join her. “This is a communal activity shared by women,” she added. As a person of Italian descent born in Australia, Amato and her sister learned how to cook at a young age, and often prepared family meals together with their mother. When the dough was ready, she broke it into balls and stuffed one after another into the small vessels––as if injecting a fertilized egg into a womb. This anomalous conception beckoned chaos. Slow but headstrong, the monster leaked through any egress to find its way out into the open air. Soon it would deluge the chair beneath, and in a few days decay with growing mold and gathering flies. The current state of its siblings, an elder born on the opening night and another a week after, with their remains clinging on the edge of the vessels, wombs that have become urns, corroborated the fate of rebels. Rebellion is a communal activity; together, the doughs refused the containment set by their creators, taking over the space around, and seeping into the wood of the used furniture that served as plinths for the exhibited works. As opposed to the tradition of using pedestals, Amato intended to recreate a domestic environment, where she was first introduced to baking.
While observing the changes in the dough, Amato shared with me her belief in producing first and reducing later. For the current exhibition, she initially made 160 paintings and 11 sculptures during residencies, despite not having prior experience in either medium and finally selected 21 and seven respective works. The same applied to the furniture she acquired from thrift stores. In “An Epistolary to an Unknown,” a featured text in the show, she also revealed that the original title for the show was Female Monster: The Power, The Passion, The Pain, before Monster. This belief, which is also a refusal to regret, explains why she would grant her creation the autonomy to live, not precisely without, but from within confinement.
In a follow-up conversation, Amato shared a childhood story about how her mother would place a dough, kneaded and covered with a blanket, in the bedroom and ask the girls to keep quiet while it was sleeping.
“Of course, my child imagination would run wild with this. The dough becomes another entity within our family, but always only for a short while. An hour after it has been ‘put to sleep’, we would all go inside and witness it unveiled by my mother at double its original size! It was like magic.”
This childhood wonderment at the mysteriously caused the expansion when these factors: the air and bacteria, the temperature and humidity, were invisible to the naked eye, is not dissimilar to what I felt as an audience member at Monster. The dough rises, and the overall landscape alters, without anyone’s interference; the external factors exist and yet are not tangible or material, much like the culture, upbringing, or experiences that shape a person.