in Interviews | 24 APR 15
Featured in
Issue 171

The Gap Between Me and Me

Dominikus Müller talks to Olaf Nicolai about place, subjectivity and the artist’s project for the German pavilion in Venice

in Interviews | 24 APR 15

DOMINIKUS MÜLLER Florian Ebner, the curator of the German pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, where you’ll be one of the artists representing Germany, has described your project, slightly cryptically, as ‘a shadow economy under a blazing sun’. What will we get to see?

OLAF NICOLAI My work will take place on the roof of the pavilion. I’ll be sending a group of people up there with a set of instructions. Their brief is to make a particular type of object. Visitors are not allowed up, but the people on the roof will occasionally be visible from ground level. And, by paying close attention, it’ll be possible to see what they are making. The objects in question are a response to the pavilion as a concrete location – after all, an object is a reification of its own conditions of production. For me, the most interesting thing about this project is the real-world encounter with the work – visitors will be asking themselves: what’s going on here?

Visitor, be my guest, 2015, Sikhote-Alin meteorite, 15 × 9 × 9 cm. Photograph: © Giovanna Silva. All images courtesy the artist and Galerie EIGEN + ART, Leipzig and Berlin, and DACS, London. 

DM So what are the objects in question?

ON The people will be making boomerangs. From time to time, they will be thrown from the roof and you’ll be able to see them fly. The aim, over the course of the exhibition, is to produce the perfect boomerang for this particular location. It will take many attempts to achieve this, so a large number of boomerangs will be produced. Intermittently, they’ll be given to street vendors to sell around Venice, but that won’t be promoted in any special way. In fact, not much will be going on at all, really. As I see it, the trajectory of the boomerangs is a nice description of almost nothing, of the non-visible …

DM … and a nice description of a specific place. Why did you decide to withdraw to the roof?

ON A roof is a place of refuge, a place of retreat, as well as a site for billboards and snipers: quite an evocative location. And the roof of the German pavilion is actually the highest flat roof in the Giardini. The altana, or roof terrace, is a very common feature of  Venetian houses, and people spend a lot of time there. In any case, taking to the roof is an attempt to understand the German pavilion building differently, as I wasn’t interested in focusing again on its ‘German’ aspect. The 1993 pavilion – the interplay of Hans Haacke’s Germania with Nam June Paik’s Marco Polo project – is still valid on that subject.

DM But locating the project on the roof is also a particular kind of gesture – a retreat into invisibility.

ON That’s how a gesture works: it points to something, suggests something, but it’s hard to deduce a specific meaning as long as one only sees the gesture itself. A gesture stands on the threshold between a purely physical articulation and a signifying one.

DM I’d like to come back to Ebner’s quip – the ‘shadow economy under a blazing sun’. On the one hand, the reference to working in the open, under the sun, contrasts with another work of yours realized for the Venice Biennale in 2005, Welcome to ‘The Tears of St Lawrence: an Appointment to Watch Falling Stars’, which related to the night sky. On the other, it connects with some of your current concerns: light and dark, metaphorically as well as literally; the dialectic of the visible and the invisible; and the notion of work.

ON Ebner is referring to a quote by Jean-François Lyotard that I used as the title of an exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover in 2010: ‘Faites le travail qu’accomplit le soleil’ (Do the Work the Sun Performs). But what does the sun actually do? Does the sun work?

DM The Lyotard quote continues: ‘Do the work the sun performs when your body bathes in it, or the grass.’

Szondi/Eden, 2014, chalk on granite, four lamps, each 2.9 × 1 × 1 m, installation view at the 8th Berlin Biennale. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg

ON Yes – on a very general level, I’m interested in procedures and techniques, and in how I develop a ‘self’ through and with these techniques. Not only rationally, but also emotionally. Which is why many of my works are based on me, because I see my own behaviour in media terms – ‘me’ as a medium, so to speak. For Mirador (2009), I went to the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island in the South Pacific; for the Zabriskie Point (2010) photographs, I wandered around Death Valley in total darkness, using the flash on my camera as a torch. I even depicted myself as Narcissus for The Portrait of the Artist as a Weeping Narcissus (2000) – although, as the title of that work states, it’s not a self-portrait. It’s not about ‘I’m expressing myself,’ or ‘You’ll learn something about me.’ To be quite honest, I have no medium other than myself! If there’s anything I’m more or less in touch with, then it’s myself. But it would be fatal if the whole thing got stuck on that level. I don’t fully correspond to ‘myself’, and it’s this gap that motivates me.

DM Localization is important in your work, but you often take a lateral approach to it. With How to Produce a Site-Specific Work Anywhere (2001–ongoing), you question the principle of site-specificity by delegating the task of producing a ‘site-specific publication’ back to the institution that’s hosting your project, calling on it to hire a doppelgänger artist.

ON The principle of site-specificity often gets stuck in a problematic, intermediary position. Ultimately it’s about integrating the work of art into the location, and then it’s supposed to make a critical comment and, if possible, contribute something new. And I don’t want to deliver that. Often it’s presumed that artists understand a place differently – better, even – than the people who live there, which is pretty arrogant and contrived. If you are invited to be part of something like that, you often feel rather fake. That is why I developed these sets of instructions, which end up demanding far more from those who extend the invitation in the first place, as they are required to state exactly what it is they actually want.

DM You hold a mirror up to them?

ON You build a cabinet of mirrors out of their various expectations. That’s one option. Another option is to radicalize the principle of site-specificity. That was the case, for example, with Szondi/Eden, my contribution to the 2014 Berlin Biennale. Szondi/Eden relied on the transplanting of elements from one location to another, within a single city: so the geometric pattern of a floor mosaic from a shopping centre in the East Berlin district of Lichtenberg – a place that had briefly been considered as a location for the Biennale – was transplanted to the entrance of the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, West Berlin, where the Biennale actually took place. This work was about understanding the location as so specific and so concrete that it connects with many other places at the very moment it seems most unique. Szondi/Eden is, in part, about the literary scholar Péter Szondi, an historical figure who can be situated both within his intellectual world and his life in Berlin. In the fictional text published as part of my work, the main character is called Szondi and he visits the shopping centre in Lichtenberg. And in the actual space, you have the transplanted decorative floor, so there’s interplay between those two levels. I’m still a little confused by this work myself, as it opened many doors for me. It’s a sentence that’s been partly spoken but not yet concluded – and, for the moment, I don’t want to finish it. 

Untitled (wave I-V), 2009, photographic print, 45 x 38 cm 

DM A certain inconclusiveness was built into Szondi/Eden: there were the extremely open, abstract elements – the triangles and rectangles on the floor – and there was the small wall text in which the back story was alluded to, including a reference to the fictional text in the catalogue that was explicitly part of the work.

ON You don’t have to read the text to understand the work. If reading it awakens an interest, great. But understanding, strictly speaking, is not actually a category of reception. DM But what’s your view, then, of the relationship between the world of objects and the world of the contextualizing discourse on which understanding feeds?

ON It should be seen as an interplay that makes it possible to formulate a relationship between ‘discourse’ and sensory experience. There is a connection, but the two cannot simply be translated into one another. Szondi/Eden can be unravelled as a story, but the story is not an explanation. For me, it’s important not to succumb to this need to finalize the process. Only then can art become a direct, personal experience and remain vibrant. The search is important, but not arriving at a definite conclusion is just as important. I grew up in East Germany, in a world where art was understood mainly as an answer and as a set of guidelines. I saw how one form of arriving put an end to all searching.

DM In 2011, you devised a year-long series of singing performances, Escalier du Chant (Staircase of Song), at Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. You invited composers to address political themes in songs that were then performed, over the course of the year, on the museum’s grand staircase.

ON Here, too, the location was very important – the stairway of the Pinakothek is a huge space – as was the idea of air as a material. The compositions ranged from Georg Katzer working in the Hanns Eisler tradition of political songs and themes (rescuing the Euro as a grand capitalist narrative, for instance) through to Elliott Sharp, whose piece was almost impossible to understand acoustically, but which communicated itself compellingly when you looked at the singers. The song was about Bradley (a.k.a. Chelsea) Manning – the former US soldier involved in the WikiLeaks scandal – and you could see people getting emotional as they performed. So the connection with the audience was established not on a level of content but in the way the material was translated into a performance. I wanted to ask how that affects the political dimension. Where is it in this or that specific song? Does the political reside in the subject matter? Or in the way it alters your idea of what a song can be or what sound means? It also became clear to me that there are limits to this kind of translation. I doubt direct political action can be achieved via an aesthetic statement.

DM You have a very heterogeneous approach: design elements, visual and formal procedures, theory and literature all interact on various levels, interlocking to form a multilayered whole – what is it that Olaf Nicolai does, exactly?

ON Hmm, good question. I’m an observer of something and, at the same time, I’m part of it. People talk about blind spots – something you cannot describe because you don’t have access to it. And, for me, working as an artist is a way of rendering such spots accessible. But it’s not just about wanting to understand; it’s also about what can be articulated. In every translation, something is expressed in the way it is translated. And this interests me, because it’s about addressing people on an affective level. After all, I came to art because it touched and excited me. In a sense, the process of translation is related to the concept of latent and manifest content in Sigmund Freud’s model of dreaming. Is the important thing to establish an actual link between latent and manifest? Definitely not! I don’t want to know why you dream something. The interesting thing is the way you dream – that contains much more of what we associate with the self. And then things get really interesting, because this is where aesthetics come into play. Sensory experience is communicated in the ‘how’, in the translation: How do you speak? When do you falter? What ticks do you have? This ‘how’ – the way the connection between meaning and experience constantly takes shape then collapses – is what Slavoj Žižek describes as the power of the undead and is represented in Marxism by the wonderful idea of Vergesellschaftung (socialization).

Untitled (from the series ‘Considering a Multiplicity of Appearances in Light of a Particular Aspect of Relevance of the Artwork; Or Can Art Be Concrete?’), 2012, silkscreen print on foil, 1.6 × 1.2 m

 DM As a practicing artist with a PhD in literary studies, do you see a clear division between theory and visual art production? And if so, would you say there is a form of translation between the two registers?

ON Aesthetics is a category of reflection – but it is not identical with what it ostensibly refers to. You can compare it, in linguistic terms, with the inflection of verbs: in many languages, a verb’s ending tells us which inflection it has and thus how it works within the sentence. Inflection itself has no specific meaning, but it indicates meaning: the meaning of the word within the sentence. And, for me, this inflection is where my work begins. I find it more interesting to achieve something ‘analytical’ using means that are not analytical – by writing a short story instead of an essay, for example: I’m interested in how the analytical can be opened up. I really only studied literature and linguistics because I didn’t want to study art, but artistic work, of course, also involves deliberation of this kind. I didn’t want to reiterate the age-old dichotomy of the enjoyable and entertaining versus reflection. A reflexive function is also possible in enjoyment.

DM That’s certainly something worth striving for.

ON Without enjoyment – without sensory participation – there can be no access to the world. The question is how this access can be changed in such a way that enjoyment and engagement cease to be considered mutually exclusive.