What would it be like to live in a Modern dream home: the kind of house seen in mineral water or life insurance ads, boldly jutting out over the cliffs toward the ocean?
You might move in, set up your Olivier Morgue chair and put on your favourite Autechre CD, but be unable to rid yourself of a feeling of anxiety. Something just isn't right. Somehow you know that what you wanted doesn't belong to you, will never belong to you. It's as if someone had injected a catalogue of the latest products into your daydreams and they had
coagulated into an inseparable mass.
Olaf Nicolai creates environments that are similar, but not identical, to the worlds we inhabit, and which also contain their own descriptions. This enables him to show the formative concepts underlying these worlds and to demonstrate that, in his own words: 'questions about form, atmospheres, attitudes, and style are not a luxurious game with surfaces. They are questions about how we organize our actions.' 1 For Nicolai the way in which we arrange the user interface of our lives produces concrete instructions on how to act. In the book Stilleben (Style/Still Life, 2000), which accompanied the exhibition 'What if? - Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design' at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, he provides a kind of model for a 'cool' daily life. The coloured, perforated pages can be taken apart and recombined in many ways. Certain categories ('space', 'human' and 'object/tool') are provided as conceptual frameworks along with descriptions of some pre-defined scenarios, printed on the blocks of colour: 'Canoas house in Rio de Janeiro by Oscar Niemeyer (1953-54)'; 'She wears silk sequin dress by Tse, high-heeled mules by Marc Jacobs. He wears cotton short-sleeved shirt, summer-weight wool trousers, cotton tie, leather round-toe slip-on shoes, all by Costume National Homme'; and '606 Universal shelving system in beech-veneered MDF by Dieter Rams. Book: Jeff Noon, Vurt, Ringbull Press (1993); if / then (1999); Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Verso (1990). G3 Powerbook by Apple'. Of course, you can create whatever other fictional settings you like.
Once upon a time, design provided the building blocks for a better future. The members of the Bauhaus manufactured what were formerly hand-crafted products on a massive scale, cheaply and in purist form because they wanted to democratize daily life. The Bauhaus' successors and imitators, such as Max Bill's Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, changed the basic premise of Gropius, Mies van der Rohe et al. into an élite, abstract frolic with colour fields and boxes. Under Postmodern economic conditions and disconnected from the original ideal of a completely stylized, remodelled public, the process of shaping daily life became the plaything of an industry of desires that dressed and moulded its private customers any way it wanted. Nicolai referred to all of this in his one-man show in the Migros Museum for Contemporary Art in Zurich, in the spring of 2001. Here he transformed one of Max Bill's colour field works into a three-dimensional object - Landscape, Metaphysical and Concrete (after Max Bill), (1998-9) - creating a sculpture you could walk on; a multi-level furnishing that might be at home in any lounge. Striding across this artwork dedicated to interior design, you arrived in a room where a video - Und jedem Ende wohnt ein Anfang inne... (And in Every End There is a Beginning, 2001) - was playing. Music by the Berlin electronic outfit To Rococo Rot underscored the famous scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point (1972) in which a hotel is blown to bits in slow motion. A Nicolai lamp, made from the modular window dressing elements typical of a 1960s Dresden department store illuminated the cinema-like environment (Dresden 68, 2000). Today it seems there is nothing so remote or esoteric that it can't be turned into a zeitgeisty environment: even an explosion can serve as colourful, decorative wallpaper.
An enormous inflatable Nike Airmax trainer (Big Sneaker, 2001), which dominated the Zurich show, trod the same line between a radical 'fun' surface and a staging of the uncanny. Like one of Claes Oldenburg's giant everyday objects, the huge shoe sat waiting for some kid to jump on it. The trainer, which represents the aestheticization of the fit-for-fun society, had already been accepted as a work of art even before its appearance in this outsize pneumatic form. Most areas of sport today are organized in military fashion, and Nicolai pointed this out with the work Camouflage-Torwände 1-3 (Croy, Kleff, Maier) (Camouflage Goal Walls 1-3, Croy, Kleff, Maier, 2001) by placing football practise goals not far from the giant trainer. These devices, used by players to practise penalties, were decorated with a variation of Warhol's camp pink camouflage pattern. You could even ice skate at the show: a rink entitled Eisfeld (Ice field, 2001) was invitingly installed in the museum's long hall. At the end of the hall your gaze was drawn to two round signs - Enjoy / Survive I + II (2001) - which look like Op art paintings and might have caused some ice skaters to lose their balance. Both signs bear the words 'Enjoy / Survive': an ambiguous challenge connecting the sport's supposed fun factor with the fight for survival of the fittest, something that is always insinuated in the Nike universe. The various intermingled levels of reception that are usually concealed by the advertising industry (not least when it comes to sportswear) were disentangled and made visible: art as lifestyle laboratory and prep course for consumer branding strategies.
Nicolai's works are flat in the sense that they focus attention upon the radical flatness of their subjects, but their profundity comes from the way they explore the patterns and markings that stimulate and manipulate perception. In his 'Language of Colour' exhibition at the Bonn Kunstverein in 2000, he erected a space divider 18 metres long and 5 metres high, marked with 30 vertical colour stripes. The colours were chosen from a catalogue by Pantone, the giant American colour specialists, whose product lines shape today's colour moods (Pantone Wall, Instrumented, 2000). A grey carpet ran alongside the striped wall, and you were invited to make yourself comfortable while the lightly pulsing electronic sound loops by To Rococo Rot, intended to orchestrate the colours, created a lounge-like atmosphere. Traditionally, colours in works of art are used to modulate feelings and as codes for particular emotions. Nicolai's installation showed you the generic grammar of this modulation. Using the pattern book, you were able to select your own colour combinations, revelling in accordance with Pantone's industrial colour standards.
Nicolai restyled himself in The Pirate Edition (2000) for the Werkleitz Biennial in the east of Germany. He commissioned a tailor to copy a Prada suit and a Gieves & Hawkes shirt for himself, and then published the patterns for the benefit of others. In transforming fashion into process art he made the pirated clothes socially presentable, and the audience can participate in the work by proliferating it. Soon Nicolai will commission people to impersonate him, visit various cities and spend money
in his name ...
Nicolai has frequently marked out and questioned the boundary between nature and technology, the realm of the evolved and the realm of the made. In 1999, after he had created a perfume, a larger-than-life atomizer (Smell, A Fragrance for Trees) was erected in the picturesque meadows beside the River Elbe in Magdeburg to spray the new perfume onto - of all things - a tree. This technique of turning traditional notions of the 'natural' and the 'artificial' in on themselves was applied in a different context in the '... Fading In, Fading Out, Fading Away ...' show at the Westphalian Kunstverein in Münster (2000-2001). This time icons with very different origins were deliberately subjected to the same process of reordering and reproduction. Nicolai coupled works from the Kunstverein's collection with digital stock photos and then had individual details of the images commissioned as mural paintings and reproduced as posters for the public to take home. In Untitled (Blutstropfen, nach Jan Baegert) (Untitled, Blood Drops, after Jan Baegert, 2001), for example, the drops of blood from one wing of Jan Baegert's Crucifixion of Christ(1507-13) were painted repeatedly upon the gallery wall. This symbol of sacrifice for humanity's sake was exhibited as wallpaper at the 2001 Venice Biennial: coming soon to a living room near you.
The restaging of traditional distinctions between fine and applied arts - design, gardening, sculpture - implies a conception of the world as a universe of signs structured like a flexible grammar. But even if the world is a text, there is still a difference between spending your days in Oscar Niemeyer's elegantly curved white Canoas House, cushioned by Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets(1973) - or in the basement hovel of a housing project somewhere near Duisburg.
1. Olaf Nicolai, Showcase, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nuremberg, 1999, p. 30.