STIR speaks with Xu Tiantian about her practice, ethos and aspirations
by Almas SadiqueMay 31, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Nov 25, 2020
For architects, installation artists, and photographers, the modernist concept of ‘defamiliarisation’ heralded the way for experimentation with the dimensions of the objects and spaces alike. The art to decontextualise the object or foreground its presence against the three-dimensional spaces attempts to reassess our conventional way of looking. Not far from this play on visual perception, Swiss architect-turned-artist Nicolas K Feldmeyer's work, be it on-site installation or photograph, is a careful recreation of the ‘double world’. It allows the audience to have a moment of pause to recognise the inclusive, and not incidental scheme of things. The artist moves fluidly through the wide spectrum of works — ranging from digital prints, minimalist installations to postcard collages — that conceal a part of the world only to reveal hitherto unfamiliar terrain of reality.
In an interview with STIR, Feldmeyer walks us through his journey as an installation artist and a photographer.
Dilpreet Bhullar (DB): How does training as an architect inform your current art practice as an installation artist and photographer?
Nicolas K Feldmeyer (NKF): It’s funny; when I decided to become an artist, without having a clear idea of what that meant, I thought, and claimed to anyone who would listen, that I was leaving architecture for good, setting sail for the distant land of Fine Arts. Now many years later I realise I didn’t go that far, and yet it is completely different. The things I love to work with now, space, light, geometry, constructing spaces – physical and pictorial ones – all these things I already loved when I studied architecture. And I had such great teachers, Elia Zenghelis, Peter Markli. I did an internship at Herzog & de Meuron, and worked for Peter Markli later. It was such an inspiring time. It was all perfect, apart from the fact that I didn’t want to be an architect, but instead follow a vague yet persistent calling. When I look back now, I think the material I work with is the same, I just wanted to study these things for their poetic, expressive potential only, and not embrace the whole complexity and responsibilities of the architect’s profession. A lot of the installations I have done are variations on that idea. I also often found myself moved more deeply by drawings or photographs of architecture rather than by the buildings themselves. I felt a bit guilty as an architecture student, like having fallen in love with the wrong thing. But as an artist, you can explore images of spaces, emancipated from any real project, as a medium of their own. Interestingly, you call me a photographer by the way. I feel obliged, but in terms of ‘real’ photographs, I think I have only ever done a few works. All the other ‘photographic works’ are photorealistic 3D digital renderings. They relate of course to the language of photography and have been shown in photography exhibitions, but I just wanted to make that technical point clear, in case any ‘real’ photographer reads this!
DB: There is an interesting play around the frames with your photography work. The works including Archways, Even After All, After All, carry a frame within the photo in the shape of archways or the white reflective mirror respectively. It seems to debunk the single perspective of the photographer to complicate the idea of reality. Would you like to elaborate on this?
NKF: Yes, you are absolutely right. I used the compositional device of a frame within a frame in those works. It’s like a ‘mise en abyme’ in literature perhaps, with a story told within a story. On one hand, it pulls you further into deeper layers, but on the other hand, it deconstructs the illusion (narrative or pictorial) and makes you aware of the workings. I was interested in that ‘self-conscious’ aspect: to make an image that would both represent something as well as reflect about representation itself. Abraham Maslow wrote, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I guess any tool of expression reveals as much about itself than about the thing depicted. The white rectangles in the After All series are ‘slices of light’ so to say, illuminating the scene. In Even After All, on the other hand, we are in a huge black box, looking through an opening. The complex idea of reality you mention is complicated further by the work with scale - interior spaces containing a whole landscape, windows turning out to be gigantic arches, and so on.
DB: Could you walk us through the art of making postcard collages? The postcards and their collection inherently involve quotients of memory, do these collages comment on the art of archiving memory?
NKF: The postcard collages are born of a very intuitive process. I have a box full of old postcards, some from second-hand bookshops and flea markets, some from my grandmother’s attic. I get them out and try and try different combinations, until something ‘clicks’. I don’t quite know what I am looking for until I see it. Retrospectively I can see visual themes emerge, like the metamorphosis of interior rooms into landscapes and vice versa, the juxtaposition of natural and man-made structures, quite a lot of nostalgia. It reminds me of spaces in dreams sometimes, where the gigantic and the miniature can move into one another, where the atmospheric quality of the image doesn’t depend on things being physically possible or not.
You mention archiving memory. I hadn’t thought so much about that, in the sense of classification, keeping a trace of what happened. I am rather making up memories - postcards sent from places that have never been, or only as an idea. When I started working with postcards, I was interested in the objects themselves as well, not just the images, but the cultural artefacts. I was making art without adding any new objects to the world, just re-combining existing, often discarded ones. That seemed meaningful. I felt a bit awkward at first cutting up postcards with my late grandmother’s writing on it. I hope she would have approved – she painted and studied fine art herself.
DB: Your installation artworks Still Reverberation, Momentous Nothing and Towards the Horizon take the audience through the motion of air within the different settings: enclosed rooms, open space. How do you approach these diverse sites to make your artworks, and if these settings offer different understandings of the movements of breeze?
NKF: What a beautiful interpretation! I never thought of these works like that, but I really like it. I had little influence over the choice of sites, apart from being lucky enough to be invited to make artworks for these places. Towards the Horizon was built on Fanø island in Denmark, going West from the westernmost point, straight into the North Sea. There are strong winds there – not far off is the site for an annual kite festival. I made a small line of poles in that vastness of sea, sand and air, a minimal mark against which to register the elements so to say. Momentous Nothing, on the other hand, was in a gallery space in a former industrial warehouse. I often had worked with dust sheets on the floor while building installations, to protect the artwork from dirt. They are a few microns thin and hard to put on the floor - so light that they just float away at the smallest stirring of air. The shadow of this constantly moving wave projected on the wall was an unexpected and welcome guest. Both projects have in common this sense of ‘moving immobility’. The waves never stop moving, but the sea is always there. The title of Momentous Nothing was inspired by a sentence at the end of John Banville’s novel The Sea. Still Reverberations is a bit different, in the sense that nothing moved in that underground space, apart from the people, negotiating their way quietly through the maze-like structure. It was lightweight, but a bit like a forest, where thin leaves can make darkness.
DB: What are the different layers of ideation and execution process that define your artwork before its final form is presented to the audience?
NKF: Manifold! A constant is sitting with a sketchbook (and a coffee), trying to figure out the essential features of something, trying to find a synthesis for many things floating around. I work a lot with sketches, sometimes watercolours, Photoshop, 3D models and physical, cardboard or wood scale models. I noticed once how much of my work was about measuring. Measuring the space for an installation to have precise working drawings, measuring light or particles parameters for a foggy landscape 3D rendering, measuring the proportions in an image, I love geometry and numbers. Maybe that would have been relevant to your first question, about the influence of architectural training. Besides this, the love for art and literature, is actually what drove me to study architecture in the first place. Some works require years of planning (not always the biggest ones). I sometimes forget, think I have a new idea, and later find a sketchbook of years ago where I already scribbled the same composition. I spend a spectacular amount of time hesitating and doubting, the use of which I was never able to prove. It just seems unavoidable. And the beauty is that once finished, I can let go off the works, they take on a life of their own.
DB: What should be the final takeaway for the viewers after watching your works?
NKF: Oh I don’t know but nothing too ‘final’ hopefully. I always hope that viewers will be moved, that something will resonate in them, that the world would be slightly vaster. I love what Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space about the reverberation of a poetic image, through the whole being, and deeper (perhaps collective) unconscious. I like to think of the works as pointers, rather than ends in themselves, pointers to something well beyond the contained meaning.
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