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“My explanation is the work itself”

INTERVIEW: Carsten Nicolai was only a pup of 18 when he had his first exhibition at Eigen + Art 30 years ago. The incomparable visual and sound artist rang in the gallery's 30th anniversary with a brand new exhibition, ending this Sat, May 18.

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Photo by Jarka Snajberk

German visual and sound artist Carsten Nicolai returns to Eigen + Art for the gallery’s 30-year anniversary.

His new exhibition crt mgn not only smiles back to the gallery’s inception by showcasing one of its original artists (Nicolai made his first solo exhibition there as an 18-year-old in the early 1980s), but also celebrates ideas of art and aesthetic by paring away the pitfalls of form and dimensionality, leaving an emission of pure idea.

Entering the gallery, one is greeted by two large-format light boxes (one on each side), illuminating what looks like digital photography from behind. Sounds of white noise pull the visitor down the stairs to find a large video projection on the back wall and two curious ‘machines’ coupled together in the middle of the space.

One realises at once that the video and sound is generated by these machines, consisting of long, black pendulums hanging from the ceiling, moving back and forth across video monitors laid face-up.

This project originated as homage to Nam June Paik. How did that come about? 

I was in Japan as Nam June Paik was dying, and there was a sort of farewell performance evening. Ryuichi Sakamoto was also there, among a few other artists. Everyone spoke a few words or, like myself, did a performance. My piece was    thought up relatively spontaneously, based on [Paik’s 1965 work] “Magnet TV”, where a magnet was placed upon a television set, disfiguring the image on the monitor. The work had always enchanted me… and I thought, “OK, one could actually make this manipulation, using the magnet, simultaneously inducing an electrical current, making it something audio-visual.” And after doing it, I realised it had gone pretty well.

It is interesting when you think of the magnet as an organism and the fact that something originates from it.

It is totally organic. I mean, it is more technical, when one sees the photos from it, how the image fans out, partly Moiré, with almost plume-like colour. It surprised me. The [images] are in principle photos, where I used a magnet to position an image and then photographed it. There is also a small tube, an antenna. It reacts sensitively to the magnetic field, generating the tone.

And how is your personal artistic position put to play in this installation?

The connection with image and sound is an older theme. But there is a subject that is more prevalent in my work. I work with a medium that possesses a power that we cannot perceive: the sensitivity of magnets. I mean, here one sees and hears the power that a magnet possesses. The work asks two philosophical, physical questions: what really is magnetism? What really is gravitation or gravity? There are theories for this, but it is still not 100 percent clear, and these are extremely fundamental things which affect us daily. How Earth’s magnetic field functions, or the Sun’s magnetic storms. I like to look at it as a universal phenomenon. As an artist, I am of course concerned with the ephemeral, untouchable things.

Your work is based on an extremely conceptual sphere. What, in your opinion, makes it ‘art’?

I don’t want to describe away an installation, making it too two-dimensional. I could say that the camera films the neon tubes, or that the video is not a video, rather a live picture formed by a magnet, and so on. However, I would rather have everyone write his or her own story about it. I do not want it to be ‘described’; I don’t want to give it a user’s manual. There’s a press release, but I’d like to say there is no ‘explanation’. My explanation is the work itself.

Carsten Nicolai, crt mgn Apr 11 – May 18 | Galerie Eigen + Art, Auguststraße 26, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Str., Tue-Sat 11-18

Originally published in issue #116, May 2013