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  • Nina Canell on crushing sea shells at Berlinische Galerie


Nina Canell on crushing sea shells at Berlinische Galerie

The Swedish-born sculptor invites us to rethink our relationship with materials for her latest exhibition.

Photo: Nina Canell, Muscle Memory (7 Tonnes), 2022, Photo: © Robin Watkins

Your latest exhibition, Tectonic Tender, comprises video and sculptures that explore hidden processes and connections that we‘re not aware of in our daily life. How did this interest come about?

I don’t look for things because they are hidden, I’m not trying to reveal something that people can’t see. It’s more about exploring something that’s already there. My entry into sculpture was actually through sound and what interests me is the conveyance of presence that’s not determined by vision and that taps into other ways of sensing. Like the transformative physicality of certain things that are constants, but not necessarily in our awareness.

‘Muscle Memory (7 Tonnes)’, the centrepiece of the exhibition, is a sculpture installed directly onto a floor that consists of several tonnes of calcite material derived from marine molluscs. What is the intention behind the work?

It’s a durational sculpture. It’s not final, it’s a kind of sculpture that unfolds over time. As the visitors walk across it, they break up the shells with their feet and so partake in the sculptural element of the work and are part of the processes of breaking it down. You’re not normally allowed to walk on artworks, and you see people standing by the door wondering if they can walk in. I suppose that resistance, that disruption of a feeling of comfort, forces you to engage with the material in a new way.

It’s also a sound sculpture?

Exactly, a kind of sound chamber for resonance. Which is partly why I wanted to build this architecture and bring the construction into the room. It provokes a readjustment of the senses towards movement, sound and the breaking of these hard shells. I want you to experience it with your feet and with your ears.

There’s a tender brutality to the experience of crushing apart these often beautifully constructed shells.

The mollusc shells are made from calcite which is very similar to the poured concrete floor just five centimetres below…

It’s practically the same. Calcite carbonate is the raw material for most of our constructed world. In a way the work gives a tactile understanding of how some of our most common building materials, such as concrete and sand, are intimately connected to biomineralisation. The big difference of course is geological time, because a lot of cement derives from marine life that has formed limestone over millions of years.

As you walk across it, crushing this material under your feet, what do you want the visitor to feel?

There’s a tender brutality to the experience of crushing apart these often beautifully constructed shells. But the purpose is to make us rethink our relationship with materials. We tend to think of material as mechanical or industrialised, the idea that everything is passive, just there to interact with us. But I want to disturb that a little bit by producing a kind of counter-feeling where there’s vitality, a connection to life and our own body. Because we have calcite in our own skeleton, and it’s an invitation to consider the infinite number of bodies that hold us up.

Muscle Memory (7 Tonnes) by Nina Canell. Photo: Nick Ash

Concrete is an incredibly destructive material with a tremendous impact on the environment – is this environmental consideration part of your piece?

You know, it is the second most used material in the world after water. I am very interested in the future fossil idea, and when we can look back in the strata of the earth, we are going to have these weird mineral traversals related to our constructions. Right now, we are reconfiguring everything to build our own structures from these mineral components, but at the same time are spreading disastrous destruction which affects ecosystems and the macrobiotic world.

Is art an effective means to communicate that?

Art has a way to unlock experiences without being too didactic. And sculpture is an amazing medium for that because it’s about bodies and material in space. If we go back, sculpture was about producing figurative images of ourselves in marble. I suppose ‘Muscle Memory’ refers to this by looking at other bodies as well and how they interact.

Is this part of a larger movement where we’re beginning to think much more about the origin of materials and supply chains?

What’s going on now is the great decentralisation of human perspective. So that we’re not looking down from our throne on high and seeing a separation between us and our environment or human from animal, but instead understanding the multiplicity of ourselves. I see parallels with the conversations around gender that are contributing to the idea that we are multiple not singular, and revealing a more entangled version of ourselves.

When the Berlinische Galerie approached you to do this show, did they have ‘Muscle Memory (7 Tonnes)’ in mind? Or did you propose it for this room?

It is a new work so it took a bit of convincing in order for them to accept it. I was initially nominated for GASAG Art Prize here about three years ago, but I declined because of its sponsorship by this big gas company. I work with energy, and felt I couldn’t be involved with this. But then a year later they called and asked if I wanted to do a show anyway, but without the prize. Of course, now the conversation about gas in Germany has a very different connotation.