Desire arranges multiple ways to express itself...the least object, to which no particular symbolic role is assigned, is able to represent anything. The mind is wonderfully prompt at grasping the most tenuous relation that can exist between two objects taken at random, and poets know that they can always, without fear of being mistaken, say of one thing that it is like the other.... Whether in reality or in the dream [desire] is constrained to make the elements pass through the same network: condensation, displacement, substitution, alteration.
Andre Breton, L'Amour fou (Mad Love), 1937
At the beginning of Andre Breton's autobiographical novel L'Amour fou he describes how, in 1934, he and Alberto Giacometti each bought an unusual object, une trouvaille (a lucky find) at the Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris. At the time he was obsessed with a phrase he had invented - cendrier de Cendrillon, the ashtray (cinder-holder) of Cinderella - a poetic intertwinement of desire (woman) and extinction (ashes). The object that Breton bought was a spoon-shoe, a wooden spoon with a little boot at the end of its handle to act as a spoon-rest. Man Ray's photograph of it, taken later that year and entitled From a Little Shoe That Was Part of It, was reproduced as an illustration in L'Amour fou.
This piece of cutlery made of wood possesses a fairy-story element, a dream-like inevitability. Its bowl could be used as an ashtray and its single shoe associates it with Cinderella and her lost slipper. Breton wrote about this object as an exemplar of 'convulsive beauty', that elusive quality he continued to seek all his life. In the early 1940s he went weekly with Marcel Duchamp and Robert Motherwell through the streets of New York to identify examples of such beauty in the windows of secondhand shops on Third Avenue, after sharing an inexpensive lunch in a French bistro on West 55th Street.
Defining convulsive beauty, a fundamental concept of surrealism, is no easy feat and is deliberately intellectually challenging as this slipperiness and mutability prevent it from fossilising. Breton wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and kept on redefining it until the 1960s. At its heart surrealism, like dada, is anarchic and its politics is about freedom not conformity. In a speech in Prague in 1935 Breton said: 'The thing that characterises surrealism is that it proclaims the equality of all normal human beings before the subliminal message.' Whether found or constructed the surrealist object is a passage to the unconscious.
According to Hal Foster the mysterious spoon-shoe is a symbol of woman yet at the same time it is a symbolic penis or indeed, that rarely located but often discussed organ, the maternal penis. In L'Amour fou Breton wrote: 'it symbolised for me a woman unique and unknown'.
I first read about this legendary shoe-spoon, probably whittled by a French peasant in a surrealist burst of freedom of association and chance connection while researching some of Giacometti's early works like Woman with her throat cut (1932) and Disagreeable Object To Be Disposed Of (1931) after being reminded of them by the intense, inscrutably quirky mix of personal and impersonal sensations in the sculpture of Michelle Nikou. Having read about the spoon-shoe before I saw its photograph, I imagined a tiny woman's shoe carved under the spoon's handle, a shoe that would not be visible but that the hand would feel as the spoon was being used. Thus it would be discovered by touch, and would have a secret erotic existence.
The actual spoon-shoe, Man Ray's photo of which is reproduced in Hal Foster's Compulsive Beauty, uncannily echoes some of Nikou's artworks. This is particularly true of the recent Rack (2004), a bronze toast-rack shape which, because it maintains the furniture (funnel and sprue) associated with lost wax casting, appears to have a heel and thus be a strange kind of metal platform shoe; and a work made in 1994, a single narrow high-heeled shoe made from nail clippings embedded in chicken shit. Both these 'shoes' are resonant with potential narratives. Rack reminds me of a fairy story/folk tale read long ago involving the painful wearing of heavy metal shoes as part of a series of trials, like knitting grey-green yarn spun from nettles gathered in cemeteries at midnight, endured over several years by a princess to overcome a witch's spell. The little 'nail' shoe's materials immediately evoke ideas of sorcery, fetish and transformation. Either work could be read as a version of a Cinderella shoe, even a cendrier de Cendrillon. Almost anything can be used as an ashtray after all. Nikou titled the 'nail' shoe Grapnel (1994), another name for a grappling iron, in her words 'a clutching word for a clutching object'. She describes the size of the shoe as 'Cinderella' meaning slightly smaller than average.
Grapnel was shown in a group exhibition called Fania curated in 1994 by Erica Green at the University of South Australia Art Museum for the centenary of women's suffrage in South Australia. The exhibition was named after Nikou's grandmother, Fania, a Macedonian peasant woman who, having migrated to Australia and unable to speak English, compulsively made dresses for herself in a particular design using pieces of hessian for her pattern. Her compulsion extended beyond the borders of practicality as she continually asked the family to take her to fabric shops and then endlessly cut and sewed dresses out of inappropriate and randomly patterned cheap cotton fabrics. The repetitiveness and impracticality of this task allies it to some perceptions of the activities of artists. The dresses became legendary within the family, representing storage problems - she made one hundred of them - as well as embarrassing examples of foreignness and obsession. Yet they are impressive signposts of the tough peasant qualities of tenacity and productivity, precious cargo echoing a task in a fairy tale.
My discovery of an unexpected but genuine association of Nikou's artwork with the spoon-shoe of L'Amour fou thickens again when attention is drawn to the various works she has made using cutlery. Spoons (2000) are thirteen roughly cast lead spoons of different sizes, each with one or two lead lumps of chewed food stuck to its bowl. They stick to the spoon like lumps in the throat. To me they suggest indigestible food and long leaden family meals in which time stands still. Nausea and an inability to eat are frequent responses to repressed strong emotion in such situations.
At other times Nikou has cast chewed mouthfuls of food (bronze) in InLovewaste (2002), Lifesavers (lead) in Life's over Candy Neck (2002), and half bitten Yo-Yo biscuits (lead) in Half of Everything (2002). She made all of these objects into jewellery - extensions of and furniture for the body, a place where statements can be made. All are metaphors for emotional states that are hard to put into words. Certainly I can't say exactly what they mean though Half of Everything (2002) has some connection to the division of property through inheritance or fractured relationships.
Another piece of cutlery Untitled (1998) is a thin metal knife with a hole bored into it and nails soldered around the hole through which a small piece of circular knitting hangs down. It looks as if it was created by someone in solitary confinement. The knitting nancy has its origin in the medieval lucet, a harp-shaped two-pronged fork with a hole in the handle used for 'French knitting' to make braids to be sewn onto dresses or used as cord. Had Breton and Giacometti found a lucet in the marketplace they may well have considered it as an example of convulsive beauty.
How eloquent, how sensual something like cutlery can be is quite remarkable, this also applies to crockery. The plates and cups, the knives, the spoons and forks that we handle by eating and washing every day are touched as often as we handle our bodies and have an intimacy with us of which we are mostly unaware. They are almost like body parts or perhaps more like Stelarc's prostheses, inanimate extensions which will outlive us but retain a history of our association.
Such linked chains of connections and echoes - into and out of art and literature, everyday life and family interactions, relationships and poetry - characterise the art of Michelle Nikou which traces lineages into both high and low cultural references (with a quietly persistent layer of deadpan humour.) Nikou trained in the late eighties for four years in the discipline of ceramics and found empowering mentors in ceramics lecturer and artist Liz Williams and artist-in-residence ceramicist and jeweller Gerry Wedd, both at the South Australian School of Art. Subsequently when Nikou turned away from the functionality of ceramics towards fine art, travelled and undertook postgraduate study, she looked closely at the work of surrealist artists as a starting point for constructing her methodology for making art. There she found such principles and strategies as chance, automatism, spontaneity, correspondence, the dream, compulsion, found objects, detritus, collage, the discovery of sexual or psychological metaphors in everyday objects, humour, surprise and juxtaposition as well as the latent political subtext of locating and transforming the marvelous in the everyday.
This is not to say that Nikou is a card-carrying surrealist but that her practice has productively drawn on and reflects back upon surrealism. And perhaps surrealism, whether it is named as such or not, is around us all the time. Maybe Breton and his peers did not so much invent surrealism as uncover it.
Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst's preface for the 1933 Pierre Colle gallery's Surrealist Exhibition includes a list asserting the vitality of the object: '...automatic or inadmissible objects...everyday appliances...retrospective bosoms...fried eggs; atmospheric spoons...loaves of bread.' This roll call finds distinct echoes in Nikou's frequent use of essentially domestic items. She has often used the kitchen both for raw materials and as a studio. The work Potatoes (1999) consists of eight potatoes cast from lead, which sit on their little funnels like boiled eggs or tiny sculptural busts, coronas of leaked lead surrounding some of them like elaborate hairdos. Carrot Necklace (2002) is a concrete carrot, painted to look remarkably like a carrot, which hangs from a copper neck-ring. Then there is crockery like Revenge (2004) the six earthernware plates made for a group exhibition on the theme of revenge at Downtown Art Space in Adelaide in 2004. Each plate, which is deliberately awkwardly dipped in dripping and pooling dull green, beige, blue and tan glazes, contains a large finely made three dimensional dog's tail with the fur carefully built up from very thin rolled worms of clay, except for the one smooth dog's tail. The work draws on two maxims: 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' originally occurring in Pierre Choderlos de LaClos' Les Liasons Dangereuses of 1792 and the child's nursery rhyme line 'What are little boys made of?' Nikou is deeply engaged with language and frequently makes a work around a single phrase or word that then becomes concrete poetry. She even used concrete, again to cast potatoes, this time for Concrete Potato Necklace (2001) a somewhat heavy necklace in which the grey and somehow expressive potatoes are fairytale pearls or wave-worn pebbles as much as vegetables. Again the emotionality of food and families, poverty and fantasy forms an implicit subtext to the work.
There is frequently something obsessively domestic and suburban in Nikou's work. It is especially apparent in the handmade metal curtain rings which contain phrases from the soap operas The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our Lives carefully stamped inside their coils. My experience of daytime soap operas is linked to watching them with old people, sick people, unemployed people - those who are often considered in some way marginal to mainstream society. Thus, the words of these stereotypical soap operas evoke for me not just their creators and actors but the presence of all the people who, for whatever reason, are sitting inside during the day, drawing the curtains on the wider world. I sense their lives as a subtext to the aspirations and voices released by these artworks. Nikou conflates the cliches of sentimentality (unearned emotion) into serious and hard-won objects which speak of interior lives and private places. The letters are laboriously stamped onto the rings before they are coiled. The unevenness of the letters and thus their lack of a machine aesthetic suggests to me that these banal statements are used to express genuine emotions well as fake ones. Their poignancy stumbles against the shininess of the metal; the artist does not simply or easily disparage the inadequacy of the words but offers them as hiding places of the heart.
In conversation with me in December 2005 in her Adelaide kitchen as I prepared to write this essay, Nikou imagined a house in which every ordinary functional element has text upon it and thus embodies a voice, like her work Swan Season (1998) which consists of six cast aluminum door handles with letters beneath them which say: 'don't - pass - the - ball - to - me.' Her embrace of this dream has also edged into reality in her toilet paper projects. A few years ago she removed toilet paper from restrooms in small country towns north of Adelaide and from the Art Gallery of South Australia. She then imprinted the toilet paper with stamps she had ordered, rolled it up again and replaced it. Thus the visitor to the Ladies' toilets, at Burra or Saddleworth, or on North Terrace in Adelaide's cultural precinct, would tear off a length of paper and, gazing absentmindedly down at it, read something like 'that's what me and the others think' or 'make me' or 'do you remember this - do you remember that' or 'we're losing our atmosphere' or 'I called you majesty'. The desire to situate art in daily life rather than the gallery environment is a concern for many artists; early in her career Barbara Kruger pasted her statements in public phone boxes. Nikou's toilet paper stamping has reappeared in a recent work, Untitled (love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement) (2002), which contains the paper reading 'do you remember this - do you remember that' accompanying a toilet seat cover and two toilet paper roll holders covered in grey tapestry. The title of this work refers to W.B. Yeats' 1933 poem Crazy Jane talks to the Bishop.
'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'
The mildly inept grey tapestry used in this work reappears in other pieces as slightly bumpy tissue box covers, as a covering for a door-stopper (a brick), as a sausage-like draft-stopper and as match box covers. Nikou has exhibited the latter as flat abstract forms on the gridded tapestry mesh on which they are stitched. Somehow the greyness and muffling quality of all these works returns me to Nikou's evocation of soap operas. They do not attempt to cheer up, brighten or ameliorate the day and the shining hour like handicrafts are supposed to do (think of the charity shops and stalls and their millions of bright aprons, plastic-bag holders, tissue box covers, and knitted grimacing bears and dolls - testimony to the hours - loving, wasted, frustrated - spent upon them by women with busy hands). Instead they emphasise numbness, dullness, the potential nihilism and anomie of suburbia. In an earlier work Signifying nothing (1998) the artist collected lint from laundromat dryers to make four grey, fragile, non-functional pockets on the backs of which are crudely stitched William Shakespeare's words from Macbeth's speech that begins: Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrowâ€¦
Though made by a well-informed contemporary artist, Nikou's oeuvre often borrows the awkwardness and solipsism of outsider art. Taking ordinary emotions that are responses to everyday situations but rarely put into words, and finding physical form for them is a creative effort that involves both courage and wit. Even though Nikou frequently deals with painful and solemn subject matter her self-awareness and sense of the absurd are never far away. One of her most recent jewellery works in the form of a text necklace says not the stereotypical 'I love you' or 'hug me' but go away (2005). An accompanying series of large cast bronze text-works monumentalise grumpy or hostile monosyllabic exchanges.
Combining opposites - soft with hard, food with lead, ordinary objects with venerable sculptural techniques - Nikou is as much an object-maker as a sculptor. Her work does not order space so much as be a space. We do not look at what surrounds it but at what and how it is. Her recent bronze works - hand-built mounds onto which thin broken threads are pressed or through which Braille letters are perforated; cast tissue boxes; the letters of single words; cast doorstoppers on little supports and giant wedding rings with doorstoppers draped over and around them - all mostly still covered with the debris of their manufacture - contradict the dignity and history of their fabrication with their deliberately awkward appearance. Parts of the works are finely and carefully made, (the wax that becomes the wedding rings is smoothed till it looks like tempered metal), while in other sections a lumpy texture including fingerprints emphasises their slow formation by hand. Many resemble the sort of enigmatic and awkward object that might be found in a shelf at the back of a dusty shop, some 'thing' or cendrier de Cendrillon handmade by an amateur art/craft person whose clumsiness and rawness are equaled by their zeal and obsession. Nikou's totally professional and knowing artwork does an uncannily good and often ironic job of somehow evoking every complex element of that anonymous person's passion and inarticulate longings.
Stephanie Radok, 2006
[This text was originally published in Imagine... the creativity shaping owr culture, exh cat, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006on the occasion of the exhibition Imagine... the creativity shaping owr culture, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 18th July - 29th October, 2006]
Stephanie Radok is a writer and artist based in Adelaide. She has been writing about art professionally for around twenty years. Her artwork was exhibited in This and Other Worlds: contemporary Australian drawing at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2005.
AndrÃ© Breton, 'The Automatic Message' 1935, in The Surrealists look at Art, Pontus Hulten (ed.), The Lapis Press, USA, 1990, p. 148.
Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, 1993, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 1993, p. 36-46.
Andre Breton, 'L'Amour fou'â€™ quoted by Hal Foster, op.cit., p. 44.
Margaret Plant, â€˜Shopping for the Marvellousâ€™, in Surrealism: Revolution by Night, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p. 96.
Tristan Tzara & Max Ernst quoted by Margaret Plant in 'Shopping for the Marvellous', Surrealism: Revolution by Night, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p. 96 and drawn to her attention by Ted Gott.
"I am seeing a number of new Michelle Nikou works for the first time. They have been lined up arbitrarily, and about a metre apart near the foot of a stretch of well-lit gallery wall, three or four of them--and to the right are two more, on plinths neighbouring each other, close up to the wall. One (Over), a phallic, 'bananary-shaped' object, stands on its plinth, stands aided by a kind of crutch that is, in fact, part of the sculpture. The other, a metre long plank of metal, leans against the wall, its base on the plinth. There are other objects, too, but these are what I note first. On the metre-length of metal there seems to bubble at one spot a kind of fungal growth.
At floor level, closest to the plinth, is an elongated, undulant curve--like a cartoon depiction of a sea serpent, but short. Just one hump. Like all the others it is cast in metal. And, while the shape can register as cheerful movement, it is raised off the ground by two tiny stands, over which, in fact, it seems draped. So the 'movement' quoted is frozen, almost as if its up-and-down, roller-coaster silhouette is the result of droop in casting or in cooling off. The stands--as is usual with many of Nikou's pieces--are the still-attached results of the casting process. Like launch-pad scaffolding or umbilical cord: it would be usual to take these off. They are called 'runners' or, sometimes, 'sprus' and Nikou regularly leaves them attached. The works' titles do not come up in this studio discussion, though this work, I find out later, is called Languish.
* * * * *
The body of Languish is smeared, to irregular, greyish effect, with white paint. A brush, we can feel, might have been cleaned on it. The spru 'legs' or runners remain dark. This treatment of the surface lends the whole an air of accident, of the object's being a purely contingent survivor, a chancer, a happy fact: modest, cheerful, a little abashed? It doesn't look like Art, like a statement, something declarative. Maybe it is something hummed, as it makes its way jauntily along the foot of the wall--or, alternately, it is seen as stranded, propped, motionless, a discard.
Next in line is a capital letter 'A'. It stands on a diminutive metal fez--one of these same base-cup runners--on its right leg. The base is fluted. 'A's other, 'leading' foot kicks out on the left into space.
Beside 'A' is what looks to me like a platform-style sandal, something ancient--from Herculaneum, or classical Rome--but others more in the know are referring to it as 'the toast-rack'. The loops of thonging I thought might serve to bind foot to sole evidently divide absent pieces of bread. The platform is raised, not on a heel and a ridge under the ball of the foot--but on the same 'runners' or 'sprus' from which the hot metal has been cast or poured. Rack is its given name. Interestingly the curves have reminded others of barbeque ribs.
As a line these objects appear graphic, rococo, gaily witty shapes against the white wall and concrete floor. This is an aspect of Nikou's work not available via photographs of individual pieces, an impression of variousness and of family resemblance that is not just a product of, say, working in series. It makes clear their formal appeal and the degree to which they come of involvement with materials and with shapes and volumes at least as much as from pursuit of any cerebral theme.
Each piece in this sequence has strong graphic presence as shape or silhouette. The 'traditional' material--cast and treated bronze metal--might almost seem a reference to historical sculpture. Their energy and gaiety suggest to me the between-the-wars period of modernist sculpture, when objects were typically of the small to median size that suited the commercial galleries of the time--a retreat from public, monumental sculpture and from large allegorical meanings and sentiments. Also a time when painting (Cubism, Matisse) was in the driving seat and sculpture was confined to a more decorative role: think of Archipenko, Lipchitz, Laurens, Brancusi.
Scale is an important and telling issue in Nikou's work. The scale is small. To a degree it says something about the artist's development. To another it is both an aspect of her themes and a formal strategy. It is not usual practice among contemporary sculptors to work at this size. Larger works are the norm, and in fact installation has been the realm of ambitious sculptural work for some time.
For the classic Minimalists of the 60s and early 70s a work should aim to be near to, but not more (or too much less) than human height. This applied to their early cubes and boxes particularly. It gave the work, as intended, an existentially confronting presence of equality with the human--not towering above the viewer, not too easily held within his or her view. The work should confront, but not overwhelm. Exceptions are easy enough to find of course, but I refer to the boxes and cubes of Robert Morris, or Serra's One-Ton Prop, for example.
If there is a handy rule of thumb for Nikou's pieces it might be that they should be perceived as smaller than 'Art' yet bigger than inconsiderable. Thematically, this will be seen to relate to their opposition to reigning discourses and to hierarchies of size (where size is taken to equal importance). Their themes are often a counter discourse to that of humanism, the patriarchal, and to the universalist and idealizing editorial. Formally, this relates to the artist's close involvement with the objects as material, form and shape and serves to draw the viewer closer to these often 'homeless' objects. It makes for an engagement and intimacy outside the rhetorical space normatively constituted by viewer and art, in which the viewer (any viewer) is constituted--and to a degree responds--as a Kantian sovereign individual (stripped of particularity) who observes a proposition-making condensation of form and meaning. A Nikou piece, typically, having gained any sovereign individual's attention, begins to make its appeal to that person's quite specific (at least non-rhetorical) curiosity. Correspondingly, their natural viewing distance, it could be argued, is the intimate one of an arm's length or less--within reach of our hands.
As it happened, on this day the placement of the works was perfunctory and purely arbitrary: they had been quickly carried (not all by the artist) from another room and placed for simple ease of viewing and discussion.
In any case, their placement is never 'established', especially not so as to obviate closer scrutiny. The metre-length plank, for example, in the course of discussion, is moved to the floor, then replaced on the plinth and, finally, set lying flat. Other works are sometimes wall-mounted, then seen later standing up, on the same base that had formerly attached to the wall. The works mostly do not aim at enhanced authority or coherence thru their orientation to space. (So much for modernism.) They hanker after the status of 'things' more than to be distinctly or unequivocally 'art'. And as you home in on any one of them you find yourself getting 'curiouser and curiouser'. The furze of imperfections that clump together at one point along the metre-length piece, for example, seem basically to function as just that, as an interruption to, or vitiating of, the simple shape's perfection and coherence, an aberration. We must move closer.
The attached 'feeders'--the sprus or runners-of the casting process have a related effect. The runner remains attached. It cripples, handicaps each item with a generic imperfection. This makes them 'family'. It also states "representation", "art", facsimile -- a falseness, even--so that the objects are in some ways ghosts of their originals.
* * * * *
Over, the object that I have been calling 'phallic', reminds me, for that reason, of an early, startling Giacometti piece, Woman With Her Throat Cut and, in a more obvious way, another, Giacometti's Nasty Object. This latter is a cruel phallus with a thorn-like spike in the end, while the scene-of-violence piece is a schematic representation of a female figure lying, spreadeagled, partially skeletal, partially diagrammatic. It is shocking because it is subject matter so rarely represented outside the histrionic history painting of the Baroque and Romantic periods and because Giacometti's piece comes with none of their edifying scaffolding. I am reminded of Giacometti for a number of reasons: his Nasty Object has the perfunctory, direct quality Nikou's work employs. The way forms are openly examined and found interesting--for the way they lie, fold, find their place--reminds of Woman With Her Throat Cut. Finally, the finish and small scale of many of his classic works--the thin, etiolated, elongated figures--catch the light similarly, and have an initial graphic register that resembles that of many Nikou pieces--and they similarly draw one closer, reel the viewer in, to a close encounter with their material presence.
Nikou's Over is limply propped up, a gourd splitting open, ripe, leaning upon its prop, like an old roue on his cane. So the cane seems a comic masculine register in keeping with the joke on vulnerable male sexuality. Closer to and the form seems less phallic and more akin to an ear of corn or a banana, some pod about to burst or deliquesce: the visual conundrum is the softness and near fluidity of the original and the solidity we know it has as a cast object. The surfaces operate illusionistically to mimic the organic. Over is bronze--and my reading of it is 'wrong'--or it recedes at any rate, becoming a supportable reading or meaning, but not authoritative, not an absolute and sure identificationâ€”because the closer view reveals the work to be one of Nikou's familiar draft-stopper snakes, cast as usual in bronze but bent in the middle and doubled back upon itself: an examination of the shape when treated this way
The plastered and painted surface treatments given Nikou's works are often much tested and mulled over. Casual, brushy, the grey whitewashing the serpentine Languish has been subjected to has a number of effects. It counters the piece's formal autonomy. Rather than appearing as a 3-D object with an organic or purposive-seeming shape and mass, close to we attend to its surface, a surface broken into bitsâ€”interesting in their own right (as passages) and detracting from a view of the object as whole and coherent. The distressed, brushed, stained surface acts also as a commentary on the object, as inflection added to it. In both ways what would be the piece's traditional formal coherence or integrity is lessened, even 'insulted', rendered passive. This effect of the painterly surface would be anathema to traditional modernism and to Minimalism alike. As would be the anthropomorphising readings the work seems happy to invite.
Within teaching institutions stylistically reductivist practices are now normative, an orthodoxy derived from Minimal Art, that art schools both articulate as something of a basic grammar. It is also something art schools encourage students to subvert or act against. The models for this anti-form reaction date almost from the first days of Minimalism itself: Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeoise, art povera--models reinforced by their subsequent revivals and reconstruals as punkish, as 'Bad' art, as grunge, the abject etc. Nikou's work seems to stand in some proximate relation to both these lexicons or syntaxes of contemporary work, though not at all programmatically. Nikou regularly features the properties of the material in classic enough Minimalist way--note the poured metal, the drooping shapes that have obviously formed as the material hardened. The retention of the mechanisms through which the metal was poured, usually to double as stands for the piece, has something of both Modernism's and Minimalism's desideratum of 'truth to materials' and the Minimalist and Conceptualist liking for making evident 'process'. But it tells, as well, against formal coherence, and these runners can read as excrescence, making Nikou's practice more compatible with the informal trends derived from such as Hesse, art povera, and grunge-art assemblage.
The works often exhibit a silhouette that stands in no relation much to the work as closely experienced physical object. The initial appearance might be almost rococo. Take for example the curlicue shapes of the toast-rack/sandal. Or the cheerful vitalism with which the letter 'A' puts its best foot forward, kicking airily to the left while the work is weighted and stabilized by the minuscule plinth on which it is balanced. Some of Nikou's works from this period have a Parisian modernist 20s/30s poise. It is a curious jumping between eras and pleasurably chameleon.
* * * * * * * * *
Nikou has cast a number of small boxy shapes. They catch the eye as disconcerting and tantalisingly un-art-like. Too small to be Minimalist homages to the cube, not so small as to signal 'craft object', they are also strangely familiar. These are bronze-cast tissue boxes, their surfaces roughened with residually attached plaster, irregularly blackened and discoloured.
Their detached lids--oval lozenge shapes--are wall-mounted and are much harder to recognize: the penny drops only when we see the nearby boxes, minus their lids. We hardly see the lids in real life. Detached from the boxes that they seal, they are normally disposed of. Nikou presents them in a constellation (cast in lead)--spent shells, or a brave or humiliating, or merely factual, tally. In a sense the lids' presence recalls the boxes: full volumes, hollowed, possessing a degree of mystery, soliciting useâ€”in every way the ghosted opposites of the small oval lids pressed and removed from the receptacles but--like smoke implying fire--evoking them. It is partly that our hands know them so well. We've opened so many die-cut packages and contemplation of these lids that we normally give no thought to recalls this haptic knowledge, makes it press for some satisfaction now as we view.
Nikou's boxes alert us to an interest that boxes never have, except perhaps for children. As sculptural object the size and shape and hollowness of each box is interesting, intriguing, curious. Cast as they are, their weight and solidity is sensed, read from their appearance: the particular darkness and mystery of their volume can be gauged. It tempts us to handle the object, verifying what we know intuitively. We tend not to do this with art objects and this small allure of mystery remains.
For such small objects they have a strange aura (which, amusingly, they share with Robert Morris's boxes)--gravitas. The cast tissue boxes seem generic, somehow sourced to an 'idea' (the platonic, original, ideal tissue box). The 'thingness' they thus isolate seems, on some register, a source of dignity--and it lends this to these objectsâ€™ metonymical sadnesses, griefs. (I am taking the boxes to refer to a past of suffering: each box a measure of sadness, grief, consolation--or a reproach, record, reminder, silent witness. Unnervingly, they may indicate futures.)
The surfaces of these boxes present a range of beautiful tones, like fire-damaged factory sites, corrugated tin burned and blistered, charred and weathered. Here surface becomes an expressive vehicle. More correctly, the surfaces allow and lend expressive form to any investment we find we make. The industrial finish is also a kind of joke or sarcasm about the boxes--and our feelings about them--because it is a brutalist industrial finish, its hardness the opposite of the softness any real tissue box offers and promises.
Other of Nikou's tissue boxes are covered in cloth materials, that render them 'homely' yet 'dressed'. The materials and patterns suggest bedroom and comfort. These are old-fashioned blanket patterns (patterns humorously at odds with their industrial, mass-produced, modular shape), a different invisibility from the mass-produced products' usual pale 70s/80s floral patterns.
Such casting and selection of ordinary objects is hardly unprecedented. A number of oeuvres and artists' names could be cited--and specific well-know works. None seem quite the same as Michelle Nikou's various series of artworks. Obviously works of the 60s and later have constituted 'permission' for this direction, if they have not constituted actual influence. One naturally thinks of the soft toilet, soft fans, the giant lipsticks of Claes Oldenburg, of Jasper Johns' cast beer cans, George Segal's Barney's Beanery, perhaps Ed Kienholz. These are names associated with Pop and 'â€˜Neo-Dada'. The Minimalists had a kindred fascination with and attention to the droop and heft of various materials (as already remarked). Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeoise can be cited as fellow-travelling with Nikou on the same broad aesthetic enterprise. There is the ghostliness of Gober's cast limbs. We might think of Rachel Whitread's castings--similarly domestic, more uniformly funereal. Nearer to home in Australia there have been kindred but not identical bodies of work: Louise Haselton's work would sit well with Nikou's, though it pursues something else--similarly the hand thrown works of Gerry Wedd or works by Olive Bishop.
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An early group of works by the artist is instructive to consider. They were shown at Greenaway Gallery in the early nineties--three or four small bed frames with springs and mattress. These were less than a foot long, made of metal, wire and cloth and straw. They were immediately alarming, like crime scenes, seeming to speak of domestic violence, of domestic arrangements predicated on violence, suffering--at the very least some kind of grim bartering and stand-off. They were stark and hallucinatory in their clarity and the sense they gave of revelation, of laying bare. Their material--all plainly junk, detritus, 'distressed', make-shift--caught the light, offered itself to it, drank it up, every gleam and glint and contrast sordidly telling. The works that sprang to mind, for purposes of comparison, were, from the first, Giacometti's violent and mysterious pieces, Woman With Her Throat Cut and The Palace at 4 a.m., and, more vaguely, the work of Louise Bourgeoise, her feel for materials, her directness. Both are Surrealist sources, though, interestingly, not issuing from central office--not Breton, Ernst, Miro, but outsiders.
To many this would have seemed a promising vein of work broached. It would have played to a ready enough reception. It was undeniably powerful. Yet it has not been followed up with more of its kind. It is instructive to look at this work's differences from the more abiding procedures Nikou has since developed. And if the ongoing work is thought obscure, reticent in comparison, the many continuities that are shared can effectively shed light on the much more subtle work of the last decade. The bed pieces help us name the effects and manner--and note the finer calculation and control--of the works Nikou has made since.
There are obvious similarities. The beds speak of nightmares, night-sweats, 'dirty linen'. Nikou's work regularly treats things both common and personal, and often the tragic, shameful, or otherwise negative. Her work often has a quasi verbal existence--translating quickly to old saws or to a phrase of folk wisdom--such as 'you've made your bed / now you've got to lie in it'--or to (almost) buried metaphors, like 'dirty linen', which might be said to literalize. Commonplace materials, shapes and items are often employed, as here: beds, metal, ticking cloth, straw. The work is typically small and not grandly framed as 'Art' or as major statement.
Yet, triumphantly, the current work, while it shares these properties, makes none of these moves in the same way. The dramatic content the beds might be said to signal is too much a summative headline that carries the whole story but with no detail: the bed functions as synecdoche for a whole, well-acknowleged area of discourse and for our presumed responses to it.
The meanings are too many and too easily called up, too easily nominated as a group, as related. Stated so sensationally, the meanings are not embedded in the material presence of the work as object--but are, rather, signalled by the work as 'sign', as symbol.
Examination of the beds' material presence did not add to these given meanings. In fact these works' physical interest became the 'easy' one of delight in intimacy and in ingeniousness of manufacture, an interest tending to supplant the initial statement.
Far more assured, Nikou's newer works do not quote full, extended, pre-existing arguments. Instead they surreptitiously amplify the building blocks of a thesis or feeling, an animus: they give rise to, or quietly compel, an exploratory line of thought or intuition.
The beds had us recognize the subject (and acknowledge the attendant debate around, and social responses to, say, domestic violence). By contrast the new works have us recognize the validity of the evidence they uncover (or discover). Upon this further thought may be based, as effects of the work, no longer as clearly coded meanings for relatively passive reception by the viewer.
The verbal quality of later Nikou pieces is consequently at a more micro level: typically, bits of instinctual, or moody, verbal response. This gives us pleasurably empathetic work to do. (By contrast, the beds, the dolls, and some other early works, allowed quick translation--and immediately our work was done.) Other works concurrent with these early pieces foreshadowed later developments: 'quiet' beside the beds, they were intriguing and informally shaped, amorphous almost, and made of felt and other 'lowly' materials.
Nikou has continued with the commonplace, mundane, ordinary and, usually, domestic materials and objects. And her work tends still to be small in size. The beds were large things miniaturized. Now Nikou works with small things done to full scale: not symbols, but literal 'things': they are smaller, almost meek objects, like toast racks, tissue-boxes, tapestry-covered breeze-snakes that keep draughts out, detritus. The formal interest of surface, shape and manufacture affords them lasting presence. The beds, on the other hand, had tended to read as declarative visual sign or symbol, and the interest of their intricate manufacture was beside that point, a distraction from it. Their formal interest was more like the charm of minor craft.
Nikou's pieces are generally happy to stand undeclared as either art or craft. The beds, though, devolved quickly from one to the other--and as mutually exclusive categories.
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Asked about the art/craft distinction, Nikou's response is very interesting.
The distinction would have it that, basically, that art is to do with exploratory, iconoclastic, mould-breaking discovery and 'idea'--that it is conceptual, or conceptually driven. Craft, by contrast, is about the level of (traditional, conventional) skill involved in delivering a known, predictable product: the production of beautiful bowls for example. Duchamp or Pollock might be taken, by way of contrast, to represent Artists--Pollock inventing a new style that changes the look of painting so much that it is initially unacceptable and not even recognized as serious painting. A Duchamp overthrows concepts of artmaking still more radically. (A problem with this heroic, avant-gardist conception of art, for most artists, should be the realization that they will inevitably not, themselves, fit the bill: most will be producing artworks that resemble other artworks almost exactly to the same degree as bowls conform to the notion 'bowl'.) Artists are often happy to bask in the light of the concept 'Art'. Craftspeople and designers often find the implied hierarchy annoying--and many make things they feel are as inventive and 'conceptual' as most art-works, but which are also better made.
Asked if she "cared" about the Art/Craft distinction Nikou replied calmly enough but with some underlining, "I don't care at all--quite aggressively." They are not categories that interest her. Nikou's current work presents itself as standing between both categories, unwilling--and, indeed, unconcerned--to invoke the protection of either. Where it strays too far to one or other side then that--it can seem this is the implication--is because the artist won't flatter either category or its assumptions by recognizing it. More probably it is that Nikou has spent many years freeing her mind of the strictures enfencing both areas of practice in an attempt to operate freely between and beyond them.
Nikou (born in Adelaide in 1967) grew up in small-town country South Australia--in Yankalilla. She gained a Bachelor of Arts in 1989 from the University of South Australia (at that time the South Australian Art School) and a Graduate Diploma in Visual Arts from the same institution in 1990. These were interesting times in terms both of teaching staff and the young artists then going through the system. Michelle Nikou steered an independent course, taking time to find direction and dissatisfied with most of her early work. Nikou was wary of the art scene's fiats and anathemas as to the acceptable, the 'in', the desired styles and themes. Wary of any limitations the concept of Craft might entail she was for a time was--in her own words--"stubborn against Art ... not wanting to get caught up in style, but focus on content and what that was doing for me."
Grants allowed travel to Sydney and a stay at the Gunnery studio. Here Nikou made tentative connection with galleries and collectors and with some other artists. Though not immediately productive in terms of amounts of work produced, the Sydney period would seem to have been for her a forcing ground--a period of concentration and isolation and of attitudes coming into focus.
Nikou's work began to gain attention from this mid nineties interval. The artist received further Australia Council and ArtSA support in 1998 and 2000 and has had solo shows annually since 1998 in Adelaide at Greenaway Art Gallery and in Sydney with Darren Knight on a more or less alternating basis.
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Nikou's growing body of work has been discussed to some degree already in general terms. It strikes various kinds of balance and distance, emotionally, with its content or themes, and with the issue of expression. Perhaps the early work had wanted to mean too much--and to declare feeling? The artist's course since has been to move unconcernedly between autobiographically derived work and the more casually conceived--and not to bother to signal which is which. This suggests that--where they are importantly personal--the work reifies and examines (ironically, coolly, playfully, amusedly, dispassionately) the life-issues it represents. The work is not measured by the artist as communication but as objects that might provoke the viewer into seeing from an interesting and unguarded perspective. Often one's involvement with the material presence of the work serves to act as a baffle, slowing our too eager reading of the content or too hasty arrival at its identification.
The works Nikou makes duck the category status 'Art' and the raft of high expectation and high permissions that attend it. But this is regularly a tactic of any artist whose work will run counter to established languages and modes. Nikou pieces snag the eye and bring us closer to them as objects--objects of curiosity and, usually, wit and charm and an obdurate otherness. Typically they stem from a world 'out of sight' or below the threshold of attention and commentary. Alternatively, they voice the unspoken counter-commentary that accompanies our lives, that is shared as comic recognition of the truth, of the real in everyday life--in relationships, in patterns of emotional response to living. "Don't pass the ball to me," says one work.
Consider Choose, or Decided, the S.O.S. tiara, or Half Of Everything, I'm With Him Now, the doorstop brick, the breeze snakes.
Almost a distinct subset within Nikou's work are the pieces made of, and featuring, letters. These utilize similar techniques of manufacture. Their construction is more intricate. It is also clunkily deliberate--and almost forgetful, it seems, of the word chosen: the letters of a word are fitted together, often in ways that reduce instant legibility, ignoring it or forgetting it as a consideration. Decided, for example, has an initial and lastingly spider-like presence.
Having the circumference of a small dinner plate, Decided presents a visually complex confusion (even a "complicated" confusion, the less flattering near synonym) of spread limbs and radial web. It can be mounted on a wall or a horizontal surface. Decided produces some of the same alarm and recognition as a huntsman spider, a graphic shape and silhouette. Its irregularly finger-sculpted strips read as line--as radiating lines of force, or as circular or spiral web. The lines are stark against any pale-coloured wall. But, cast in a darkened bronze, their irregular surfaces catch the light, bring us closer and slow the eye. We may decide to establish an order for the letters, a sequence that will make them a word. Or we may not. It is certainly not instantly legible. The title helps of course, but then the titles are almost always forced on Nikou by the needs of the gallery, the dealer, the catalogue. They are tags to distinguish one object from another--all of them, in principle, untitled. They often remain Untitled where more descriptive naming would be positively harmful or limiting.
Some of the word pieces suggest states, like Decided. Others are injunctions (like Choose), or dilemmas.
Time spent with Decided gives an intimate knowledge of its shape and form and balance and spindly, energised presence. Decided's complexity makes it rather inexhaustible. It can become familiar but is hard to memorize. The 'message' that is the word remains almost like its reserved, unspent bite--if we follow the analogy with a spider. It is there at the core of the work, but it is not all the work, not even, possibly, its essence.
Half Of Everything, the necklace of half-eaten biscuits, is also part of a Nikou family of objects. This would include the potato necklaces, the spoons with gunk on them (remains of food, perhaps chewed, or perhaps the residues of cooking), the tissue-box lids, the boxes themselves. This is the class we create if we look to records of ritual or of repeated, necessary consumption: life measured in coffee spoons, grief measured in tissue boxes, comfort or celebration or relaxation measured in biscuits.
The necklaces are obviously a craft 'form'. They are probably never going to be worn. Though whoâ€™s to say? Their irregularity removes them from the slickness of current design--yet it is not an attempt to achieve the hand-crafted look as a desired end. It does, again, slow the eye and bring us close to the object as physical, material, made thing--but also close to the experience, the meaning, of real biscuits. The meaning of biscuits? It brings us to a recall or recognition of individual biscuits as solace, or small pleasure--a recognition from experience, not a recognition of the same thing as 'sign' or symbol. This latter reading we will have passed through earlier: it is not irrelevant at all, but were the work to remain at that level it would be mildly kitsch joke only.
"I'm with him now" are the words upon a toilet roll cover. This is the delimiting tyranny of any shared life--comic and tragic at the same time--and it is realism. It has the finality of a sentence, a verdict accepted, taken into the soul. And it reminds of melodramatic statements of status achieved or, irrevocably, altered: "Reader, I married him" is the most famous in this line--and they are typically from womenâ€™s literature, the women's film, or popular novel--even Mills and Boon. That the sentence is appliqueed on a toilet-roll cover is masterly: so domestic, so unexciting and unglamorous, so every day. Dutifulâ€”and very much of the â€˜womanâ€™s sphereâ€™, at least as traditionally assigned. Is it humiliating, mere realism, or despair? Is it the thought behind the public face that must be put on things? Nikou's detachment, the cool of her irony, is deadly and hilarious.
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The small scale Nikou uses is that of objects continuous with our space, the space we notionally inhabit--with no protective aura of the sort that might attach to Art: often the pieces can be held between finger and thumb. Still more often the work will clearly have been pressed between the artist's finger and thumb before it was cast--moulded, its matter pressed, extended, reduced and stretched out, its pieces thinned, joined together. It is often the scale of a world smaller than ours, other than ours, not ordered by ours, which might bite, be toxic, hostile, resistant, counter to ours. (It is never the world of the gallery.) The facture's clunkiness avoids reference to up-to-date contemporary Design and its call for attention--its look both of inviting luxury and of fetishized, untouchable, unattainable perfection. (In this respect designed luxury objects lose their appeal upon being purchased.) Nikou's oeuvre courts the look of neglect, the over-looked, the overlooked-but-surviving.
It is a characteristic that the objects--or their Platonic originals--are never from the world of luxury but from that of ordinary life. Specifically, not the comfortably-off: breeze-snakes indicate bad design and draughts; the biscuits are always cheap; tissues are in fact ubiquitous, but democratic, cheap; as are the potatoes and spoons. Many are made of distinctly ordinary, unremarkable materials: the lint objects, the soft grey tapestry.
It may be that part of their function, or the impetus that gave rise to these objects' selection, is commemorative--that the works aim to remind and to remember. Equally we might see them as about memory and its half-life. Are they about loss, the pastness of experience? (In a sense these objects are not the originals. They displace them as much as they recall them. Perhaps they replace them with something much firmer, more visually intense. Even so, the original is gone.) One of Nikou's works is the outline, or stain, of some cherries or seedpods on a square of material. The cast seeds/berries are nearby. Stain, cast, and outline seem to point to an absence. This same relation might be a factor behind many of Nikou's pieces already discussed.
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Nikou's work inserts itself into our discursive world. It functions to absorb, even enliven, these ongoing bodiless conversations. It takes strength from them, illustrates them--but, most importantly, it is able to act as resistance, as counter-fact--as both useful lever and as spoke in the bandwagon's wheel. Nikou provides acute observation of psychic life and of the interplay and tension between that life and its theorized representations and public face.
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Michelle Nikou's work suggests a hard subset of unsystematized, unvoiced, counter-theory made up of incontrovertible, pragmatic, factual truths.
It is in keeping with this that they are typically of small size: that they do not signal 'art', or major statement, that they indicate not the Ideal, any Ideal, and that they speak sotto voce, unemphatically. They have a 'refusnik' aspect: a refusal of many of the rhetorical supports or framework(s) of High Art, of Renaissance humanism, of the Enlightenment inheritance. Formally the works come without the 'prologemena effect', a presentation that introduces the work traditionally, with visual eclat and fanfare. While no one would suggest Nikou's work is entirely sui generis, or outside art, it is in no way concerned to claim lineage with recent or past Great Art--neither by express affinity, by quotation, reference, or resemblance. Rather, the work--piece by piece--acts to sever itself from links, from association with the well-armed and suavely briefed discourse of 'the major artwork' that comes replete with a chorus of like works and forebears vouching for it.
Nikou's work constitutes a refusal of master narratives, of narratives that rest upon too many assumptions. Nikou's work is literalist/existentialist in manner--and it quotes (rather than speaks in its own voice) only fragments of discourse. These fragments are of the quotidian discourse of lives lived below the level of the Master Narrative, counter to it, oblivious of it, cynical toward it. Or they are fragments of emotional response--quoted--or maxims, or captions. They are quoted as more real than the Master Narratives, are quoted ironically, quoted sarcastically, as abject and inadequate, but irrefutable.
These refusals, these literal quiddities, these ironic, sardonic, phyrric counters are also embodied in the scale (always non-heroic), the facture (evidenced, perfunctory, adequate), and the finish (unsmoothed, domestic, non-luxury).
Many pieces are calibrations. They calibrate marks, milestones that might chart and measure a life--in particular, but not always exclusively, a female life--I'm with him now, for example, the tissue boxes, the curtain rings. There is a rosary of necklace biscuits, another of potato shapes, or of chews (like sleeps, like meals). Necklaces are chains of course. It is possible to see much of Michelle Nikouâ€™s work as series, links in a chain--as tellers of time, markers of stages, of duration and repetition--and as prayers, rituals (viz-the masticated ingestions on spoons, or linked as a necklace).
These ordinary objects sometimes seem to interrogate us, ask after the fun that was afforded--by the contents of the opened box, by the occasion (the festive party cake moulds)--while, question asked, they stand as melancholy or dispassionate memory.
The three stainless steel Patty Pans capture the festivity, excitement, the promise of parties, children's parties in particular. Their fluted sides capture the light, flickering, suggesting the tizzy fussiness of the event and of the cakes' manufacture. They are intricate, delicate, small, quickly consumed. Are they melancholy? They are moulds of moulds, too, which is part of the joke.
Again, Nikou's are objects with which we have a strong association--from use, consumption, disposal. This is very much 'extra-aesthetic' knowledge. In many instances it makes the ordinary (this ordinary knowledge) suddenly valuable (as with the cup cake moulds, or the spoons), or it merely makes their forms available to an aesthetic knowledge or appreciation--as, for instance, with the long bronze breeze-snake. Suddenly it is beautiful, its detail holds our attention, gains an appraisal even as it speaks of its sentence of long years lying on floors.
* * * * *
Nikou's work mounts distrust of the bland and grandiloquent lie, asserting the intimate but ignored, unknown, or unregistered--from domestic life, from unremarked interstices in time or in spaces. The work can be seen as dealing in the Uncanny, the abject, terms frequently invoked now in writing on visual art (Nikou is not swimming against every tide, but her work is individual). The reality is more entertaining. Their intense here-and-noe actuality also has the effect of denying 'idea'--and we are left with physical presence, facticity, objectness. On occasion almost any of Nikou's works, trickily, ingeniously, can seem to be not identical with themselves but, in each case, to be two works. It can be discomforting, or jokey. Do these doubled modes of being deny each other, live with each other, or more or less endlessly supplant each other? Over time the rhythm of this exchange will slow, or settle, and start again.
The works are witty and their wit is chiefly in their (being acts of) selection--and in their irony (rueful, bitter, self-communing), or in their sympathy or simple alertness to emotional states.
Strangely they combine muteness with almost position-paper summative responses--attitudinal, diagnostic, emblazoned responses. In tune with this 'almost-muteness' is their scale: liminal/liminary, or just larger. Large enough to nag. Large enough to snag attention. Or the work gets under our guard and is suddenly engrossing, interesting and joyful, life-giving--as shape, as play. Witness the series of letters spelling the word "hair". They make a chorus line of small, capricious, dancing shapes, innocent yet fascinating partly because of taboos about cut hair, nail pairings and the like. The work lifts the taboo rather than breaking it. It will not flatter the law with recognition.
Ken Bolton, July 2005