Palace of the Local Erotic Servants, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore, 2016

Nick Modrzewski: An Anomalous Ritual

Act One

10th February 2017 

A cluster of gures is etched out in paint amidst a landscape of sculptural parapher- nalia. The mouths of this congregation gape open in a choral arrangement that we cannot hear, only to be interrupted by people vacuuming the gallery oor in quiet determination. 

29th September 2016
Across the pages of a magazine, the ghost of Felix Guattari prompts an escalating cascade of theological questions. 

21st September 2016
On a TV monitor an ensemble enact a series of ostensibly prosaic rituals: a game of tennis, a birthday party, the taking of
a family portrait. Look again, and these actions reorient, revealing the absurdities of social engagement. 

Nick Modrzewski is a Melbourne-based artist who mingles painting, sculpture, performance and text to construct a universe of discordant tableaux that explore power hierarchies. In his ctional scenes, characters engage in often nonsensical rituals and abide by arbitrary laws as a method of deconstructing the accepted way one might navigate societal relations. Graduating from the VCA in 2016, Modrzewski has exhibited at Fort Delta, c3 Contemporary Art Space, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (Singapore) and performed at TCB. 

[Location: Skype. Melbourne-Mexico] 

*dumb brun(ette): Nick, I’m quite curious as to the kind of journey that your work has undertaken since you first started painting. I’m always curious about the trajectory of an artist’s practice. 

Nick Modrzewski: I’ve shifted from being primarily a painter to creating installations and working with performers. As much as I love painting, I sometimes find that the silence and stillness of the medium can be limiting. I’m now trying to give voice to my paintings by creating sound pieces and building three-dimensional ‘painted’ stage- sets in which I enact performances. In terms of content, I’ve always been interested in nonsense and the absurd. Painting has been a way to explore these because it’s a medium that forces me to abandon control. Paint seems to have a life and a will of its own, meaning that I never have complete mastery over it. The process is very much a democracy, not a dictatorship – I work together with the paint rather than telling it what to do. I’m quite physical when I paint, and I like to submit to chance, error and improvisation. I try not to overthink it. It’s a bit like stepping into a garden of endlessly forking paths and part of the pleasure involves getting lost in that garden. Painting has taught me a lot of lessons, and I bring my training as a painter to other mediums. I make films the same way that I paint. 

*d(b): I definitely think that a good example would be the film that you showed at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, An Interior White Space At Night. You were taking domestic rituals like ‘the birthday party’ or ‘playing tennis,’ and seeing what new meanings you could create by changing the context. 

NM: Yes, exactly. For that work, I set up different stations, which were like miniature theatre stages filled with sculptures. I then directed and filmed amateur actors performing activities on these stages, such as lifting weights, eating a chicken and praying. The piece became this circus or zoo where the audience could examine human behaviour with fresh eyes, with new possibilities. The work was about defamiliarizing everyday activities and reimagining them, perhaps finding the miraculous in the mundane. 

*d(b): Your work How To Explain Very Fresh Chicken To A Chicken is another absurd piece that gains some of its meaning from the context in which the work was shown – at a chicken shop in Singapore. 

NM: Yes, that’s true. I’m interested in the relationship between humans and animals, and how animals have been absorbed into the human world. They appear to us in such submissive terms – on leashes and plates or behind glass. The relationship is totally pervaded by human control. I wanted to make a work that talks about this. So I created a performance, which I filmed in Singapore last year. I then showed
it on a television screen at a traditional hawker centre in an outer suburb of Singapore, as part of
a two-person show with Nabilah Nordin. The show was called Chicken Shop. At the opening, we served chicken and chips to the audience. 

Chicken Shop, Installation shot: Loyang Lane Hawker Centre, Singapore, Collaboration with Nabilah Nordin

Saddle-Hop, 120 x 90cm, Acrylic on board, 2017

*d(b): Last year you exhibited at the VCA Grad Show. Can you tell us a little about where this project is located in your practice? 

NM: For my final work, I created ‘sculptural theatre’. This involves combining a number of different mediums: painting, sculpture, performance and film. All the mediums merged into each other. For instance, I usually start with drawings or paintings that act as sketches for three-dimensional works. The resulting sculptures become props that I incorporate into performances, which are documented in photographs and films, where I enact rituals, play different characters and tell stories. The individual works are visceral and reference human or animal bodies in some way. Often, there is a sense of the erotic in the works, and sometimes a sense of violence. The sculptures are made from plaster, paper-mâché, cement, oil paint, wood and found objects. 

I purposefully placed the different works close together. I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia. The works mirror each other – most of them share a similar colour palette and motifs are repeated throughout the different mediums. 

*d(b): You mention that walking through your grad show installation there’s this claustrophobia in the way it has been installed. What led you to lay out the work in this way? 

NM: My intention was to convey the feeling of entering a separate world – one that is brimming with energy. The claustrophobic nature of the work assisted this. I wanted to create the impression that the artworks themselves were alive and propagating with each other. I imagine it like a glasshouse, where things start to grow uncontrollably under an intense heat. I like the idea of multiples, of things existing in clusters, close together. It tends to create a sense of chaos, where forms and colours surround the audience and jostle for attention. 

But there’s also something more in the idea of ‘multiples.’ In
 my performances and films I try to embody many different identities, to speak in different voices, to become a crowd rather than a single body.
In the same way, I create crowds of sculptural bodies in my installations. 

*d(b): I’m curious... thinking about your making process, it seems that ‘play’ is often a large contributing factor. I’ve only ever seen your works in progress, or at the very end. Picturing you in your studio, how might a work begin? What would be your point of departure?

NM: A lot of my thinking happens through writing and drawing, filling up notebooks. Once I get into the studio a work will always take on a life of its own. One thing I need to do is to get physical. When I’m working sculpturally, I start by wrapping things, tying things, scrunching things together. I’ll begin to make decisions I couldn’t have possibly predicted. A lot of it comes down to chance, seeing a piece of scrap and all of a sudden I’ll take the work in a new direction. It’s a bit like driving a car while blindfolded. The work has to always surprise me – that’s crucial. I think that’s why I use the sculptures as props in films, because I’m always trying to find a new way to ‘see’ them, to keep them alive with new contexts and possibilities. 

*d(b): Does that mean that, in a way, you don’t view each work as a point of resolution necessarily? 

NM: Yeah, absolutely. I always want a work to be remaking itself and propagating new possibilities, an expanding network. I’m always thinking about how the sculptures relate to the paintings, which relate to the writing, which relates to the films: everything is always in flux and open to reinterpretation. I don’t like to pin things down. 

You can find out more about Nick's practice, here

A short presentation for the Local Erotic Servants, Performance at Temasek Polytechnic Ampitheatre, Singapore, 2016

Credits: Images courtesy of the artist. 

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