Nicholas Folland in conversation with Prue Gibson for Art World 09/08/2008
Where does your name come from?
To the best of my knowledge Folland is a Norwegian name used to describe a small hill, but my English ancestors, Charles and Charlotte, sailed into Holdfast Bay on the ‘Resource’ in 1839. My middle name is Charles.
Many of your sculptures incorporate elements of kitsch or sentimental memory. Why is this relevant to your artistic preoccupations? What does it say about the current practising-artist generation, that there is a trend of looking back, yearning to recreate something lost?
I guess it’s partly the sentimental appeal, like when a fleeting recollection can be such a beautiful and powerful moment. But there’s also something nice in the pretentious implication of value and excess in the kitsch, I think we’re all seduced by that too. And while I’m not really a signature artist, my materials are often nostalgic. I like what you say about yearning to recreate something lost, but I think for me it’s about having a tool to express something about yearning, and perhaps something about lost and loss rather than anything overtly historical. The past is something to fictionalise.
You mentioned that your work dealt with a process of flux. Are you referring to the way the objects (often domestic) have metaphysical meaning? Why does this process work so well for you?
I don’t think much about metaphysics, but I know that if I leave my fridge door open a small glacier will begin to form! Much of my work either includes or implies a transformation taking place, or something in-between states. Hopefully there’s a sense that something has just happened, or that it’s just about to, and like a moment of realisation, it’s out of your control. The generic domestic object is already a little bit alchemy and a little bit nature, so with a nudge either way it can begin to imply much more complex desires.
When you won the Samstag Award and spent time in Rotterdam, you made work that could be seen as anarchic and anti-environmental eg. your creation of a habitat for Holland’s illegal vermin, the pigeon. Are you an eco terrorist?
Pigeons are truly international birds, and they were so important for Charles Darwin in formulating his theories of evolution. In contrast to any natural evolution of things, Holland is a miraculous piece of human engineering and any existing ‘habitat’ is completely introduced and constructed, so the line between pet and vermin or plant and weed is much more slippery than here in Australia. The pigeons in Rotterdam live on a diet of potato chips because there is no suitable habitat. So I created bird gardens on roof tops in an endeavour to improve their health, but I also manufactured balanced feed pellets with the addition of Canthaxanthin and Beta-Carotene in a futile attempt to change the colour of the birds to Holland’s favourite colour – orange, and to make them the subject of national pride.
You have said you are interested in travel but also the idea of travel. What is it about the physical journey that intrigues you?
I love to travel. The feeling that you get when you travel through new country is very close to the feeling of being lost, and I like that. But I’m also very aware of that dilemma that Alain de Botton articulates so well, that you have to take yourself along for the ride… So I guess my interest is less about travel than it is about searching and longing. To be honest, I really just like the transit lounge.
Certain of your works reflect an interest in geographical tyrannies eg. the manipulated world map, where Africa is attached to South America and South America is attached to Asia, Australia to Africa etc. Are you intrigued by the way the tectonic subterranean plates shifted randomly, creating these diverse continents around the world, which have then shaped the various societies within them?
I’ve spent so much time looking at maps; searching for something, myself , someone else… I don’t know? It’s the past and the future in maps. I’m intrigued by their direct reference to landscape and the orientation of the earth, but they’re also always specific in nature and really limited in the information that they can convey. It’s a problem of scale. The shift in my maps is hopefully subtle enough that it’s not immediately evident, and it’s only when you really focus that they fall apart. I’ve recently created some new maps that plot the largest uninhabitable areas of the Indian and Pacific oceans. There’s a nice irony in mapping something that’s always in motion, everywhere and nowhere.
In your sculpture, the icicle chandelier, the ice ball slowly grows and obfuscates the chandelier. This work is a reference to the early polar expeditions and historical tales of pioneering adventures. Is it also drawing out themes of the wild chaos of nature versus the order and social niceties of civilised society?
Yes! But civilised society really wants wild chaos! Another installation that illustrates this dichotomy is a floating full-scale bathroom entitled raft in which water flows and flows relentlessly from every outlet. Grieg’s mournful Holberg Suite, Op. 40 Air, accompanies the piece. The work brings the wild nature indoors, like a sinking ship in the distance, a kind of beautiful chaos. Many of my works make somewhat fictitious reference to the narratives of early exploration because these stories describe the body at its most vulnerable to nature; it’s most out of control and uncivilised.
Are artists allowed to respond directly to nature any more?
Yeah, I hope so, I think artists still find inspiration in nature, but it’s not so romantic, it’s an anxious area now and paradise is definitely lost. I make romantic references to landscape in my work, but they’re fractured in one way or another, and operate to lure an audience into a false sense of security, or to highlight their own allusiveness.
What role does irony and satire play in your sculptures?
I’m cynical and sarcastic, but with enough time and reflection the work can appear ironic and satirical. Cynical and sarcastic is too quick, and people don’t like it. Irony and satire soften the blow.
Your 2006 exhibition comprised military medals made from tin cans. Can you expand on the symbolism of these works?
The medals came about after an unexpectedly amazing trip to the Australian War Memorial, when a quick and disinterested visit turned into a two-day pilgrimage. The dioramas and displays, along with the daily rituals of the place are incredible, it’s another world. I was already making crappy trophies dedicated to small achievements and complete failure, so the medals seemed like an obvious extension. And the labels on the tin cans have names like ‘John West’ and ‘Snappy Tom’! At the War Memorial nicknames like this are used to personalise and promote the bravery of war. Wouldn’t you put your life in the hands of Snappy Tom?
Which book has been most influential on you work?
J. K. Huysmans’ Against Nature has always been a favourite. But I tend to read very selectively for passages in texts rather for complete narratives. I’m also quite dyslexic, and often read things incorrectly without being aware of it, so I’m not sure if I’ve ever read anything you would know…
Finally if you could live with any work of art ever made, what would it be?
Can I commission a piece? I would love it if Amilcar Packer could spend his days crawling around under my carpet. Or perhaps something by Bas Jan Ader, what ever happened to his boat? I suspect we’re all searching for the same thing.
NICHOLAS FOLLAND “The past is something to fictionalise.”
In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd. Pot-bellied cut glass bowls float inverted and subdued on waxed credenzas, the slippery surface of effete display exposing the intoxicating delight of discrete bourgeoisie fetish. An alluring laboratory set, Encounter (2008), carries its contradictions boldly. An initial glance might suggest a confluence of science and alchemy, yet a lingering gaze slowly reveals a tender and elaborate sensuality of form that resists fact in favour of fiction. Confabulated, satirical and meticulously nuanced, Nicholas Folland’s realm poses speculations for ratbag scientists, fringe dwellers, explorers and dreamers.
Part of the pleasure, and the challenge, in Folland’s practice for all potential wanderers, is tracking the various connections it makes with the often warring worlds of science, psychology, philosophy and the prosaic. Disorientating and re-assembling seemingly familiar apparatus—cut-glassware, maps, chandeliers, ice and fluorescent tubes—he gives physical substance to thought experiments designed to unsettle the normative ways in which recognition can be displaced through precise and perverse intervention.
Indian Blue (2008) and Pacific Blue (2008), enigmatic maps of ocean depths devoid of inhabitable landmasses, disturb the balance of perception by establishing a lyrical meditation on what lies beneath. Mimicking the conventions of pictorial grids, simple geometries of longitude provide expanded latitude by reducing the hard and fast stuff of concrete mapping into a minimalist landscape of monochromatic luminescence.
Embedded in cut-glass decanters two replica vessels the Investigator and Le Géographe transform into shape-shifting abstractions of shadow and light in Untitled (boat) 5 (2008). Sequestered from the narrative of history, the moment at which explorers Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Baudin crossed paths at Encounter Bay in 1802 is illuminated as a fossilized whimsy, prone to colonial mythologising. As kitsch and surreal parlour souvenirs, cloistered and suffocated these counterfeit artifacts—vessels within empty vessel—exist as part and parcel of our cultural image set, with all the comparative connotations such recontextualising implies.
It is fitting that Folland has identified the anachronistic signifiers of a civilized world as the matter for his elegantly constructed chaos: the pliant and thinly veneered environments of order and modesty can hardly resist de-basing. The artist recently stated in an interview that “many of my works make somewhat fictitious reference to the narratives of early exploration because these stories describe the body at its most vulnerable to nature” and in his manipulations the seemingly composed surfaces of domesticity and the interior become more allusive abjections. In this world, all things are porous as the ordinary abandons restraint and the beauty of impermanence builds in your imagination as the very essence of time itself.
Director, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces
Nicholas Folland: One Thing Becoming Another
by Isobel Philip • December 10, 2010 • http://theartlife.com.au/?p=4422
At Nicholas Folland's show at GrantPirrie, Isobel Philip wonders at the strangeness of one thing becoming another...
You do feel as if you have stumbled on a secret lair when you walk down the stairs and into GRANTPIRRIE’s project space gallery, making it an apt space for Nicholas Folland’s show Hideout. The room feels like a secret cubby house, however, the longer you linger and the more time you spend with the peculiar objects that adorn the room’s walls the more you realise that here, things are slightly skewed. This place unnerves.
This becomes quite palpable as soon as you notice the collection of knives that hang one of the walls.
Nicholas Folland, Tools, 2010.
Engraved knives, brass rod, variable installation.
The blades are each raised about an inch off the surface of the wall casting shadows that cascade down the wall appear almost more imposing than the blades themselves. Each knife has a different shaped blade on whose handle an individual name has been carved. These names seem to belong to the knives themselves as opposed to their owners. Floating against the wall they are personified. They have become bodies.
After a while these bodies begin to look distorted or warped. Perhaps this has something to do with the strange medley of blade shapes, which is exaggerated by the mess of intersecting shadows, but even so, the knives appear disfigured. These bodies are contorted and writhing in pain.
It was this paradox that unnerved me, more than the knives themselves. They seemed fragile and vulnerable, not at all violent. It was as if these knives were victims.
Nicholas Folland, Stuart Crystal decanter and two matching wine glasses (left), Large Stuart Crystal comport and two dessert bowls (right), 2010.
Wooden shelf, recast stuart crystal items, doily, branch, 110x40x60cm each.
As I turned my attention to the rest of the objects in this installation I began to realise that everything in this room was marked by paradox or inversion. The two shelves attached to a wall, on which small arrangements of opaque crystals on top of white lace doilies, were being propped up by tree branches that looked ready to collapse.
For me, these pockets of otherness were the most crucial, and indeed beautiful, elements of Folland’s work. I loved those subtle moments of alterity – the warped blades, the dance of their shadows and those crystals. Folland made those crystals by recasting two bowls, wine glasses and a decanter. What was once a vessel, an empty container waiting to be filled, has become a solid mass. Things are not as they should be. They have morphed.
Looking back to the knives I realised that they too had undergone a metamorphosis. Those brutal and sinister implements had quietly transformed into victims. They were not inanimate, they were personified, even gendered, with at least one female: ‘Debby’. These knives had been recast too. They were no longer threatening, they were vulnerable.
In this room things are transfigured and mutate. This is a transformative lair. If a hideout is engineered to conceal, to keep things secret and exclusive, then perhaps what Folland is hiding is this very thing – the metamorphosis that has moved and transformed these objects. And there they sit, waiting to be found.
Nicholas Folland: Hideout
GrantPirrie December 2010
Becalmed: the art of going nowhere in the work of Nicholas Folland
by Wendy Walker, 2006
One of the standout works of the National Gallery of Victoria's 2004: Australian Culture Now survey of Australian contemporary art, Nicholas Folland's haunting I think I was asleep (2003) presented a rakishly-angled chandelier, partially covered with advancing encrustations of ice crystals (courtesy of a visible refrigeration coil). Pithily emblematic of Folland's dual nature/culture concerns, it was also an evolving artwork - resonant in allusions to volatile states, as water dripped onto the gallery floor and ice1 enveloped the chandelier, itself the product of a molten process of transformation (to which intense heat is critical).
Skewered with heating rods, an earlier, more reductive installation work Mt. Hopeless (2001) was included in Arid Arcadia: Art of the Flinders Ranges (2002), curated by Alisa Bunbury at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Edward John Eyre abandoned his 840 expedition into the heart of Australia in South Australia's Flinders Ranges at a stony rise, which he named Mt Hopeless - a landmark that also figured in the later expeditions of Charles Sturt and Burke and Wills. Folland's heated granite boulders evoked, not only the extreme physical conditions and the searing heat of the desert, but also as Bunbury noted, 'the isolation and desolation felt by Eyre...' These literal, but increasingly allusive, narratives of failed endeavour have consistently furnished a gritty subtext for Folland's dream-like vignettes.
In the 2006 exhibition at Greenaway Art Gallery, Folland's unworkable, prefabricated kitchen unit (bereft of handles, drawers, an oven etc) and an upended sofa that recalled the wall-mounted work Jason is a LA. Z. BOY (1998), reiterated an abiding preoccupation with dysfunctional domestic furniture. The recent purchase by media mogul Kerry Stokes of a Victoria Cross medal for one million dollars lent a topicality to the Relic Series of faux war 'medals,' fashioned from aluminium tin cans with their colourful paper labels. Most engaging, however, were Folland's humorously haphazard trophy tributes to failure with inscriptions such as 'Staying in bed', 'Not getting far' and 'Refusing to compete.' An avid reader, Folland cites as influential J. K. Huysmans' fin de siÃ¨cle novel Against Nature (Ã€ Rebours), which recounts the failed travel attempts of its aesthete protagonist, who resorts to surrounding himself with the exotic trappings of imagined journeys. A failure to find spiritual succour in the countryside provided the material for Huysmans' next novel, which was (most interestingly given Folland's themes) titled Becalmed (En Rade).
Writing in the catalogue for Folland's solo exhibition Nameless Fear (2003) at Adelaide's Contemporary Art Centre, Charles French offered the prescient observation that: 'It is as if we are lost at sea, searching the ocean for signs of land. While we may see none, we assume that land exists, we've been there before, beyond our horizon.' In several subsequent works, such as the outdoor performance piece heave away! (2004), the untitled - lifeboat series (2004) and the spectacular Doldrum (2005) exhibition at the Experimental Art Foundation, Folland shifted his gaze to the vast territory of the ocean and to the frailty, the vulnerability (and therefore metaphoric potential) of man-made, ocean-going craft.
It was in heave away! - part of the Samstag2 Program's Disclosures series of one-day events - that Folland's enduring theme of human struggle that is doomed to failure (in other words, a becalmed state of being), found its most overt form. Spectators, who were asked to arrive shortly before sunset at a designated location on the banks of Adelaide's River Torrens, witnessed the appearance of a lifeboat, rowed by a company of sailors (members of Urban Myth Theatre of Youth). Having weighed anchor, they proceeded to sing traditional sea shanties (of leaving home and the trials of the journey ahead) and to quaff liquor. Throughout the performance one of the sailors continued rowing without making any perceptible progress. Folland, who was at that time preparing to leave Adelaide to live in Sydney, says that it is his most autobiographical work (a clear indication that his sometimes physically imposing vignettes additionally refer to more cerebral landscapes).
But it was also informed by the work of Bas Jan Ader - the 1970s Dutch conceptual artist who died at the age of thirty-three undertaking the second phase of a three-part project titled In Search of the Miraculous. The first instalment (an exhibition of nocturnal photographs of the artist against a shifting backdrop of Los Angeles) was accompanied by a choir, singing sea shanties â€“ a device for the announcement of the artist's impending solo voyage from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to Falmouth in England in a thirteen-foot sailboat. Ader, however, failed to arrive3 and in April of 1976 - some nine months after his departure - the semi-capsized craft was discovered by a Spanish fishing trawler off the coast of Ireland.
This tragic and enduringly mysterious episode, allied with the narratives implicit (albeit unstated within the context of the exhibition) in Folland's untitled - lifeboat series (2004) provide a possible context for the Doldrum (2005) body of work at the Experimental Art Foundation. In the Kindle & Swag: The Samstag Effect (2005) exhibition, Folland presented small replicas of the vessels, in which Captain Bligh was set adrift following the mutiny of his crew and one of the lifeboats from the Titanic. (Although the manner of their display seemed to suggest alternative, disastrous outcomes for these particular lifeboats.)
Within a darkened gallery space, the viewer was confronted by Raft's partially submerged, life-sized bathroom (fitted with hand basin, toilet, bath and wooden floorboards), lodged at a precipitous angle, as the result of an unspecified disaster. Floods of water continually gushed from the bathroom's taps and shower-head to the elegiac accompaniment of Grieg's Holberg Suite Opus 40 (Air). Further adding to the sense of drama was the theatricality of the lighting and over the period of its installation, the work developed a distinctive odour - the potent smell of damp, rotting timber that is peculiar to ocean-going vessels. Every fifteen minutes, there was an unexpected period of stasis - an eerie silence broken only by the sound of dripping water - as the cycle of water briefly came to an end and the music ceased. Folland says that he wanted 'to create something very comfortable (and therefore familiar), that has taken on a life of its own. Through familiarity, the bathroom is a place of calm, of flowing water and dreaming in the bath, but in Raft, the elements have become the stuff of nightmares - too out of control to be comfortable.'
The remarkable Raft installation was inspired in part by fountains Folland had observed in the course of his travels in Europe and Asia and specifically the Font MÃ gica (Magic Fountain) on MontjuÃ¯c in Barcelona - designed by engineer Carles Buigas for the 1929 Universal Exhibition and restored in 1992 for the Olympic Games. Each day at 6 pm, for one hour the Font MÃ gica cascades down a hillside in a light and sound spectacle choreographed to music. A fountain in Shanghai - a map of the world that erupts every hour to the music of Swan Lake - also held a particular fascination for Folland, whose interest in (realigned) maps is longstanding. (The Doldrum exhibition contained two (land-less) maps of the Pacific and Indian oceans and another of the world's land masses reconfigured as a dragon-like creature.) As Mariele Neudecker's 1999 work Never eat shredded wheat (memory maps) all too clearly revealed, maps exist as a slippery entity in our perception.
There are a number of other parallels with the work of German-born Neudecker, who has habitually drawn on the tradition of German Romantic painting in her interpretations of landscape. 'Mountains, rivers and oceans,' says Folland, 'can be seen to provide direct and traditional references to the sublime. They are boundless territories, unrestricted and infinite.' Folland has from the outset expressed an affinity for the stripped-down, poetic metaphor and in his idiosyncratic repertoire of signs, a 'grid' of sixteen, massed green footstools on castors, a tall kitchen unit or a vast agglomeration of Bohemia crystal glassware may refer to a mountain peak (or a sofa, a raft and so on). The Bohemia glassware tableau rested on a riskily tilted plinth, conveying a sense of foreboding that is characteristic of Folland's open-ended narratives.
If Folland's background in the theatre is demonstrated in the grand gestures of the heave away! performance work and the affecting Raft installation, it also accounts for his assured manipulation of scale and effect in works that cumulatively form a continuum. Revealing an ongoing capacity to navigate seamlessly through alternating magnifications, the drama of Raft - in tandem with the illuminated array of ice-like, cut glass tableware in an actual sailing dinghy - was preceded by the diminutive replica lifeboats and a solitary glass goblet in the Kindle & Swag exhibition.
The undisclosed genesis for Speculative Knowledge (2001) - one of Folland's most subtle, yet compelling works - was the Antarctic journals of Robert Falcon Scott, in which he repeatedly commented on the difficulty of excluding draughts from the expedition's tents. Unconnected to electricity, the three wall-mounted industrial fans of Speculative Knowledge might be viewed as non-functional, as irrefutably becalmed objects. For the duration of the 2001 exhibition, the fans were mounted on a wall, adjacent to the entrance of Greenaway Art Gallery. Each time a visitor entered the gallery space - thereby creating a current of air - the fans were momentarily activated, thus performing (however ephemerally) their designated function. Accordingly, in this most slyly understated of Folland's installations, the spectator physically and quite unwittingly, completed the work. It is precisely the sort of playful ploy - the materialisation of the intangible, the transformation of the undesirable into the functional - that marks Folland as an artist of uncommon vision.
Wendy Walker, 2006
Wendy Walker is an Adelaide-based writer, art critic and occasional curator. Throughout 2006 she is the Samstag writer-in-residence at the University of South Australia.
1. Given Folland's past investigations into explorer narratives (eg. Solidified Spirit, 2001), it is worth noting that during Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expeditions, the men found that their breath froze in their beards and the tents became lined with a layer of ice.
2. Folland was awarded an Anne and Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship in 1999 and undertook a year of research at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
3. Ader's students believed that the disappearance was a stunt - an impression that was reinforced when Ader's locker was found to contain a book called The Strange last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst - a non-fictional saga of a sailor's attempt to fake a solo around-the-world voyage that resulted in his death at sea.