How is it that some exhibitions disarm you from the outset? Michelle Nikou’s survey exhibition, a e i o u, had this beguiling effect. Not familiar with the artist or her work, it was an encounter without preconceptions. Nikou’s unabashed curiosity for the world of objects, internal psychological states, alchemy and transformation was matched by my own. I wanted to know about her cultural background, age, life experience which is to say the work and exhibition intrigues, even possessing a surprising and unexpected quality.
No doubt this had something to do with the gallery space itself. The celebrated former home of John and Sunday Reed is a modern architectural masterpiece. As a repurposed gallery space it retains the structural qualities of a mid 20th century house: a combination of small rooms with garden outlooks, tight little corridors finishing in cul de sac spaces and an austere but light filled living room. Viewing artwork in this space is a different proposition to the model of the white cube space located next door and elsewhere. For a start it’s not possible to scan the room and get the exhibition’s measure. The experience is more like a series of close encounters. And while the building is not home-y by any stretch it’s nevertheless unmistakably domestic.
This seems important somehow since Nikou’s work draws on the inanimate objects from everyday life, though in Nikou’s multidisciplinary art practice the detritus of domestic life – food, food trays, laundry baskets, clothes, tissue boxes, spoons, buttons, and handkerchiefs – have been either literally recast or repurposed in ways that imbue them with a uncanny quality.
Take three steps and you are literally upon a cabinet in which 13 spoons Spoons (2000) are arranged like crusty museum relics. Recast in lead they contain the shape of food stuffs, or is it cotton wool? Regardless, their arrangement possess a neat seriality totally at odds with their feralness.
Nearby a row of five cast cubed shapes reveal themselves, on close inspection, to be a series of propped up cast bronze tissue boxes Untitled (2001). The boxes perforated lids are similarly recast and appear framed like matching puzzle pieces.
This work, like many others in the exhibition, engages in juxtaposition: domestic and industrial idioms say, in which a laundry basket is interwoven with neon, or the material, reimagining something disposable such as a cardboard tissue box as a durable metal object. The juxtaposition contains a tremulous emotion, grief, sadness, melancholy.
Pop art and its interest in popular and consumer culture, as well as Surrealism, the avant-garde movement which sought to uncover the irrational and unconscious mind, hover at the edges of Nikou’s work. But its seriocomic quality, its oftentimes pared back monochromatic palette, and its existential longing – seems very rooted in a middle-European tradition.
Objects, letter forms and faces, appear and reappear in Nikou’s practice in a kind of personal symbology that imbues them with a unsettling psychology. Eggs, for instance, appear in different iterations: cracked and dripping as sculptures mounted to the wall and whole as an photographic element in an etching elsewhere. While it’s tempting to read into them metaphoric meaning – say about the origins of life for instance – the prevalence of food (and food containers) situates the work, on the one hand, in a more prosaic realm and on the other hand in a broader discourse around consumption, issues of sustainability and humanity’s capacity for survival. None of this struck me until much later.
Last week in Heide II I was simply wowed by Nikou’s technical and conceptual flair and strangely enthralled by her capacity to convey feeling through materials, and the artworks ability to capture – though how I’m not even certain – some essential quality of time, the expanding and contracting duration of life, no less.
Michelle Nikou - aeiou
23 April - 28 August 2016
Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Rd, Victoria 3105
Image: Christian Capurro. Read an edited version on the Artlink website.