“I’m not interested in my person but in my interior system of organization and functioning.”
(Editor’s Note: In April 2011, Ioana Nemes died suddenly from cardiac arrest in New York. I was deeply affected by the news and was unsure why until recently. We enter and exit from each other’s lives in various ways. Sometimes, it’s a passing glance. Other times, it’s an in-depth conversation about what really matters to us. Upon reflection, the interview below peels away at some of my own existential thoughts as much as it showcases her own contributions and work. Although we never physically met and had not much interaction beyond this interview, I find myself missing her today… This interview first appeared on NeoAztlán in 2007.)
By Esteban Peralta and Simona Nastac
Ioana Nemes’ observations are sharp, often lethal. Apparently, the slivers of glass that should reside in any artist’s heart are pretty large ones in her case. She grew up in an environment hostile to artistic creation and dialogue. She was forlorn. She was often teed off. But this experience produced her best work, the Wall Project. The shape of things to come.
The wall is my room, my privacy, my hideout, my stopover, my mobile institution. I keep thinking and building it up in my head – a virtual station, a mobile room that travels with me. I am the wall.
Started in 2001, on the dining room wall of her small Bucharest flat, it consists of notes, sketches, photos, and graphs measuring the distance between her goals and her achievements. The wall is divided into two sections, “To Do” (projects, dreams), and “Exit” (projects, dreams fulfilled).
I hope I am happy today when I can shift a note from To Do to Exit.
The ongoing dialogue of items moved from one section to another became an austere, disciplined path of self-exploration and expression, revealing the effort an artist must make to walk the thin line between the real and the imaginary while producing art for an audience with different existential priorities. – Simona Nastac
Esteban Peralta: I saw the piece you did for the Version Magazine 0.6 Coloring Book which had the word “diamond” on the top in capital letters and then a diamond graphic with the words “If you want to have more diamonds ask your mom to photocopy this one” below. It seems to clarify your questions about worth and reality in your work by making things real through synthesis. But the piece also seems a little defiant – possibly a statement about materialism. What are your thoughts?
Ioana Nemes: I’ve always been fascinated with the language used in advertising when promoting a life-style product: perfume, clothes, luxury watches or mobile phones. In the Version piece, knowing it targeted kids, I wondered what a seven year old girl thought while watching one of those cheesy jewel ads in her mom’s glossy magazine. It’s incredible how deeply naive children are. They strongly believe anything you tell them and immediately imagine everything without you having to use too many tricks. Tricks are always used when addressing adults. In Diamond, I concentrated on the aim of an ad, the one that makes you covet more. I also offered the alternative solution of multiplying the desired object, by photocopying it. This could work in a child’s symbolic universe. On the other hand, this ad also educates the child in the perverse spirit of the bulimic consumerism.
EP: Talk a little about your background.
IN: I’ve stumbled quite accidentally in the art field, both literally and figuratively. Literally, because I severely injured my knee and I had to put an end to a rather promising carrier in handball. And figuratively, for the exams at the Art University in Bucharest were the easiest, you didn’t have to have an artistic background or anything. It seemed like a welcoming change at 21, radical as it was.
I grew up in Bucharest, but I was away most of the time in sport training camps or touring around Europe. Looking back, I realize how immensely important the first years were, how much my parents influenced me, each in his and her own way. My father is an inventor and I remember growing up very frustrated, longing for the classical communist living room with the usual furniture and sofa, having instead a workshop full of engines and walls covered in prototypes drawings.
EP: Are there any things in your past that you feel are especially important for your work?
IN: Definitely, I’ve inherited my tempo and organization skills from the sports years. Mentally, I always need a very clear structure before engaging in anything, even though afterwards the content surpasses the boundaries of reason or logic. In fact, my works mirror my way of thinking. There is a paradoxical mixture of order, censorship and discipline on one hand, disorder, rebellion and violation of all rules on the other. Nevertheless, positioned on different levels, so as not to cancel one another.
EP:I’m interested more in your thoughts about advertising particularly how it relates to your work. Your work might be considered autobiographical. I’m wondering if you think the effectiveness of your work can be linked to your effectiveness as your own life’s advertiser or with the general voyeuristic tendency of people or maybe both.
IN:I don’t think my work is that autobiographical. I used myself in the Monthly Evaluations project because I didn’t have anyone else to act as a guinea pig, someone willing to have his life monitored and analyzed day by day. I was curious to find out the way one can transpose in numbers or anything palpable and visible the time that flowed daily around or through us. How can one visualize these daily variations (emotional, physical, intellectual, etc.) that are so linked to one another? In the Wall project I wanted to observe my own efficiency, not in a personal sense, but in a functional one. I’ve analyzed from the outside, as coldly and objectively as I could, the actions and ways through which I tried to solve daily problems. I’m passionate about psychology, about the way in which the nervous system is structured, about how logical are in fact all the links between the events that at a first glance seem totally unrelated.
I am not trying to advertise my life, but to show the results of my observations and analysis. I’m not interested in the Big Brother phenomenon. My projects speak about something else.
EP: You don’t show your face in your work.
IN: My works are not as personal as they seem. I’m not interested in my person but in my interior system of organization and functioning. Therefore, there is no use in showing my face. I find it fascinating to archive, stock and analyze data of this phenomenon happening to me every single day: time passing through me.
EP: Can you talk in detail about the injury and your life in sports? Do you mourn your life as an athlete?
IN: No, not at all. The life of a professional sportsman is an extremely tough one, it’s almost like in the army. You totally depend on the health of your body. I do miss the sports ground, the preparation rituals before the game, the sports gear, the boiling atmosphere during the games, but I don’t miss the trainings themselves. Yes, I might have started my first project, The Wall, out of my need to clarify the coordinates of my new environment, the artistic one, and to understand how I could bring in my new life everything useful until then in sports.
EP: Along those lines, in your 2004 self-interview, you describe a fictional place in your mind where you retreat when you are faced with a big challenge. You said:
It’s a perfect hospital room… It’s a beautiful super white room with fresh air and green sparklings from the outside landscape… Next to my bed, there is a table, a white one with metal legs, and with a transparent, perfectly hygienic glass of mineral water on top of it… and some red flowers, or better some purple flowers…In this room the temperature is always perfect, not too cold and not too hot… And here I am, on the bed, breathing the fresh, mentholated air that comes from the oxygen mask, which is made from a special transparent rubber with some small, geometrically arranged holes… And outside, through a big window I can see the green leaves, the olive and the bright yellow ones and the sparkling sunbeam that passes through them… and touches my face…stuff like that…it’s a normal happy environment… I think…
This also struck me as very interesting especially after learning about your family’s history with mental illness. Do you still retreat to your “perfect hospital room?
IN: No, I don’t retreat in that virtual room anymore. Nevertheless, the desire to be cared for and protected in a clean, healthy and friendly space resides in every human being, from the beginning until the end.
EP: You mentioned the idea of being a “guinea pig” for your art. Do you think it might be easier to find others have their life monitored and analyzed in the era of the blogs and YouTube? Do you see yourself using others as guinea pigs at some point or will you continue to be the guinea pig?
IN: Mmm, I don’t think so. The fact that people are willing to post details from their personal life on the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be scanned and analyzed. After all they are the absolute authors of the content they are posting on the ‘Net and most of the times that equals total control. This situation would dramatically change should they be guinea pigs in the Monthly Evaluations project.
EP: It is interesting that you mention the “Big Brother” phenomenon. As an observer of your art, I can’t help but feel that I’m getting a peek into your personal life despite the fact that your life is being organized in such a methodic way through your art. It’s a question of form vs. substance, for me, really. Annette Hill, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Westminster in England, describes the relationship of performance and authenticity :
At the heart of the debate about the reality of reality TV is a paradox: the more entertaining a factual program is, the less real it appears to the viewers.
We might substitute “performance” for “art” in this case. As you document what you’ve called “time passing through” you, do you worry that your art might come off as less credible or authentic as you document times in your life that are really extraordinary/unextraordinary?
IN: I agree with Hill. I’ve always been conscious by the fact that the viewer doesn’t have any guarantee whatsoever that my description of a day was true. Nevertheless it is true. In fact, it doesn’t even matter whether it is or isn’t true. Sometimes the reality has this stunning potentiality to surpass by far what would only happen in fiction. I remember once, while in Amsterdam, during a project called Lost & Found, I had to present in front of an audience of one hundred people my Monthly Evaluations project. It was interesting to observe that due to the show element and my live presence, unhappy, even dramatically charged days would lose their negativity and cross to the other side. People even perceived them as funny, ironically funny. There were laughter bursts, something that wouldn’t have happened had they met these days in the “sacred” space of an art gallery or a museum.
EP: Do you see your art as a way to link a sort of cosmic logic to the real world?
IN: No, not necessarily. But I do agree that everything happens for a reason, more or less visible for us in the moment it is happening. I’m fascinated with the absolute power of time to change a perspective. How the same event can be perceived differently in different moments of time.
EP: Please talk a little more about your self-interviews. I’m particularly interested in how you choose the interview questions and why?
IN: The interview formula intrigues me – the way we as interview consumers accept that this formula is totally true (the reality of an interview for example). I’m an interview enthusiast. I simply adore them. They resemble in a way the psychology sessions, during which one can discover so many hidden nuances behind some solid words. I’ve always considered interviews very linked to fiction, regardless of their documentary character. In the self-interviews I’ve written (sort of mockumentaries) I tried to make use of the characteristics of the interview and to subtly twist them here and there. It wasn’t too difficult to address myself questions, since I was detached both from the Ioana answering the questions as well as from the Ioana asking them. I’ve written them on the spot, just like fiction, although I borrowed as much as I could from reality.
EP: Who would you like to interview other than yourself and why? What are three questions you would ask that person?
IN: Oh my god! I’m not crazy about interviewing myself. Don’t get me wrong. If I were to enumerate the people I would like to talk to, the list would be too long. But it would certainly include Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, Isabela Blow, the Studio Job team, Chuck Palahniuk, Nicole Kidman, David Lynch, Lars von Trier or Banks Violette. A lot of people, isn’t it? Such a pity we don’t get to talk to all the people we would like to.
As for the three questions I would ask, they would vary according to the interlocutor. I’m keen to gather a lot of documentation before asking anyone anything, therefore there is no such thing as generally valid questions.
EP: If you were doing this interview, what is one question you would ask?
IN: I don’t know what question I’d have, but definitely not this one.
EP: Talk a little about current and upcoming work and exhibitions.
IN: My next show should take place in March 2008 at the Jiri Svestka Gallery in Prague, with a series of eight new works from the Monthly Evaluations project. I might be present in the Art Basel fair with these works as well. I still have some technical problems producing them. I hope everything would work out well until then. Then there is U-TURN in Copenhagen in September. Besides this, I’m really busy launching my fashion label Greyland School in Bucharest. I’m completely involved emotionally in this task and curious about how the public will welcome it.