Love Cushions, 2019

Nabilah Nordin and Nick Modrzewski

Firstdraft, Sydney

Heavy Petting at the Cat Café

Essay by Dr Tessa Laird

“…anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool…”

-       Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 240 (italics in the original)

 

Fluffy cushions with bug eyes and lolling tongues render the most upright citizens gibbering fools. A babble of babytalk is unleashed at the sight of a perky pair of ears or kinky tail. In Love Cushions, this kind of goofy glossolalia percolates a space which is less a gallery than a cat café on steroids (or acid). Strange structures scrape the ceiling, thrust through thoroughfares, wiggle, pool, and even just poo over the floor. There are bodies, at least bits of bodies, and there are architectural objects, or at least nods toward a provisional architecture. Carpeted perches have morphed into hangman’s gibbets, fluffy bodies into giblets; those viscera so thoughtfully collected, bagged, and stuffed back into the anal cavity of the eviscerated chickens you can buy at the supermarket, possibly to feed your beloved pooch or puss. The question is, as always, who gets to eat, and who gets to be the meat?[1]

Cat cafés are already peculiar assemblages. Humans are disinfected before they are allowed to touch the furry cargo within. No petting sleeping cats. One particular establishment I visited demanded food be covered at all times, with little mesh tents provided with every order. I found this amusing since no cat I know has ever wanted to eat a muffin, but as soon as I removed my cover to take a bite of the café’s mediocre baked goods, marauding cats jumped on the table and scratched at my hands, drawing blood. For a moment, the image of Roy Horn (of Siegfried and Roy) being dragged off a Las Vegas stage by his beloved white tiger Mantacore, flashed before my eyes.[2] Whips, sequins, big hair, animal print – those same key ingredients of that fateful night in 2003 in Vegas – all seem to be present in Love Cushions.

 

The cover of Siegfried and Roy’s 1992 autobiography, Mastering the Impossible, features the two magician’s faces squeezed together with a white tiger looking on impassively between them. Perhaps instead they should have mastered “nonmastery”, which Michael Taussig declares to be a preferable tactic in the practices of art and life.[3] For indeed, as much as pets inspire idiocy, they also provoke the opposite tendency in human-animals: to become petty and punitive disciplinarians, drunk with the power of dictatorial folly.

 

Deleuze and Guattari had no time for pets but they might have enjoyed the perversity of Siegfried and Roy, who grew up in Nazi (Siegfried) and post-Nazi (Roy) Germany and made a career out of collecting white lions and white tigers, for their rarity, we hope, rather than any sense of genetic purity. Like Moby Dick, the great white whale, white cats are “anomalous animals”, exceptions to the rule-bound world of domesticated pets.[4] Deleuze and Guattari give pets the insulting term “Oedipal”, lumping them together with Freud and his obsession with the insular, incestuous family unit. The idiotic sentimentality of pets and their owners is enough to make them want to scratch their eyes out, like Oedipus himself.

 

Donna Haraway has no time for the pet hating philosophers, arguing that despite their desire to dismantle binaries they have in fact entrenched a whopper dichotomy between domestic and wild, as if things were ever that simple. Haraway is a big lover of man’s best friend, in particular Cayenne, an Australian shepherd she calls a “Klingon warrior princess” six times in When Species Meet, her paean to the pooch. Apparently, Klingon warrior princesses are renown for their sexual prowess, and Haraway describes Cayenne’s exploits in detail, including calling her “one turned on little bitch”.[5] For Haraway, the wild exists in her everyday encounters with her “domesticated” friend Cayenne. Some might call Haraway’s puppy love excessive, but she’s not alone. The American Kennel Club ran a survey on women’s relationships to their dogs. “If my dog was a man, he’d be my boyfriend”, said one in three respondents.[6] Heavy petting, indeed.

 

Modrzewski and Nordin eviscerate stifling domesticity with teeth and claws, but also with butt-sniffing, tail-wagging joy. In so doing, they enact what Brian Massumi calls an “animal politics” – a politics of play.[7] This is, as Massumi claims elsewhere, in emphatic italics, “rewilding, not reproduction”, in other words, a strategy to ward away the sedimentary practices of domestication, not to mention the voracious co-optations of market capitalism.[8] As we desperately squeeze rampant animal energy into canine corsets and feline restraints, Modrzewski and Nordin rewild the space of inter-species encounter, revealing our messy, entangled desires for domination, for naming, taming and shaming, alongside our ineffably goofy delight in simply cuddling something fluffy.

[1] Donna Haraway notes that “companion” is from the Latin cum panis, with bread, which has implications both of breaking bread with friends, and eating those same friends, with bread on the side. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

[2] Mantacore is often referred to as Montecore, his nominal instability mirroring his turncoat ways – a leopard who changed his spots, or rather, a tiger who changed his stripes.

[3] “The mastery of nonmastery” is a frequent phrase in various Taussig texts, whose works are increasingly focused on animal politics. In a recent book, he bestows the unlikely donkey with the key to the secrets of the universe. Taussig, Palma Africana, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

[4] “…every Animal has its Anomalous…” Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009, p. 269.

[5] When Species Meet, p. 193.

[6] Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: how they teach us to be human, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Oliver’s introduction also intelligently unpacks the story of Roy and Mantacore.

[7] Brian Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

[8] Brian Massumi, 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019, p. 117.

Mark all as read, 2017

Nabilah Nordin, Nick Modrzewski and Katie Paines

Blindside, Melbourne

[MARK ALL AS READ]

Review by Brigid Hansen

A forgotten tea-break orange becomes an immovable piece of office-banter, consumed by the ‘80s gestural brutalist drawl of its office’s decor. Blu-tac constellations both fresh and embedded magnetise on the rear side of a swivelling black leather armchair. A filo-pastry-esque stack of lacquered A4 paper sits balanced atop its sitter’s ashy papier-mache-concrete bust—empty notes forgotten for so long that their layers slowly calcify.

Massage chairs, ergonomically designed prismatic footrests, conference retreats, segregated leisure areas with ping-pong tables, structured office exercise regimes. The commodification of attempts to combat the working body’s place in bureaucratic structures of operation under capitalism is rampant. Considering the remnants of these proposed solutions to the eight hour working day, three practitioners with respectively diverse practices across sculpture and archival installation explore the limitations and possibilities of the body under these rigorous structures of reform, control and communication.

Rather than a blatantly contrived artist-hating-on-institution style critique, these artists brought together their collective experiences of working as artists and in contemporary office environments and transformed the galleries into a cluttered, Patrick Bateman apartment-cum-boardroom installation. [MARK ALL AS READ] reads like a 1980s-Rococo office, the virtue signalling sculptural opulence of Nordin and Modrzewski cleverly paralleled by Paine’s critique of dogmatic structures through the historical lens of 19th century museological documentation. The installation in Gallery 1 is particularly haphazard—Nordin and Modrzewski’s altered collection of post-apocalyptic archival obstacles as concrete-plastered desks, an exercise ball, a dismantled exercise bike and dust-fossilised computing devices taking up most of the space. Striking one upon entering is Paine’s large-scale digitally-manipulated vinyl wall transfer composed of facsimile film still documentation of late-baroque sculpture at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Her pseudo-billboard The term Bureaucracy was coined by Rococo economist Jacques de Gournay [I imagine stretching out my arm to topple these insistent structures] is simply composed yet effective among its sculptural counterparts in its thematic relationality, a black-and-white composition with yellow subtitle beneath reading: ‘Betrayed by their delusions of grandeur’. Rococo and late-baroque artistic documentation and imagery occupies a particularly patrician place within both contemporary art and historical contexts, and Paine’s work builds upon this sense of cultural entitlement. The work’s placement as an overarching aesthetic element of a larger office installation draws parallels between the glorification of baroque imagery by cultural bureaucrats and the hegemonic control of working space and behavioural conduct in contemporary environments. Ironically, the artist’s administrative archival collections process mimics that of the museological institutions which she so apparently detests.

In Gallery 2, administrative white noise as a sound component provides an apt soundtrack in Modrzewski’s piece where arhythmic tattering on computer keyboards creates a white-noise rainfall, the dull drone of an amplified scanner and microwave spin-cycle a work-lullaby. Using the polyphonic aural conventions of Roman-Catholic composition, the two sound pieces which rotate on a cycle comedically capture an obtusely enunciated repetitive declarations ‘I had no chance, I had no chance to reply to your emails’, the moroseness of monotonous office tasks. Further, utilising the highly structured stylistic components of unaccompanied Gregorian-style liturgical recitative—declared by Pope Pius X to be the most sacred form of choral praise in the Roman Catholic church [1] —assists in lampooning the artist’s critique of regulatory, ministerial praxis in both artistic and bureaucratic contexts.

Thematic parallels are built here between Paine’s vinyl collage of Rococo goblet, Nordin and Modrzewski’s use of the lectern as bureaucratic support structure for top-down dissemination of information, the former describing in a gothic-font border the visceral human response to information overload as incessant, irritant—‘like Plaque on Teeth’. The pair’s Three Minute Meeting By the Office Plant includes an iPad-displayed video work propped up by a romanesque lectern which overwhelms the senses in its compilation of screencaps, generic mumbling, meta-analysis of corporate behaviour, human-read and automated text-to-speech sound components.

Melbourne CBD Artist-Run BLINDSIDE’s hyper-metropolitan outlook over billboards, city shrapnel and workers passing by on the street below proves a fitting space for [MARK ALL AS READ]’s office-paraphernalia-strewn aesthetic. Playing on the genericism of socially democratic, open-plan working space design in a globalised, post-industrial context, the exhibition forms both a historical trace of archive and the building blocks for a utopian cubicle-centric future. 

[1] White, J.F., Mitchell, N.D. (1995). Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today. Collegeville, Minn. : Liturgical Press

Peak Performance Plan (Figure Ensemble), 2016

Nabilah Nordin

Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Singapore

Peak Performance Plan (Figure Ensemble)

Essay by Katie Paine

Push it to the limit. Pump it Up. Fast and Furious.

 

These sporting maxims are just the kind of phrases one might expect to hear when talking of a “peak performance plan”. Dozens of images come to mind: the engorged sinew of a weight lifter, sweat pouring from the brow of a marathon runner, a gymnast rubbing at lilac bruises that snakes up their thigh.

 

Art on the other hand, is not traditionally considered an endurance activity. However, for Singaporean artist Nabilah Nordin, constructing her distinctive large-scale installations does indeed require careful planning, preparation and, above anything, endurance. If one was to translate the brutalism and ferocity of ‘peak performance’ to the realm of art, perhaps one would understandably at first turn to the manic violence and velocity of the Futurists: Marinetti declaring the way of the future to be unswervingly forward-looking and mechanized. While created in a concentrated frenzy of work, Nordin's hand-built structures lack the Futurist’s violent obsession with modernity- instead they create interruptions; points of stasis.

For the Singapore Biennale, Nordin has transformed a segment of the Institute of Contemporary Art, activating the gallery in such a captivating manner that visitors are lead to reconsider their habitual spatial relations. Nordin’s queer assemblages stretch up to the ceiling, clustered like the set for some fantastical piece of theatre.  Comprising of found objects, each component’s past identity is masked by layers of paint and plaster. A stack of chairs becomes the mangled spine of some unknown gargantuan being. Deteriorating planks of wood becomes an extraordinary whirring invention, like one you might find in Shelley’s Frankenstein. When crowded alongside one another, filling the room, these entities become like the city of Metropolis, whose teaming streets have been long since abandoned. Have we walked into the aftermath of some disastrous event? A forest decimated by a raging fire? An army of hybrid creatures congregated in battle formation?

One wouldn't think Nordin's sculptures were made according to a particularly rigorous schedule, or logistical formula. It is confounding, Nordin's creations appear be to entirely autonomous; as if unseen magnetic pulses have drawn the various objects together. Have they just been excavated after hundreds of years under the earth? Or are they apparitions from some far flung planet?

There is an inherent logic in the way that Nordin assembles her work. Nordin’s project has practical overtones, suggesting alternative possibilities for creative practice. A gallery full of assemblages in four days? While this may sound nigh impossible, working with such an immense set of logistical restrains, the creation of the artist’s site specific installation becomes somewhat of a game, a riddle. Born of play, intuitive experimentation has become closely associated with Nordin’s practice. Peeking at the installation through an open door, Nordin has mapped out space in such a way that the room resembles that of a dynamic linear drawing. While the sculptures are reminiscent of civic structures -with their industrial materials and sombre tones- there is still a sense of intimacy: gestural imprints on each sculpture’s surface, indicative of the artist’s hand.

Currently working and studying in Melbourne, having recently completed her Masters at the Victorian College of the Arts, Nordin’s practice has long been associated with notions of diaspora and of cultural displacement. In Nordin’s early lurid and playful installations, she created absurd structures that enfolded visitors into a bodily space- a home for the culturally divided self, a bridge from which she could slip from state to another. In Peak performance plan perhaps Nordin does not seek to create for herself a shelter from inner cultural tensions: instead she confronts it head on, creating complex self-reflexive work that embodies this split.

The notion of a Peak performance plan in sport-fanatical Australia is particularly gendered: bringing to mind an attitude that is predominantly masculine; brash and aggressive. In adopting such a method in her work for the Biennale, Nordin wryly contrasts herself with the muscular athletes of our imagination. Through adopting a ‘hyper masculinity’, Nordin challenges her community’s expectations of her; exploring what it means to be a female Malay artist in the 21st century.

The exhibition The World Precedes the Eye as a whole responds to materiality- challenging the way we engage with matter. Nordin’s striking installation possesses a bewitching temporality, as they force us to think past the lifespan of the exhibition, to consider the realm in which they were created; each object’s former identities. Thick impasto partially obscures each structure’s recycled origins; visitors become forensic investigators, looking for a fitting past. One could describe Nordin’s previous sculptures as extra-terrestrial, yet these new works feel very much of the earth-as if they may have grown up from the planet’s bedrock. Perhaps they are a vision of the future, in which, outlasting human civilisation, structures have degraded into entropy. The earth has reclaimed its own. Indeed, Nordin’s installations lead us to consider matter as a finite resource, dwarfed by her installations, we glean that we are infinitesimal on a global scale.

Ultimately, Nordin’s installation embodies a slippery state, her fantastical structures both remind us of our place in space, grounding us in the physical present, but also imagining new unexpected futures.