LIKE A RHINESTONE COWBOY THINGS, TITLES AND INTIMACY IN SELECTED WORKS BY TINA MARIA NIELSEN
LISE SKYTTE JAKOBSEN holds a M.A. in art history and a PhD. She is currently employed at Aarhus University, where she is carrying out postdoctoral research at the Institute for Aesthetics and Communication
Tina Maria Nielsen is a sculptor of things – and castings. Rarely does she model her works; instead, she finds, selects, constructs, builds and (not least) makes casts of things – things from her studio and from the world around her. Piles of books, a pruned apple tree, old jumpers, worn-out umbrellas, suitcases, radiators and entire walls. The raw and sometimes scratched character of her works is challenged by the intimacy being played with in the exploration of the works and the presentation of the materials used. And the often ambiguous titles of the works respond by expanding, titillating and bringing music and poetry into the exhibition space where we come face to face with these works. One such example is the work Like a Rhinestone Cowboy; this is the cryptic title of a 1998 work which I will be analysing in more depth later in this text. However, if you know the country song with the same title, having this playing as a soundtrack in the back of your mind when you read the following text would not be a bad thing.
In the study of material culture over the past few decades, many – not least anthropologists – have focused on how things ‘create people’. These studies do not look at the things humans create, nor do they study which purposes things are created for. 1 In this study of what things mean to us – including how these meanings change in line with our changing attitudes towards these things – it is necessary to precisely define the difference between the term ‘thing’ and the term ‘object’. Such a consideration is relevant when we meet Tina Maria Nielsen’s sculptures because she does so much more than merely take objects and materials and make them into art. For me, her sculptures also thematise our own everyday experience of how something that exists can, in terms of meaning, alternate between being a ‘thing’ and being an ‘object’.
The American professor of literature and thing-theorist Bill Brown defines a ‘thing’ as an object that has stopped working for us.2 His point is that ‘objects’, understood in this way, are something that we look through. They are ‘transparent’ because we use them to allow us to conduct ourselves in the world. We act through objects, and as long as these work, we have no need to see them. But when the window glass becomes so dirty that we can no longer look through it, we begin instead to look at it. We do so because it stops us from orienting ourselves with the outside world, thereby preventing us from taking action. Consequently, ‘objects’ characterise a means for us to act, whereas ‘things’ – according to this distinction – are characterised by bringing us to a standstill. ‘Things’ afford us no options to act upon – options which otherwise we are used to having. We experience ‘things’ in glints, when an object’s transparency – its ability to work for us – is disturbed.
It can be tempting to think that there is some time-related aspect controlling the relation between ‘thing’ and ‘object’, as though something that exists is a ‘thing’ both before and after becoming an ‘object’. Entities are characterised as ‘things’ before they begin to have any meaning for us, and then again once they have ceased to give meaning to us: a state before and after meaning – or more correctly, between different registers of meaning. However, it is important to point out that phenomena are neither things nor objects. These terms instead reflect our alternating relation to phenomena as, on the one hand, functional, transparent objects for action, and on the other, misleading, material reification. In other words, ‘things’ and ‘objects’ are not stable categories cemented in our understanding of a well-ordered pattern built up over time as our experience expands. Conversely, we can experience that things/objects waver about in our experiences, uncontrollably shifting between the state of being ‘things’ and ‘objects’. These can alternatingly offer meaning as implements for our use and be cause for doubt and astonishment – as if we were seeing them for the first time, again. This simultaneity can be put to artistic use, and is, for example, exemplified in the work Stripped bare … chair, in which Tina Maria Nielsen meticulously has dissected and made a cast of a kitchen chair.
STRIPPED BARE … CHAIR
In the work Stripped bare … chair (2009), an everyday kitchen chair has thrown off all of its inhibitions and allowed its pink body parts to be scattered over the floor like rugs, and its metal frame has flown to the wall where it now resembles a constructivist relief. Here, Tina Maria Nielsen has produced a work which, in one respect, can be understood as a form of ‘chair equation’: all of the constituent parts are visible to us, as if part of a model kit simply waiting for someone to screw them all together, bestowing upon it the role of being a functional object. In another respect, the split-apart chair exists as a bizarre collection of materials: things which in terms of their utility have been made completely inapproachable to the viewer’s body. We can merely stand and look and conclude that the stripping-down process has thrown off way too many pink chair seats.
Normally, chairs are (accessible) for the body – they invite us to rest our ‘seat’ on their seat. The chair is a piece of furniture that clearly ‘doubles’ for our body: not only does it have a seat, but also a back – and sometimes arms. In Stripped bare … chair, the chair even has a gender. If we adhere to the prevailing Western colour codes, what we have is a pink girl’s chair that has exposed itself to us and which is incessantly drifting between the registers of ‘thing’ and ‘object’. It alternates between being looked through as a satisfying function (i.e. a model kit), and being looked at (as maladjusted, feminine materiality).
As a ‘body-doubler’, the chair usually acts as the anchor point and support for our view out on the world; consequently, it determines our blind spots: the things we turn our backs on and keep out of our line of sight. However, in Stripped bare … chair, not only are we left with blind spots, it has been made impossible for our bodies to adopt the chair’s line of view.
THE CHAIRS OF BERNINI AND KOSUTH
For centuries, artists have used the chair as a basis for their works, mediating between body and idea and art and utilitarian item – from the Cathedra Petri (Peter’s Chair) 1657-66 in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, by Italian Baroque sculptor Ginalorenzo Bernini, to One Chair and Three Chairs (1965) by American conceptual artist Josef Kosuth. Cathedra Petri is a throne that celebrates and symbolises the Church as the mouthpiece of the one-and-only ‘correct’ religion. Kosuth’s work – which comprises a chair, a picture of this chair and a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’ – is more prosaic, representing how things, language and images – phenomena and representations – are, in reality, intertwined with each other. Despite the dissimilarities between Bernini’s, Kosuth’s and Tina Maria Nielsen’s takes on the chair as an artistic subject, they all express how as a sculptor it is possible to pamper and reveal objects as ‘things’. We are prevented from seeing the chair as a piece of furniture upon which we can sit, and we are forced to consider the chair as a culturally historic entity, a symbol, a language – and as a material that has a gender.
Tina Maria Nielsen has not forced the chair into a different register merely by enrolling it in the service of art and tuning it into a sculpture. The disassembly and casting are her ways of making us aware of reification. Tina Maria Nielsen takes an object (the chair) and creates a sculpture that deals with the register shift between ‘object’ and ‘thing’. In this context, the kitchen chair is exposed; it is literally ‘stripped bare’.
Her chair provokes a two-pronged approach to the world as it both encourages us to and prevents us from looking at the chair as an ‘object’ and as a ‘thing’: as resistless function and material suspension at the same time. As far as this is not possible, this is a task filled with resistance along the same lines as the picture challenges in psychology books. Such pictures, where the same picture contains both an image of a duck and a rabbit, or my wife (beautiful woman) and my mother-in-law (ugly old woman), combine two motifs so that it is only possible for us to focus on one at a time. The one picture cancels out the other, and it is optically challenging for us to shift our focus from the one image to the other.
Tina Maria Nielsen produced Stripped bare … chair for the 2009 Tilbage til Tomten [Back to the lot] exhibition. Here it was exhibited together with seven bronze-cast apple cores Dreamed myself a dream last night, a pink umbrella transformed into a wall relief State of mind inverse, and a knitted jumper dipped in wax Under the influence. These works are worth considering as (gender-defined) double images where we become aware of our focus, and perhaps our sense of order, flitting between palpable objects and impenetrable things – with neither state being deeper or more philosophical than the other. The point is that our focus is forced to alternate between the two.
DUCHAMP ‘STRIPPED BARE’
A common feature shared by all of the works mentioned is the fact that they have titles that on the one hand are heavily loaded with meaning and on the other hand provide no clear meaning in their context. For example, Stripped bare … chair borrowed the first part of its title from one of the 20th century’s most interpreted and deconstructed works – the 1915 work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, even by French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. With the naming of her work, Tina Maria Nielsen offers a salute to Duchamp, who with his readymades was the first artist who designated found objects as art (including the bicycle wheel mounted on the seat of a stool Bicycle Wheel, 1913, and the signed urinal, Fontain, 1917). With his work, Duchamp paved the way for the shift in the register of meaning, which includes the aforementioned switch between ‘object’ and ‘thing’, and which has been a central element within the field of sculpture ever since. The reference to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare…, also emphasises the work’s erotic dimension and the notion that ‘objects’ and ‘things’ can be perceived as having a gender and can switch gender in the artistic process. Both gender itself and the act of playing with an item’s gender are key elements within the works of Duchamp. With her title, Stripped bare … chair, Tina Maria Nielsen not only pays homage to that to which homage is due, she also deflates the Duchampian entanglement by rhyming the word ‘bare’ with the word ‘chair’. The mysterious addition of the word ‘even’ at the end of Duchamp’s title is here replaced by a linguistic point which is blatantly obvious to all those who view the work. The title flirts with the grand masters of art history and lands squarely on the simple kitchen chair and its constituent materials, which have been exposed before us by the artist. Moreover, the word ‘chair’ in French means ‘flesh’ or (human) ‘skin’, and Tina Maria Nielsen’s title underlines even more how the work plays with the human body and the anatomy of the chair.
Titles play a key role in the artwork of Tina Maria Nielsen. Often, as with Stripped bare … chair, they act as a loop that simultaneously takes us both far around and straight back to the material again.
Language can both reveal and hide our thoughts. When we meet a work of art, single words or a phrase can transport our thoughts to the strangest destinations. The clash between a work’s physical appearance and its title can seem like a mystery that (if we decipher the correlation) tempts us by shedding an explanatory light over our entire experience. Often, though, what we are left with are two mysteries instead of one – Like a Rhinestone Cowboy.
Just as Tina Maria Nielsen selects and dissects existing objects and materials, she also scours the world of language and absorbs and cuts up quotes and phrases from songs, books, films and works of art, entitling her works with titles such as Like a Rhinestone Cowboy, Paris Texas Slide, A room of one’s own, and Stripped bare … chair. Titles in themselves can spark off the artistic process, they can arise during the creative process of working with materials, or they can be given after the completion of a work. As Tina Maria Nielsen herself says: “For me, titles are another material that I can use.” 3
UNTITLED (THE WORLD IS OPEN TO US PRECISELY AS FAR AS OUR LANGUAGE REACHES)
Sculpture neither comes before nor after language. Like other forms of art and phenomena, sculpture is at one with language. This does not mean, for example, that sculpture and language are the same; it means that the medium of sculpture is not a particularly ‘silent’ discipline or experience, unaffected by language – both in the creation process and when the finished works are experienced. Or inversely: sculpture also affects language, just as media in general are intertwined with each other rather than separate from each other.
In the work of Tina Maria Nielsen, the relation between physical material and language is prominent. She exploits the fact that the connexion between words and sculpture can mislead us or only provide us with a partial explanation. The effect is that what we read and what we see do not fully match. At the same time, her works often do away with the boundary between language and sculpture: words become sculptural and sculpture consists of words.
This ping-ponging between material and words (which is often both productive and aggravating at the same time) is brought to a head in the work Untitled (the world is open to us precisely as far as our language reaches) from 2000. Three polyester casts of a plastic industrial container have been made and stacked on top of each other. The material used is transparent, and on the inside of the barrels is written “the world is open to us precisely as far as our language reaches”. The sentence first becomes readable when we move around these meticulously copied containers. If we stand still, the barrels break up the text into new truths, such as “the world precisely reaches” or “open the language”.4 The viewer’s body – his or her position in relation to the sculpture – firmly determines the reach of the language.
The work makes us consider an important difference between language and objects/things: even though we cannot see the entire barrel, we have a good idea of what it looks like on the other side. The other side (the reverse side) of language is, however, full of unpredictable denials, reservations and prepositions. In this work in particular the words make the reverse side of the sculpture alien to us. This sculptural effect – the effect of forcing us to walk around the sculpture in order to comprehend the image it is presenting us with – is an effect that Tina Maria Nielsen normally does not employ. Because her methods are linked to logics and things/objects that we normally know from being in another form, there are no surprising back or reverse sides. After all, we are all well aware what a radiator, a plug socket and an apple core look like.
Also in the complex metal structures where Tina Maria Nielsen creates airy architecture within the space and through which we must move, we never lose sight of the big picture (e.g. Lost Highway Hotel, 2006). Never is there a feeling of a hidden reverse side in her physical works. Even when she makes a door (Naked, 2001) or recreates a wall, she does it with transparency and by forming open structures. It is not the eye which has difficulty seeing through the world; the physicality of the works is, as far as it is logical, exposed and stripped bare. But the naked and prosaic style is of course challenged in its meeting with flesh-and-blood humans, memories, and not least with a language full of correlations and escalating meanings.
In a number of her works, Tina Maria Nielsen has made casts of those receptacles which contain the written word, namely books. Since 2008, stacked books cast in plaster, wax and bronze have featured in several of her works, including in a series of outdoor sculptures in the form of benches mounted with stacks of books on top of and under the bench seat itself. The reading group (2012) consists of nine classic, green park benches with bronze ‘book sculptures’. These are located at Sundholm, in the Amager district of Copenhagen, and the cast books have all been donated by people who live in the area or have a connexion to it. At the iNANO Center at Aarhus University the benches are more minimalistic, with the books piling up both above and below the bench seats. Here, these benches are part of Tina Maria Nielsen’s larger adornment project Reality Check (2012). With her cast piles of books, Tina Maria Nielsen on the one hand monumentalises the medium of the book – which is solidified and secured. At the same time, the books on the benches are not only closed, but they are impossible to open. In a way, the sculpture has closed itself around the language; the words cannot shake themselves free and have been turned into a ‘thing’. The works literally have taken the book at its word.
The piles of books are also an example of what we could call Tina Maria Nielsen’s predilection for choosing impressionistic motifs, understood as momentary snapshots of existence within the world that we could randomly come across. Yet the impressions are not frozen in flickering brushstrokes; paradoxically, they are frozen in realistic casts – like a pile of books on a chair, a pruned apple tree in a garden, or the place that surrounds us providing the stage within which we live out our daily lives. In the case of Tina Maria Nielsen, this place is often her studio and her apartment.
For many of us, the place we live and work are very familiar spaces and we have an intimate knowledge of them. Occasionally, we become so intimate with these spaces that we no longer see or notice the colour of the walls and the scratches on the desk. Tina Maria Nielsen, on the other hand, adopts an almost forensic approach to this subject in a number of her works where she copies the wall of her studio. However, neither in Front Matter nor in Like a Rhinestone Cowboy has this link to the artist’s space left a mark, which at first glance we construe as being intimate, one-sided and private. It is more cool than matter-of-fact.
With its dimensions of 240 x 925 x 200 cm, the 2012 work Front Matter is a work that requires much space. It is a wall construction made from transparent acrylic sheets glued together. The motif is two walls from the artist’s studio folded out to make one long wall, complete with radiator and desk. We can see through the wall, but we cannot pass it. In order to view Front Matter from the other side, we must exit the exhibition room and come in through a different entrance. The walls are a kind of theatrical flat held up by buttresses-like supports, as could be found standing around an exhibitionist film set. Tina Maria Nielsen has turned the walls of her own studio into a set that tangibly stage-manages the audience’s actions by putting up a front. The viewers are able to walk the length of the wall; this gives them a good vantage point from which to view of their ‘opponents’ on the other side, although an actual attack is impossible. Instead, it is highly probable that they will experience that those on the other side of the wall are doing the same as they themselves are doing. Dare they look each other in the eye through the screen? Perhaps in a moment they will wave or come over to the other side to visit?
In the world of book design, the phrase ’front matter’ is used to describe the preliminary pages of a book that come before the first page of text and can contain the title page, the colophon, the preface and the list of thanks, and often are numbered using Roman numerals. Front matter is everything that introduces and gives an overview of the ‘body matter’, which consists of the book’s chapters, and ‘back matter’, which consists of the conclusion, epilogue, bibliography, index etc. The title Front matter plays on the fact that the acrylic wall is an introductory structure-giving act which politely refrains from divulging any story or plot but merely makes its lucid structure available for new readers of sculpture.
The work may come across as clinical and irrefutable, as if it is trying to avoid giving anything away. But intimacy lies within the detail. The creation process of the work is exposed – it is not possible to smooth acrylic afterwards or straighten out its shape. And when we look closely at the joins between the acrylic sheets we can see that a lot of glue has been used, breaking away from the material’s highly designed, futuristic look. And the wall is not just any random wall. It is a copy of a place Tina Maria Nielsen knows inside out – a place where her work table is, and from where she does her thinking and cultivates her works. Where the material and the title compel us to view Front Matter as a façade design, the details and its reference to place make us see it more as a candid display of a person’s most intimate space. 5 When people expose their most intimate places to others in this way (thereby exposing themselves), we can experience it as a crystal-clear opening full of possibilities. Yet at the same time, we experience it as a very commanding stage-management of unexpressed expectations – a highly intense meeting between invisibly drawn fronts across which we mirror the smallest details of each other.
So, yes – front does indeed matter. Front pages, beginnings, attitudes… they all mean something. Often it is here that the point is revealed, if we dare look for it and trust what we find.
LIKE A RHINESTONE COWBOY
Like a Rhinestone Cowboy (1998) is another work of Tina Maria Nelsen that is a copy of her studio wall. Here, the wall is reconstructed as a polystyrene cast of a 242 x 525 cm surface. Again we have a voluminous work created in a colourless, skin-like material, which, it could be said, almost tries to become one with the wall upon which it hangs. This is one of Tina Maria Nielsen’s early works, and today it no longer exists in its physical form but merely in the form of photographic documentation, as well, of course, as a potential new cast. The process of casting objects is a way of copying the world and a way of making images that always can be repeated.
For me, the cast that forms Like a Rhinestone Cowboy is a highly relevant ‘soundtrack’ to have playing in my mind when viewing Tina Maria Nielsen’s other works – including the new works for the Skin of Mine (2013) exhibition. Among other such works are the large white sheets of paper dipped in wax that hang down from the ceiling like milked room-dividers and Matrice [stamping die], which consists of plasterboard panels hanging on the wall into which Tina Maria Nielsen has scratched and gouged out a structure based upon the floor plan of her mother’s house in Odense.
Before making a megalomaniacal copy of her studio wall 15 years ago, Tina Maria Nielsen had already written “LIKE A RHINESTONE COWBOY” across it. The viewers see a negative image of this text in the cast. Some will recognise it as the beginning of the chorus of Glen Campbell’s country hit Rhinestone Cowboy, which topped the charts in 1975. The lyrics deal with a seasoned Broadway artist who concedes that the path to the top of showbiz has been paved with compromise and rainy days; nevertheless, despite all this, the lure of the limelight continues to entice him onwards – exactly like a show-cowboy at a rodeo: a rhinestone cowboy in a sequin shirt and glittery Stetson.
But what do references to imitation cowboys have to do with a work that otherwise obviously refers to hip American post-minimalistic art from the 1960s? Tina Maria Nielsen has clearly been in close dialogue with the works of Robert Morris and – not least – Eva Hesse, two of the big artistic names from that period. 6 More than anybody, Eva Hesse was a master in dipping and camouflaging, wrapping and draping materials – latex, cord, fabric. Examples of such work include the work Contingent (1969) and other sculptures from the period, which were often characterised by ‘dry’ references to materials or titles that contained direct reference to their form.
Like a Rhinestone Cowboy was created for a specific exhibition (Cover Up, 1998), where the theme was covering up and revealing – in a literal sense as well as in a psychological sense. As is always the case with Tina Maria Nielsen, it could be argued. A rhinestone cowboy can also be considered as a mirror image sculpture motto – this is the writing on the studio wall, a form of strategy or admission. For those of us who know the song, the motto provides a fantastically stimulating soundtrack to Tina Maria Nielsen’s often demure choice of materials. The blunt country rhythm is somewhat a risky undertaking when your metier is making copies of your own wall – in all seriousness. The imitation cowboy does not distance himself from Tina Maria Nielsen’s consistent and detailed and subdued battles with materials. But he insists on standing shoulder to shoulder with the careful dips in the wax, perhaps because he feels a sense of nostalgia and senses a rift between, on the one hand, being attractive and having a penchant for dressing himself up, and, on the other hand, staying in touch with their respective abilities to convey reminiscences.
As a motto, I see Like a Rhinestone Cowboy as a self-imposed impediment which creates American lifelines between urban post-minimalist highbrow culture and the rodeo’s arena of kitsch rural folk-culture –an impediment that interestingly is expressed in Tina Maria Nielsen’s reappearing matter with its casts of apples and apple cores. It takes a special pop artist to invite such a symbolically charged motif into her world of casting-logic and stringent structures. And it takes a special audience to interpret these with equal portions of material sensitivity and a finely tuned ear for evergreens. Being myself a native of the island of Funen writing about a fellow native of Funen, it is tempting to write that I strongly suspect that the apple motif is also linked to the dream of childhood’s perhaps not-too-rosy days on this fertile island located in the middle of the Danish realm. But this is perhaps too much of an intimate interpretation – after all, it is nothing more than a copy of an apple tree.
1. A key reference in the extensive research into ‘material culture’ is the anthology The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge University Press, 1986. A few of the recent contributions to the discussion on the relationship between people and things is Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, and Daniel Miller, Stuff, Polity Press, 2010.
2. Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” in Things, ed. Bill Brown, The University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 4. I paraphrase in the following partly my own interpretation of the Bill Browns concept of ‘things’, as is expressed in the thesis Metaskulptur: Kritiske analyser af skulpturmediale grundlagsproblemstillinger [Meta Sculpture: Critical analysis of the fundamental issues of the medium of sculpture], Aarhus University, 2011, p. 202-205.
3. Tina Maria Nielsen in the The art of suggestion interview with Julie Damgaard Nielsen. The interview was held in conjunction with the Skulptur exhibition at Gentofte Central Library in 2001. Published at: https://tinamarianielsen.dk/pool/antydningens-kunsttext/
4. The inherent mixedness found in all media is a key element professed by many, not least in the writings of American media theorist and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell. Among other things, Mitchell is known for the statement “All media are mixed media”. See, inter alia, the article “There Are No Visual Media” in the Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 4, No. 2, 257-266.
5. Although the studio is a special type of semi-public space, whose status is traditionally a mix of private ‘creator-den’ and meeting place for potential buyers and other art professionals.
6. Tina Maria Nielsen’s work Attempt at completing of a work from 1970 is a comment and tribute to Eva Hesse’s last work Untitled from 1970.