INTRO is the frame of meaning that brings together Nian’s intimate inquiry. From the Latin intro ” inside,” the word indicates an inward movement and is often used as a compositional element of other expressions. Intro-spection, intro-induction, intro-mission. When the prefix binds to other nouns, it is enriched with new meanings, while retaining its semantic root, that of delving into something more intimate. For the exhibition curated by Street Levels Gallery, intro remains in solo. The morphology of this word suggests to us some of the premises that inhabit Nian’s research: the artist’s self is signified and signifier, independent within its own semantic space and available to interface with the Other, generating new combinations of meaning. INTRO communicates to us that the management of human relationships cannot disregard the balance between shaping and being shaped, between solid content and fluid form, between taking and letting go. Nian works on the genesis of the self and its transformation punctuated by cyclical visions. In the alternation of these periodicities, her art finds a seasonal timbre; and so her female creatures conceal themselves in winter time, between intimacy and secrecy, until they manifest themselves in spring moments with a soft, generative sign.
Her sketchbook, on the other hand, resembles a collection of postcards from the past that, in layering, compose a present in constant evolution. Flipping through its pages means discovering the barest matter of her research, the places of the most silent unconscious, the deepest and most private dimension, the most impulsive poetry, an emotional alphabet free to flow.
This article collects some lines from the dialogue with Nian and follows a score through the three conceptual places investigated by the artist. The titles of the sub-paragraphs are quotations collected from the sketchbook, thoughts that suggest an implicit reference to these three inner rooms: ‘remember to breathe’ recalls the relationship with the creative process and its metamorphosis; ‘lemon paranoia’ delves into the criticalities in relating to background noise; ‘swagger the night, do you feel it shaking?’ recounts her work in urban space during nighttime incursions. In progressively opening herself to the public, Nian has been able to preserve a space of the unexplained. Her mystical, primitive and sometimes estranging investigation invites questions about the feminine self, accepting its contradictions and embracing its sensitive state.
Remember to breathe
INTRO is a title with a high symbolic charge, an introduction to your artistic investigation, the first opening of your private dimension to the public. What does this moment mean for your path? Your imagery certainly has been transformed over time but there are suggestions that have never left you. What are they and how much are they still present?
My research is divided into different stages, which are changeable and unpredictable. The leitmotif that returns with rituality is the relationship of the female subject with space: the correlation between these two elements, however, is transformed, taking on different meanings because the manifestations of my inner experience are different. Each canvas is a bit like looking in a mirror, it is a reflective experience that invites one to empathize with a certain emotional state. The relationship between female bodies and space tells just that, a vocabulary of perceptions placed in a timeless present. The close relationship of female bodies to space describes the emotional state felt at that moment. It was curious to note that in the ‘Like Something Holy’ series – where each work is named after a shade of red – the same subject took on a different posture and, therefore, a different emotional state. Many works in the series share the attempt to hide, with the exception of one. The latter, unlike the others, assumes a posture leaning outward toward the viewer’s eye and is eager to reveal itself.
Again, the naked bodies wrapped around themselves try to find the right fit, attempt to position themselves in space to establish a relationship with the environment around them. These bodies bind themselves to different settings that sometimes recall an attachment to reality, to the intimate dimension of the room, of the house, of a physical and material space; at other times they are conceptual, abstract and rarefied places that nonetheless bind themselves to my biography and my experience.
Could you identify some key symbols, visual references that return often in your research?
I could not find real symbols rather imagery. I have always been connected to the dimension of nature, using its own references from the animal and plant world. In this period, on the other hand, I feel a strong connection with the body, particularly with the hands and the eye that recall practice and vision respectively. Both are part of my research and a dimension related to discovery, to the curiosity of being a child. There is a quote by Pablo Picasso that exemplifies this suggestion well, “when I was four I painted like Raphael, however, it took me a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.” Here, the same is true for me, and I am only at the beginning of this journey toward the spontaneity of artistic creation. Unfortunately, I am not good at explaining my quest in words because that is not my medium. I am what I do, in what I do there is me. What am I now? Definitely what I have done so far, but I am aware of it only in the moment of practice and creative flow.
To get into this introspective flow, have you created a ritual for yourself to isolate yourself from the background noise?
I often put on music and let go of the movement to ignite my sensoriality, open channels and immerse myself within myself. Music also helps me to stay in this state of introspection, without giving in to the distractions and voices that occasionally come back to disturb me. ‘Should the shadow be different here?’ or ‘the perspective doesn’t add up’ are some of the interferences I try to free myself from as I approach the canvas. However, I must say that silence, if deep, is also a good condition for creating.
So how does the relationship with the external dimension and the judgment of the other interfere with your research? Has the pandemic situation had a transformative weight for your art?
My research is marked by a continuous struggle against the judgment of the outside eye, against my self-judgments, against the constraints imposed by academic technical and stylistic superstructures. It sounds convoluted, but to get into the creative flow I must always grapple with trying to unlearn what I have been taught. The pandemic period, particularly that of the first quarantine, was crucial in this operation. Isolation went along with a process of deep introspection, leading me to eliminate the disturbing elements, the outline, the voices of others. I looked at myself more in the mirror, drying and stripping my research until I finally found and recognized myself in those female bodies that took shape from the sketchbook to the canvas. I finally felt free to understand and admit that those figures with sometimes shy and contorted, sometimes proud and swaggering postures represented my emotional states. And it was curious to see how the subjectivities I was drawing, first as children and gradually becoming more and more mature, were analogous to my own artistic growth path. That feminine universe told and still tells of my self, not as a solid pillar, but rather as fluid matter traversing space and time, changing shape and becoming increasingly aware of its own discoveries. INTRO translates all this and outlines the state of the art of my research, still a work in progress but certainly more mature, conscious and determined in its telling.
In what works do you feel you have been able to free yourself from this frustrating referral to the outside eye? Where do you find yourself most and feel you can say out loud ‘this is me’?
Definitely the sketchbook dimension represents my all-around expressiveness. The drawings, as sketches, are children of impulse, of anti-thinking, of creative fluidity, of unfiltered experimentation. The sketchbook brings together a wide variety of styles and techniques, right down to the word. Midway between the unconscious flow of the sketchbook and the reworking of drawing on canvas is the factory. The place that accommodates my drawings on a broader scale, allowing me to remain unconstrained and, at the same time, to come out of the private dimension, overcoming shyness in exposing myself. The factory and the street are a kind of shock therapy, helping me confront the public sphere of society. In fact, the INTRO exhibition will be accompanied by the display of some works from the sketchbook. Maybe someone will not recognize me because the difference is abysmal, but I am very fond of this more intimate and private frame of my research.
Swagger the night, can you feel it shaking?
How did your relationship with the street begin? How did it contribute to your research?
When I started attending the Academy of Fine Arts I was very shy, ashamed to paint in the classroom. I often waited until the time when people started to leave to feel more comfortable and to work with serenity. When I got to know other artists like Exit Enter, James, and Stelle Confuse and started hanging out with them outside the university setting, I got closer to the street. I felt welcomed, a decisive element to get out of my comfort zone and experiment together with other people. Initially it was not easy, I used to see my friends going out on the street, I was attracted to their spirit of initiative and at the same time I repelled it. Then I started dropping my drawings around the city. The feeling of restlessness in detaching myself from my creations was accompanied by a sense of liberation and lightness. I began to like the idea of sharing my drawings, of making them public, of throwing them out on the street to see what would happen. I let go. And out of this new experience a game was born, a challenge to myself. No one knew it was me, the street was the place of experimentation, a way to get out of myself. The nighttime interventions became the pretext to trigger new question marks that would flow to the intent of my research: what do I want to communicate to others? What do I want to say with my drawings? I began to narrate the instinctual sphere of human nature, the awareness of being social animals in need of conviviality and vitality. From the dog wagging its tail to elements of the floral world, certain symbols have become a ritual expedient for me, an invitation – addressed as much to myself as to others – to rediscover a deep connection in interpersonal relationships, a spontaneity and naturalness proper to all living beings.
Did your presence on the street, as one of the few female artists intervening in public space, burden you with a sense of responsibility? Did the need to convey Nian’s message also come through the need to communicate, more broadly, female existence?
My research, particularly that on nature, has always been linked to the sphere of fertility and creation, to the enhancement of feminine energy. However, this imagery does not represent a real claim to myself as a woman because I have never perceived gender discourse in an antagonistic way. The social role of women in our society is still subordinate to that of men, this is a fact, but my research has no more value than that of a male artist. However, I think it is fair to point out the difficulties and constraints that an artist faces in going out on the street, in dealing with different aspects of everyday life that make our work much more complex and, unfortunately, not so obvious.