Helgi Thorgils Fridjonsson interviews Nicola Ginzel.
HF: Can you say something about your background?
My mother is German and my father is Austrian, Czech actually, born in Bohemia, 1921. He moved to Vienna when he was two. My grandfather had a big textile company in Bohemia, which went bankrupt, and he immigrated to Brazil when my father was only seven. They lost all contact with him after three years and believed that he died of typhoid fever. My father has had four nationalities- Czech, German (when Austria was annexed under Hitler), becoming Austrian only after WWII and finally American.
My mother is Jewish through her mother, though baptized Catholic at birth. My grandfather was the President of Thyssen one of the biggest steel factories in Nazi Germany. Their Jewish identity was concealed from all the children- something our family only realized in the past decade. My grandmother was fully Jewish. My mother left Germany when she was 18 in 1954 and was a nanny in an English Family until she went to art school in London.
My parents met and married in London and immigrated to the US in 1960, becoming both US citizens in the early 70s after I was born. My father was a Pharmacologist, and my mother founded the Tanglewood Montessori School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Where do you come from?
I was born in Hollywood, California and my first language was German. When I started Montessori School at the age of two and a half, I couldn’t speak the English Language. I did not fit in with the other children, and things were done differently at home. My parents moved to Little Rock, Arkansas when I was three, never integrating into the culture there. The motherland was put on a pedestal and preserved. My parents really did not want to be where they were. Almost all summer vacations were spent in Europe. Life, especially for my father, only existed when we left home. My best friend, who is like my sister even now, is also the child of German immigrants. Our traditions and values were reinforced by her family home life during my most formative years.
I left the South when I was 18 to go to college. I spent much time abroad in Europe, where I also have a half brother who is twenty years my senior. I never experienced culture shock (coming back to the US) until I spent time in Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria in 1993, which coincided with the Serbo-Croatian War. I traveled unofficially as a humanitarian aid worker with only a couple of people. I saw things I had never experienced before. Being so close to war or death, for that matter, makes life all the more precious. It puts things into perspective.
Returning to the US was like a shock. I saw my life and America through completely different eyes. The safe little suburb of Pleasant Valley where I grew up, where everything had the potential to be sugarcoated and superficial was something I could not be a part of again. After this leave of absence taken because of the inability to use my right hand, I finished art school and then moved to New York, eager to meet other artists and learn about the art world. I have been there ever since.
And how did you become interested in art?
I was raised as an only child and always had my own world. I even created my own language. When I was very little, my mother said I would work for hours without stopping building with blocks, drawing and painting. I remember building forts and site-specific things, creating concepts and getting friends involved in my ideas. Making props, writing and performing plays at home and in the backyard was something I spent doing a lot in my early teens.
I never had an art class- the only exposure I had to art was through the drawings and sculpture that my mother did in art school and on trips to Europe. In Europe, the world would be placed at my feet, and I would get doses of museum exhibitions, castle tours, explanations of architectural style and classical music to overfill the day. I was exposed to my father’s eye for color and composition through his photography and euphoric verbal descriptions, my mother’s eye, through her love for patterns.
I graduated from college with a degree in German Language and Literature with a Minor in Soviet and East European Studies. I already knew then that curiosity in this area was about my cultural identity as a person. While working as a Junior High German Teacher in Little Rock, I took my first art classes. I was 22.
I believe my father’s passion for science and eastern thought had more influence on me than “fundamental art” itself. These topics became core conversations with my dad as I became a little older and have only evolved from there. In the same vein, my mother’s love for life and determination gave me the guts to follow my heart.
Making work for me is the distillation process, balance or outcome of my own understanding of the physical world. The physical art mirrors or complements my mental movement or development as a person. “Being where I am” has become an important component to the process of making artwork.
Do you think your degree in German Language and Literature has something to do with your Art today?
German Literature has not directly influenced my artwork. My continued interest in linguistics- the evolution of language and how language does offer a control is something I think about a lot, but my work is not overtly tied to the specifics of the German Language.
The mind by nature always groups, tries to create some sort of pattern or concept, which it can grasp intellectually. It gathers fragments to derive some sort of meaning. Any kind of system is that way- Language being one kind of system of organization. For some reason when we feel that we can define something especially through language, then we feel that we have control, and our world is calm. Our bodies and minds have been conditioned to a very conceptual understanding, which is often in direct conflict with the intuition and the body’s subtle sensibilities.
The Lines, which I compose from transformed, intimate found objects, are a language in and of themselves- the closest thing they come to is a Koan, which is a form of Japanese Meditation to transcend linear thought. The objects, pinned horizontally to the wall like specimens, are like words or fragments of the whole. The work asks the viewer to be quiet for a moment, to be intimate with it, to observe and become aware of its layers. It is a process of discovery as the viewer may uncover that it was once something else, a complete departure from its new transformed identity.
Awareness and Consciousness have nothing to do with language. Listening to your own intuition and instinct is not something valued in our culture. We live in a processed world, a fast world with too much information, where people do not know how to be quiet nor sift through all the information generated by language.
How do you decide to be “Being where you are”?
Well in some ways I feel that “being there” started by taking my work with me- or finding things “there, where I was” – there is something so freeing about that. It was an active way of redefining my boundary in the art-making process. Creation can start with almost nothing at all.
After a year in New York, I took a sewing box with me wherever I went- I was encapsulating shells- shell shards in organza. I could bring the box anywhere – and be with someone during the process as well. It broke down the walls of a studio. The art making process evolved into just needing a needle and thread. I then would take an intimate object found in my space or company and transform it through a sort of embroidering process.
This approach allowed me to break down the walls of “concept” as well. A concept must be controlled. It must have a specific set of guidelines, which is known in order to exist. There is a beginning, middle and an end inside a “concept.” It exists by nature of the will and cannot go past that place.
I like to think of the work and myself as taking the everyday world as a starting point. The expectation of one thing following another does not lie in the things themselves, but in the mind. And expectation is associated with habit. The child perceives the world as it is without putting more into things than he experiences.
I want to go back to the question specifically: “Being where you are” is also surrendering the ego and control, surrendering what one knows, surrendering the intellect- it opens possibility up- kind of like a “happy mistake” – it can become an opportunity depending on how the mind interprets it.
You ask “the decision to be, Being where you are” sometimes it isn’t a “decision” because decision implies that you always have control. It is just giving in to where you are and how you can make the best of things- how you can steady yourself or center yourself in that place or circumstance. The art making process makes it easier for me to be where I am. It is healing.
Let’s say that brings up the question why did you come to Iceland and can you, concerning your answer before, tell me how the Icelandic nature serves this journey?
Coming to Iceland was haphazard the first time- I made the decision to come the day I left. It was August. Like every good tourist I went to the Blue Lagoon. The water haunted my thoughts I took the images with me in my head since I did not bring my camera. I integrated the sensibility of the white opaline silica deposits, outlining the rocky shoreline into a series, Circle Series, which had just begun before leaving NYC.
Over the course of a year, I worked on maps, which I used as a tourist. I wanted to capture this finite feel of detailed black pebbles along the shoreline, which then ever so subtly diffuse into the infinite nothingness of blue white water. I conveyed this by the way the paint was handled and layered especially in the transparencies of whites. Strong bold primary colors of shapes hover above the mass of transparent infinite circles drawn on the Map, drawn on “earth”.
I do not think that the connection between Icelandic Nature and my artwork is the only variable to my journey. People, concepts and circumstances are all part of it. It is like a thread that just keeps going. A lot that happens here brings me back.
Before I left my residency with SIM last October, which had given me the opportunity to photograph what I had seen at the Blue Lagoon the year before, Flower of Life patterned artifacts were identified at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. I only allude to this symbol partially in the map pieces because it can be found among a cluster of seven circles. Having a shared interest in this symbol, I gave Godmundur Oddur Magnasson, professor of Graphic Design at the Icelandic Academy of Art, a book about it. Once he discovered that this ancient symbol was found in Iceland, he contacted the museum system. By the time I left Iceland, four artifacts were found, and all museums in the country were looking through their collections.
I also learned about the Earth Cosmos, which was a method in plotting out the seat of the Icelandic Government in 9th 10th Century Iceland. A circle of 423,000 m (a Roman measurement) taken from the Indo European Kali Yuga (Hindu Scripture) was placed upon the country of Iceland. The Althing, the government, was the center.
Can you go a bit further? How do these ideas integrate with what you are doing in your art? Is it a literal connection or does it just impress you as such and you keep on doing what you did before? Is it mental connection, and what do you then say about what people sometimes say, that Iceland is very much Americanized? Do you like hamburgers?
I eat a hamburger once in a blue moon. Probably a few times a year I will just eat apples for three days to cleanse my gallbladder. It does wonders!
Are the ideas, which inspire me, literally integrated into the objects or the maps, you ask? Perhaps it is a mental connection but recognizable in a formal way. I convey certain sensibilities in the process of each individual transformation like this very subtle color of transparent white to a full opaque blue-white from the geothermal water in the Blue Lagoon. The use of wax, entrails encapsulated around the object, plaster, and other materials is a way of capturing this feeling.
I became aware of the Flower of Life when I finished my training as a Reiki Master in 2004. It is an ancient and mystical symbol from which all of three-dimensional form can be recreated and is also the origin of sacred geometry used in Reiki. My artwork does not become about the Flower of Life but rather takes it into the process of Circle Series and integrates it into being a part of the whole. The Earth Cosmos is treated in the same manner. In the end everything is part of one thing. Individual associations overlap. I am interested in essence. Everything is one and the same the closer you look. Are you familiar with the Eames’ film, “The Power of Ten?”
Buddha saw life as an unbroken succession of mental and physical processes that keep people in a continual state of change. So Circle Series encompasses the succession of mental and physical processes, which I discover or experience in the act of the series.
Thoughts on Nature:
I am drawing a lot from nature it is my inspiration and often resembles the end product in the art itself. I have been dealing with “nature” ever since I have moved to New York. Perhaps it is a way of dealing with city life. Nature and science are always intertwined in my artwork.
I can imagine that one day a simple photograph taken from nature will become exotic because there will be no more nature. In rural areas of the United States colors are not so vibrant as they are here. Nature is seen as a phenomenon in Iceland. This country is about the environment you can’t ignore it, you have to accept it and integrate into it. The mentality of the Icelandic People seems to be influenced by the extreme and unpredictable environment where they live. People wash their cars in the rain. People dance in the rain. I passed the main downtown square in Reykjavik and people couple danced to music – it was raining and no one seemed to take notice. There appears to be still a connection here to the outside instead of closing it off and trying to control the environment. Women have babies at an age when their body wants a baby.
Maybe controlling nature is American- I think rather just human- just the will for survival, I assume. Now there are patches or pills where women can menstruate only four times a year. You can have your eggs frozen and have your baby when you are 45. It is all a control instead of being where you are, accepting where you are. It is making people sick. Intellect and the rational mind (Language) over rides any kind of intuition or instinct. I
t surprised me, once when driving from Middleboro, Vermont where I was teaching, down to New York, how big free nature was there, without any structure of man. The history of Iceland is by books, all trace of culture has been dug out. You know all pyramids and palaces. It is how everything goes normally. Birth, death, earth. The layers of the earth is like the layers of the language one is layer is on top of the other. In 19th century people did more easily read a picture from one side to another, meaning read a story. Now a story is confusing. Is that a question, if we think of what you explained before?
What do you mean by “birth, death, Earth?” … Earth being the canvas where the history happens, where the birth to death is contained? …where there are layers of language? The first thing that jumps to mind is sediment.
I was just in Myvatn around the geothermal activity, and I photographed like crazy. I am using a new camera and a very complicated one. It does not read nuances so well, to which I am often drawn. I found a way that the camera would shoot without giving me a headache and the best way was having a half – half composition of two opposing things- water to shoreline, horizon of earth to sky. I turned the camera vertical and started to go to work…as I kept shooting I thought, this reads as “sediment” this could really be interesting. This sediment became the format for all the pictures then taken also at Mount Viti. I mention this because instead of forcing my will upon the camera, I decided to accept what I could do with it right there ….so often this is what happens in my work and how things evolve. Maybe this is just another example of “Being Where You Are” and letting go of the will.
Your question and statements just seem to address or outline that the natural tendency of Man is to organize and understand linearly. …I believe this thinking will end up biting Us in the behind eventually. It is too rigid, and it does not maintain a balance with the whole.
The comments about America must have been in the 70’s or so? I read a book about a year ago by Leonard Shlain called the Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image. It shows the evolution of language simultaneously with the evolution of civilization. Image is more intuitive and linked to the feminine while the word is logical and linked to the masculine. The word is domineering above all else. It has a way of separating classes and defining from the outside…just the top layer. Civilization and Culture are closed definitions created by the word alienating essence. To get somewhere you have to throw everything out …maybe you have to tip it on its side.
Do you know where the next step is? Would you think it will change your art from where you are now? Is it romantic in some sense, as you talk a lot of the energy of the earth etc. Do you know the story of the Young Werther by Goethe? I do not know the name in English or German.
Yes, I do know where the next step is. When I just listen to the process I can find the next step. That part is easy. It is close to me, not somewhere far away.
I began developing the idea of earth as sediment and skin because of my placement in Iceland. The idea of skin is not necessarily a new thought. In Seydisfjördur the earth is old. When the earth is exposed and without grass, there are open dirt roads or construction. The earth is terra cotta color, red peach to brown. Close to my residency at Skaftfell, the earth is being torn apart so that one of the largest dams in Iceland can be built. Already objects and maps have skin tones, clay tones.
I am familiar with the story of the Young Werther, and I can understand why you ask it in reference to my work. It is too tragic though. I don’t think that throwing out a system means the extinction of all possibility. On one hand, this system building is like Sisyphus. One must first have hope to have something better; to get somewhere closer to where you think you want to be. But to make the first steps in that direction is pure risk because it ventures out to something Unknown. The beauty about the Unknown is that the ego generally takes the back seat and something productive in the psyche, the soul may be achieved. Inside life there is a lot of elasticity.
The earth is skin and existence, as we are skin and existence. There are many apparent physical boundaries between it and us, but on a molecular level there are none really. It is kinetic and not static. On a microscopic level, the life of a cell must maintain the equilibrium between sodium and potassium. Sodium is continuously pumped out and potassium is pumped in. Too much or too little and the cell dies. There is balance and change occurring simultaneously.
You ask, “Where is the next step?”…It begins with earth. Earth is sacred. Life is sacred. Mainstream America appears to have a perversion now of too much, not knowing how to make life valuable without this Capitalistic ideal.
When the earth cosmos, which I mentioned only briefly, was mapped in Iceland, earth was considered to be sacred enough to use spiritual guidelines in placing the seat of the government. Now the government is joined with the corporation and under the term globalization has all the rights to rip the earth apart and take it all for granted. In the name of linear thought, we have rights to dismandismantle the ecosystem. We seem to live in an age where nothing seems sacred anymore. There are no ethics left. Maybe we have reached a different place of Balance, if it is possible??
Just a quick ending note-
Mass production and the availability of goods was captured by the pop artists in the 50s and 60s. My message is the opposite. I start with something that is mass-produced, such as a candy wrapper or even a genetically altered orange and transform them to become rare and precious objects. The mundane, something that is thrown away, associations with daily and simple life, are left most often unobserved but is made valuable and rediscovered through these manipulated objects. They become artifacts of our society and fragile relics of memory, time and place. The found objects I begin with, I take from specific places or people. They begin and end with conscious intimacy for myself and then for the viewer.