talks with Adam Niklewicz
during the 10th Edition of CONTEMPORARY VENICE 2022
, at Palazzo Albrizzi-Capello
Luca Curci – How did you get to your current artistic practice?
Adam Niklewicz – It all happened on February 8, 2000, when I attended a lecture given by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (known for their large-scale wrapping projects). I felt mildly intrigued, but before I noticed anything, the presentation swept me off my feet and by the end of the evening, the state of relative satisfaction with my artistic path was blown to pieces. On my way home I was braving a February snowstorm, and a similar storm raged in my head. New (and surprising to me) ideas soon started forming and demanded my attention. And that is how it started.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
AN – My work is shaped by my ongoing emigrant experience. It often draws on the visual vocabulary of my Polish childhood and on my subsequent exposure to American commercial and pop-cultural iconography. The resulting blend is at the core of my practice and testifies to the paradoxes of an emigrant artist’s mindset.
LC – Which is the role the artist plays in society? And contemporary art?
AN – I’d abstain from overestimating artists’ influence on society. I believe that artists do it for themselves. It’s a way of making sense of reality. For me, making art is like carving out an intimate niche for oneself – a free zone. Maintaining this zone is crucial; it’s a prism through which I keep my distance from the pressures of the corporate society many feel trapped. Society would rather make one believe reality can be sanitized, streamlined and made predictable. I think I make art to expose that illusion, to laugh at it, to humour it. And in general, there is not enough humour in art!
LC – How do you feel when you see your work completed?
AN – I enjoy that moment. In some rare cases, the state of joy is mixed with the element of surprise (was I really capable of pulling off something that neat?). That kind of convergence is particularly precious.
LC – Did your style change over the years? In which way?
AN – I trust that the style/practice I engage in at the moment represents my mature approach. Everything before that was more or less a search for it.
“Taking center stage in this eccentric and highly entertaining show was Adam Niklewicz’s installation My Dinner With Marian (2009-10). It featured a wooden table set for an unusual meal. There were empty soup bowls on the table, each flanked by two pairs of scissors. Surrounding the table were four stools, two of them topped with phone books and two with large pots of borscht, each with a book submerged in it (Samuel Beckett’s Ends and Odds in one, Vaclav Havel’s The Garden Party in the other). Elusiveness of meaning was the thread connecting all the elements here. Termed a “micro-tribute to books” by guest curator Marek Bartelik, the show was inspired by Nikolai Gogol and consisted of photographs, videos, assemblages, and drawings – as well as a book or two for good measure – all celebrating the 19th-century Russian author’s unhinged logic.” Steve Barnes, ARTnews
“The show has two real and heady high points... The singular work is a disk on which is painted, near the edge, the streamlined,
international symbol for man. The artist, Adam Niklewicz, tells viewers to set the disk revolving; it moves slowly. The slowness lets us identify with this Everyman’s rise and fall. But the circle can spin endlessly, as life goes on.”
William Zimmer, The New York Times
“What is so dazzling about a white pencil point stuck into a white wall? By incorporating time and space through a single line by means of a continuing moving shadow, Adam Niklewicz’s “Untitled” achieves a triumph of art over physics. This is a definitive work for the exhibition in that it explains precisely how and why the Duchamp revolution tossed out color from the art object in favor of Mind." L.P.Streitfeld, Greenwich Time
“The work “OKNO, 2000” by Adam Niklewicz is the show’s most unusual piece. It consists of six light boxes framed in wood to simulate an exterior window. The light, which is synchronized to match the sunlight schedule as it relates to the time zone of his ancestral home in Poland, gives the exhibition one more reference to a far-away time and place." D. Dominick Lombardi, The New York Times
“(...) So Niklewicz turned the basement of his home into a large studio, and started to play around with ideas. The result is an impressive series of conceptual works - simple but brilliant.” Alistair Highet, Preview Connecticut
“Niklewicz’s “Wall Signs” is a waving line established directly on the gallery wall through an apparently random placement of black-rimmed magnifying glasses. As we progressively look through the multiple magnifiers, we realize they have been strategically set over faults, flaws and imperfections on the painted wall. This brilliant work manages to be both a satiric commentary on and evolution of conceptualist pioneer Sol LeWitt. Niklewicz is appropriating the wall to dialogue with his fellow Connecticut artist’s recent breakthrough of waving lines, which incorporate the marriage of order and chaos into the conceptual dialectic.” L.P. Streitfeld, The Stamford Advocate
“...Adam Niklewicz evokes a quiet world of in-betweens. Born in Poland, immigrating to the United States in the 1980’s, his art represents a fey world-between-worlds, lyric and pensive, nostalgic and unsentimental at the same time. Wry humor and an acute eye for the most mundane - and consequently most gripping - “non-artifact,” he transforms a polish sausage into a recorder (an audio-tape of the artist playing a Polonaise floats in a gentle voice-over), or creates a book that breathes (the gentle parting of pages the only evidence of the sighing life of it). Here in an American gallery he fashions a false window, artificially illuminating its panes in accordance with the course of sunlight in Poland (lighting slowing with the timing of distant sunrise, darkening at end of day) - his truth absurdity in an alien context." Patricia Rosoff, The Hartford Advocate
“In Adam Niklewicz’s "Frozen River”, an installation that includes 72 nails hammered into the gallery floor to form the shape of the river that serves as a border between Poland, his homeland, and the former Soviet Union, Niklewicz points to the struggles and triumphs of the immigrant experience.” Judy Birke, New Haven Register
“About two years ago, Adam Niklewicz attended a lecture presented by world-famous artist Christo as part of a popular exhibition of his work at the New Britain Museum of American Art. It was a turning point in the life of the NEW/NOW artist whose own exhibition at NBMAA opens with a reception to meet the artist from 2 - 4 p.m., on Sunday, Nov. 17. “I attended the Christ lecture mildly intrigued and left a changed man", Niklewicz said. “I experienced a profound change as an artist, and that evening set off my life’s most creative period.” The irony of participating in an exhibition at the very institution that helped spark such a dramatic change in his life is not lost on Niklewicz, who plans to honor Christo in one work that “addresses this serendipitous loop.” Christo is known for his grand scale installation art, including one famous work, completed in 1962, entitled Iron Curtain - Wall of Oil Barrels, Rue Visconti, Paris. It involved blocking off a street in Paris by stacking up oil barrels. Niklewicz’s installation, on a much smaller scale, will involve filling up one entrance to the NEW/NOW gallery to a height of 67 inches with 16,000 earplugs. While Christo’s work was a commentary on industrial civilization, Niklewicz’s work is a symbol for our times of information overload. Also part of his exhibition will be several other works that draw upon another theme: Niklewicz’s experience as an emigrant from Poland, coupled with the realization that certain ordinary visuals from the past can reappear as symbols defining one’s life.” Art & Insight
AN INTERVIEW WITH ADAM NIKLEWICZ - July 31, 2012
Adam Niklewicz plays with the relationship between identity and nationality with a slice of sausage in the middle. Removing our typical relationship with food (eat and run) Niklewicz forces the viewer to reimagine how we can view food with everything from beautifully rotating chicken bones to musical sausages! His sculptures are multi-faceted creations which resituate objects outside of their normal habitats. We caught up with the artist to find out more...
Jade French: How does your relationship with both Poland and America inform your work?
Adam Nikelwicz: On one hand, there’s the visual vocabulary of my Polish childhood, on the other – the American pop-cultural and commercial iconography. The two clash and blend together (there’s a bit of smoke) and all this occasionally produces some creative leaven.
JF: Do you think through creating art you gain a sense of identity? Or does art incorporate a universal feeling, which negates nationality?
AN: I’d dread to hear that my art is somehow ethnic, hermetic or obscure. True, I often base it on quirky, ethnic, folkish facts but I do hope I’m able to distill these facts into works with universal appeal.
JF: Can you explain more fully how ‘Romantycznosc’ is a reflection on the Polish psyche? How did you create that piece of work? It’s amazing that the sound is so pitch perfect when made out of meat!
AN: It’s hard for me to explain the Polish psyche notion (other than through art itself), I know though it reaches its peak when a Pole plays a polonaise on the instrument.Putting this piece together took a lot of effort and a lot of sausage. And there were these frequent (up to three times a day for a few weeks) visits to my local Polish deli, which confused the store clerk. My appetite for always the same mundane kind of sausage, the shear amounts of the product purchased, the fact that I’d often produce a tape measure from my pocketto check on the sausage’s length before buying – all this made the clerk uneasy. I fought against the instinct of explaining myself. I decided that the explanation (I’m not really weird, I’m only making a musical instrument out of sausage) would not boost my image with the man. In other words, I enjoyed the process and misperceptions it produced. The process has recurred several times since with other projects. What makes the piece utter the right kind of sound must remain a secret.
JF: One thing that strikes me is the manipulation of found objects into functioning equipment- like the Art Forum kaleidoscope. How important is it that your art has a function, as well as an aesthetic value?
AN: I want my work to both look good and to possess content. Yes, I need my objects to function, but their purpose must not adhere to an easy logic.
JF: Is the Art Forum piece a comment on art journalism? I noticed you cut the visuals from the review sections out- how much do art reviews affect an artist?
AN: Perhaps it’s a comment on the nature of art. I truly believe that art is ever-changing (like the kaleidoscope effect used here) and ever-fresh (not unlike nature itself).
JF: Do you think using microscopic visuals forces the viewer to look harder at your artwork, or engages them in a different way?
AN: A small object of art feels precious, like a piece of jewelry. I noticed that people gladly focus their attention on a small work. They feel encouraged to wrap their minds around it.
JF: Would you classify your work as playful?
AN:I’m very happy when someone calls my work playful. I’m equally happy when viewers find it humorous.
JF: Pieces such as ‘Ounce’ have a strong sense of nostalgia and poignancy- does this piece relate directly to personal experiences?
AN: I love that you misspelled the title of this piece! The actual title – ONUCE, stands for a garment of sorts – two pieces of fabric or paper (often a newspaper) designated to be wrapped around feet, usually in addition to socks. All this for an extra protection against cold. I suspect the term made the title partially because it looked like a misspelled English word (e.g. ONCE, OUNCE). I used to wear onuce as a child. Big time!
JF: Pieces such as ‘Calle Lunga’ and ‘Monument to Borscht’, although stationary, seem to incorporate a sense of movement- is that something you recognize yourself?
AN: These two pieces are not really built to last. They appear to face the imminent prospect of collapsing, breaking, sagging. I think, this is where the sense of movement comes from; their fragile nature implies change and change is related to movement.
JF: The kinetic sculpture ‘Chicken Soup’ has a sense of frailty to it – what do you think this piece is trying to say?
AN: I like fantasizing about that chicken I consumed. I assembled its bones in a rather aerial manner. I wonder- is this transformed bird on the verge of taking off?
JF: Why is there a link between food and heritage within your work?
AN: Food is a visible, tactile, sensuous (and surprisingly meaningful) way of experiencing a cultural heritage.
JF: I also read that you ate paint as an art student, which relates to the piece of bread with orange oil paint – can you tell us the story and why you recreated this moment later in life?
AN: The incident happened many years ago during a drinking party of a bunch of 17-year old art students – all ready, perhaps even certain, to conquer the artworld. In my own drunken stupor, I spread orange oil paint over a slice of bread and challenged everyone to take a bite. Nobody did! Meanwhile, I put myself on the spot and now I had to have a good chunk of the slice. The long forgotten incident returned to me quite suddenly, and made me realize that the then display of adolescent stupidity was in fact an act of commitment. A vow. I’m the only participant of that gathering from he past that keeps making art. I recreated that ‘action’ now to renew the old vows.
Absurdity – An Adaptation of Reality
Art of Adam Niklewicz
A thought balanced "between infinity and a sneeze” – that quote by Felisberto Hernández seems to fit perfectly with the art of Adam Niklewicz, an artist who can start off with the most ordinary a premise, and soon after reach the metaphysical. The springboard which he uses to jump over directly from the truly mundane into the abyss of mystery can take shape of the text of a received e-mail, scratches on a wall, a piece of furniture, or an ordinary activity. Niklewicz rejects the standard perception of the most conventional aspects of reality. He knows no thing too trivial to become a pretext for an artistic reflection. On the contrary, he industriously manages an inventory of occurrences and utilizes them to his own end.
The complexity of that inventory often triggers a complexity of form. The artist arranges elaborate installations by bringing together quite disparate motifs - his own memories and fiction, artistic and demotic references. By combining all these stimuli - the real and the fictional ones - he creates new legends, which are at once laundry lists of analogies and catalogues of contradictions. An installation titled “The Ballad of the Twin Beekeepers” can serve as an example— it shows an apiary of green beehives enveloped in a gentle scent of mint, all against the backdrop of a red curtain with a large bite mark on its right side (the bite mark is a common motif in Niklewicz’s concepts). On a winding path - in a scenery of 730 puddle remains of a summer storm - there roam inseparable figures of white-clad beekeepers, the Siamese twins. Yellow ear plugs build honeycombs, while a special tool for neutralizing the effects of seasickness soothes the beekeepers. The bees sit on their hives, forming a map of the Philippines. Above all hangs a silhouette of a scuba diver composed of dead bees. It is thanks to this work that we find out that the mark on Mikhail Gorbachev’s head is likewise shaped like the Philippines. We also learn that a photograph of Salvador Dali and Federico García Lorca was the opening point for the shape of the beekeepers’ silhouettes and that it was taken the year of a tragic incident in Pszczela Wola, when a swarm of bees brought death to a group of vacationers. Logic is too modest a medium to encompass such a multitude of motifs - therefore the liaison with poetics is formed, and thus the work amazes with cohesion of most distant associations and symmetries.
Such tactics brings to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s libertarian view on the supremacy of detail: “I remember a cartoon in which a chimney sweep is falling off the roof of a tall building, and on his way down he notices a grammatical error on some board he passes, so while falling, he wonders why it didn’t occur to anyone to correct the mistake. In one way or another we are all falling down to our death, and while still in midair we admire - alongside the immortal Alice of Wonderland - the lovely pattern of the wall along which we’re falling.” It is indeed the ability to contemplate the detail, which the writer considers to be a proof of the state of highest consciousness.
Niklewicz transforms such details – scraps of reality– into internally conflicted signs; the artist maintains the physicality of objects (or even emphasizes it by the prosaic nature of his choices) and reveals their secret potential. In his works, an egg levitates above the ground, a large wave gathers in the midst of a calm carpet, a sausage in a hermetic jar is flexing into a symbol of infinity, a chair undergoes metamorphosis and becomes a bird, while a fork reveals its alluring shapes - boasting its blonde pasta hair. Everyday experiences are turned inside out, revealing the underlining of which we are normally oblivious to, and which surprises with its originality and numerous layers of wonder.
The mentioned objects build a track record of the artist’s constant playing with nonsense and sense, an activity “which is practiced by young children (and poets)” (Alain Robbe-Grillet). It’s his attempt at reaching what’s ultimately meaningful through what is fairly insignificant, and if we were to believe Georges Bataille, it is indeed “the absence of sense” that might contain an element of the most awesome meaning; that meaning which reasonable thinking is not able to grasp, which cannot be framed by a pattern or an unambiguous ascertainment.
That playing takes different shapes— it can, for instance, take the shape of thought materialization (in an installation titled “My Dinner With Marian” we find works of Beckett in a pot of soup) or a game which reshapes an existing defect of reality into a mysterious clue (in “Wall Signs,” the artist places magnifying glasses over all cracks and scratches on a white wall, turning those damages into unusual quotations). Niklewicz toys with the idea of rescaling and multiplication (by building a wall out of 16,000 bright yellow ear plugs) as well as with poeticizing the most severe marks of reality, such as a hammer or a bucket. Linked to such poeticizing are: the process of trans-contextualization and an attempt to engage the very mundane elements of human creativity into the world of art. Examples include a pair of socks with special little nooses for transporting birds (an invention of a certain Vietnamese smuggler) or a vulgar word puzzle. Another preferred technique of this artist is reversal – groceries, objects so close to the matter in an almost physiological meaning, deliver him infinite philosophical material and can become an eschatological clue. Tiesa, traditional Lithuanian sausage, for instance, gains the shape of the infinity symbol, by which the artist suggests an existential paradox in the point between physiology and eternity.
Another installation, “Rosary” contains a reflection on dependencies and the inevitable mingling of physical and spiritual elements. It is a small black dot appearing rhythmically on the gallery wall (the artist measured the length of the prayer), which is meant to show the measurable meter of mystical contemplation.
Niklewicz combines seriousness and Dadaistic jokes, the familiar and the visionary, while engaging a range of subconscious states. In “Vision That My Cousin Krzysio Palonka Had Back in 1970, When He Got Drunk as a Child”, he refers to an incident from his childhood, when the artist’s cousin experienced a phantom presence of tiny figures gathering on his face (the vision was caused by the boy’s first intoxication). The incident, which apparently became an amusing family legend, is turned into a work with a very strong visual power (the contrast between a white face and colorful little figures) and an equally strong metaphorical effect. The figures wear uniforms and peer into the boy’s mouth, which brings to mind the atmosphere of bondage under a regime in which the artist was growing up. It also brings to mind the psychosis of invigilation, typical among members of socialist societies. Another work refers to a dream, or rather to the moment of awakening. The title informs us, that “Sometime Last January I Had Awoken In the Morning With My Hand Up”. The raised arm turns into a lighthouse, yet despite such a transformation, the sea lantern is still clothed (humorously) in checkered pajamas.
Assembling accidental symmetries, creating portmanteaus of history and fiction, gluing together seemingly contradictory elements, it all seems to constitute a very specific technique for fulfilling Niklewicz’s surrealist postulate – searching for a non-antinomical reality. It is the same search that fascinated people for ages. On the break of the 13th and 14th centuries Meister Eckhart wrote, that the perfect space of soul is free from living with divisions and “any contradictions are foreign to it.”
The artist is fascinated with dichotomies and paradoxes, and the world constantly pushes him to – following Julio Cortázar’s example – acknowledge absurdity as “a natural way for appropriating incomprehensible reality.” Niklewicz therefore considers reality in the reversed order than the logical thinking would suggest— he finds poignancy in dreams, dreams in reality, sense in nonsense, metaphysics in matter, and physicality in signs of spirituality. He is attuned to the rhythms of the world, to the secret liaisons in which a pitiably banal detail can reveal the biggest mystery. In which case that detail must be a symptom of some process of internal dynamics of existence, which “takes place on the margins of all ways of measuring, weighing and detecting, which are based on our Greenwich and Geiger methods” – as put by Cortázar, when he wrote about metaphors “heading in that undetermined, exciting direction; the shock of a triple collision, a move of the bishop which changes all tensions on the chessboard; how many times I felt that some unlikely football combination (…) can provoke certain mental associations in the head of a Roman physician (…) or that – madly now – that physician and football are both elements of some other process which runs through the branches of a cherry tree in Nicaragua; and that when we combine these three elements…”.
Łukasz Kropiowski, ARTPUNKT