A magical function outside of being works of art.
Beyond the fantasy of holding magical powers, India Nielsen’s works carry through the sense of wanting to act as a portal to something, whether that’s heaven or hell or a feeling of love or grief. Presented with religious treasures since her childhood, she has grown a fascination into escapism. The artist often merges different speeds and painting styles into one work, reacting to a certain inconsistency reflected in our daily life, mostly experienced through the Internet. “I want these factors to literally ‘live’ together – to coexist and vibrate in their own world, powered by their own internal logic.” India mentions. Whether combining text and landscape, close ups and far away views, or non-liner waves through time and space, India’s works maintain a push and pull against each other, or “something that shouldn’t function, but does”. We spoke with the artist about her Degree Show at the RCA, her otherworldly works, and just how she finds the stability between this variety of dialogues and voices.
You studied Painting at the Slade School of Art and are currently in your Masters Degree at the RCA. What experiences can you share with us from your art education and how has your practice evolved in this time?
They’re two really different institutions so I feel really fortunate to have experienced both. The Slade had a lot of strong personalities, there were only about 40 people in a year on a 4 year course, so it felt like having a big family that you saw every single day. It was quite an intense environment but this was also a really exciting time to experiment. I spent the first couple of years trying lots of different things. I did performances, made music, sculptures, paintings… I remember we had a sculpture crit in the first month at the school and a friend and I drilled wooden boards over the entrances to the room, locking in all the other students and tutors. We hid drills around the room so they could get themselves out. Then we just left the building through the fire escape and hid outside for the rest of the afternoon. I think at this really early stage I was looking for something that drew out an active response from people rather than making something that you just gazed at. However, after a while, and definitely by the time I got to the RCA I was just focussing on painting. I think it can be quite easy to make things that feel different just by switching the medium. When you limit the materials there’s less to hide behind. The RCA is way more laid back, usually people are a bit older or have taken some time out. I think I’ve learned the value of just doing nothing sometimes… taking a break and doing things that have nothing to do with your work. It gives your work much more energy when you come back to it. I’ve felt really happy just zoning out and focussing on making work and this year I think I’ve been the most prolific I’ve ever been. I’ve felt pretty blissed out at times.
You have experienced a strong catholic upbringing given your Italian roots. In what ways does your practice reflect on spirituality, holy art, or catholic imagery?
I spent the first 6 years of my life living with my parents, my grandparents and my two aunts and uncle in my grandma’s house in North London. Her house was full of religious icons, bottles of holy water, taxidermied pheasants arranged in fake landscape scenes in glass boxes, figurines… I think we had a nativity set out all year long. I used to play with these things like toys. I remember having a tiny leather wallet which had a prayer and a little gold medallion in it on one side, and on the other was a scrap of fabric which was meant to be part of the robes of Mary Magdalene. I loved it because it felt like I had something really special – that it held magical powers. I carried it around for good luck in Primary school. I naturally use a lot of catholic imagery in my work because that’s a big part of me and my upbringing. I make work that’s obviously a product of all the things I look at and absorb on a daily basis, often through the internet. These things are more universal or international, things I’ve seen online, but I also want to maintain a real connection to where I come from and my own personal experiences. I think I’ve also carried through this feeling of wanting an image to act as a portal to something, whether that’s heaven or hell or a feeling of love or grief or whatever it might be. That it has a magical function outside of being just an image, even if this is just fantasy.
You never make studies of paintings as sketches, but rather use text as your starting point. Can you explain us about your process?
Oh, I rarely ever do drawn studies for paintings because I don’t want the painting to work better as a drawing. If I do a drawing and it works out great then that kills the impetus to make the painting. I usually collect images or references that revolve around the feeling of the painting… or I’ll write out a description of what I want it to feel like or do. I try not to think at all when I’m actually making so it’s nice to have the notes there so I can look at them as a little reminder. They become like architectural notes. “We can work it out, 1991” came out of a Peter Doig painting I saw at his Michael Werner show this year. There was one figure in the foreground who had a yellow, red and green camo print jumper, but all of the patterns were floating out in front of each other. It was the best camo I’ve ever seen done in a painting. I wanted to make a painting that just zoomed in on that and revealed a whole world just from that small scrap of fabric. I also wanted to try and combine text and landscape painting together in a way that made something that felt really different and exciting. I often try and combine elements that might not necessarily seem to belong together in a way that does not feel ironic or collaged. I want them to literally ‘live’ together – to coexist and vibrate in their own world, powered by their own internal logic. One of my all time favourite illustrators Saul Steinberg, who did a lot of iconic new Yorker covers, described himself as “a writer who draws,” sometimes I think I’m a writer who paints. I want to make worlds and stories that people can connect with and live in for years if they want to.
What can you tell us about the different speeds and painting styles you adjust into one painting? Is this an attempt for the viewer to experience narrative in a non-linear way?
I want the feeling you get when you look at, for example, a painting, to be like the way in which we absorb and experience information today, especially through the Internet. Usually with my paintings there’s an overwhelming wash of information, then certain elements, symbols, characters, text, slowly ooze out and push and pull against each other. When I started painting I was looking for subject matter, so I just started painting people around me. It made sense to stitch different painting styles together to match the different characters or personalities of the people I was painting. The result was was like a kind of Frankenstein’s monster… something that shouldn’t function but does. It lives in spite of itself. Our experience isn’t consistent, so it makes sense that the paintings are also full of inconsistencies. But also between works there are a lot of inconsistencies there too. There’s a lot of jumping around in style. Martin Kippenberger was a big early influence on me because he never allowed himself to be pinned down in terms of style. He was one who seemed to act out on all of his ideas regardless of whether they fitted with the rest of his work or not. He was a doer and I respect that.
You have worked consistently with characters and symbols within the past years – from exploring recognisable cartoons such as “Him” from the Power Puff Girls or even “The Pink Panther”, to reducing someone down to a symbol or archetype. What is it that interests you about this subject matter? Are you concerned in taking them away from being cartoons?
I grew up watching MTV; music videos like Wu Tang or Missy Elliott or Eminem and I think in the early 2000s when I was growing up it seemed to be a bit of a thing for people to package themselves as characters. The Wu Tang Clan created their own world and language. Staten Island wasn’t Staten Island it was the Shaolin, and the hub from which they made all their music. Similarly all the group’s members had their own character and rap style based on martial arts fighting styles; Old Dirty Bastard had drunken kung fu etc… There’s obviously a level of falsity there but by inhabiting these personas they could express themselves. They created their own world and used it as a way of existing and claiming their own space in the real world. When I started exploring narrative in my work it seemed natural for me to code the people and experiences I described in a similar way. They’re squeezed through filters or flattened into symbols. There’s a definite level of escapism there, but one which I think gives you a feeling of power in being able to express yourself through your own chosen language, on your own terms. As for the ‘Him’ character… I think that’s just a really badass rendition of a devil. When I was a kid I loved his crossdressing, high pitched voice, baby pink cheeks and the general uncanny sexiness that he carried… especially in a children’s cartoon. I can’t believe that no one has used him in a painting before…
Your inspirations vary from tattoo artists to anime, manga, pop-culture, or music. From which sources do you find your stimuli?
I look at everything. I spend ages looking at things on my phone or my laptop and screenshotting everything I find interesting.It’s become a compulsion which means I have to keep clearing my phone storage out almost every over night because it fills up so quickly. When I have ideas for paintings or other works I sometimes then spend a while flicking through all these images and putting them into folders for each work, just based on the feeling I want them to have. I like being able just to flick through or look at them when I start painting.
When I visited your studio you mentioned that “playing a video-game feels like being inside of a cubist painting, where you can experience different viewpoints”. Is this something you are interested in exploring with your practice?
Well those were actually two different but connected statements. The cubist painting reference was more an analogy for the way it felt to me growing up along with the internet. It feels like there’s no dialogue anymore because there are too many voices. You’re constantly aware of not just one or two different opinions about a topic now, but 5 or 6 or more all at the same time. It’s overwhelming. That felt and still feels to me like being inside an interactive cubist painting, where all viewpoints are flattened and pushed right up against your immediate experience. When I played video and computer games as a kid I was often struck by the way you could toggle between two different view points. You can zoom right in and play as one character and for the duration of the game, or at least until you ‘die’ you become that character. You’re really invested in that character’s fate or the outcome of the game. Then you can zoom out and see everything quite coolly laid out as patterns on a map. You’re either experiencing things on a super microscopic or macroscopic level. It’s quite disorientating. I try to hold those two viewpoints together in my paintings and other work. I want there to be a feeling of incredible, almost invasive intimacy, but also a sense of alienation – that the work holds a meaning or energy of its own that you can’t really unpick.
There is a recognisable DIY aesthetic linked to your works. Is this something you deliberately strive for?
I think it’s the most honest way I could possibly make my work. I was thinking about making some frames out of aluminium and I thought.. god it would take me months to learn how to weld and cost a ridiculous amount of money. I saw an Adam Savage video where he makes a Hellboy sword and covers it with aluminium tape to create a metallic finish and it seemed to make much more sense to make it in that way. I like the kind of power that making your own version of something brings. If I can’t get the real deal then I’ll make my own. It makes me think of the sympathetic magic activities of cargo cults where coveted items like airplanes were carved out of wood or built out of straw in the hopes of attracting more. Similarly, sculptor Tom Sachs knew he could never afford a Mondrian so he just made his own one out of gaffa tape. There’s something about that that feels very human and sweet to me. Shortcuts and workarounds like that are much more exciting and relatable to me than looking at a slick, polished perfectly made aluminium frame. It was similar with some of the frames I’m making to accompany my works for the degree show. I thought, if I make frames now I’ll have to know exactly which paintings I’ll be putting in, as the sizes will be set… so I thought why not make the frames modular? I made a template for the corner and side edges of the paintings and made drawings around them which I then cut out of wood. That led to something that felt much more in synch with the work as I could then swap out and rearrange the modules with each other and with the paintings. The frame modules became more like floating pieces of language that became on an equal level with the painting… like bits of language have broken free from the composition. I like this dynamic as opposed to the frame being something that constricts it or is added on as a finisher.
You are currently preparing your degree show at the RCA. Do you have any more exhibitions/projects planned ahead?
No future for you no future for me. No future.
Words by Vanessa Murrell