Interview for Toxique Magazine
Please give a description of yourself, Nihil – where are you from, what is your background, how, when and why did you start creating art?
I’m 35, I live in Paris. I started writing at around eleven. I was just a solitary kid in dire need of an escape from painful realities. I began to create an imaginary, oniric world that was going to grow more and more with years, and be tainted with silent hatred. I think I’m still digging into it nowadays, a long time after, and expanding it. It was changed by my experiences and traumas, expressed differently according to my skills in different domains, but it’s still the same old inner compulsive pulsion to escape, and still the same shelter to protect me from mere reality. I am working on a dark, mystic anticipation novel, the images are another development of the same world. First I began making photos to illustrate the novel, then they took a life of their own and I began exploring different ways.
Are you able to live solely from your art? What is your profession besides being an artist?
Unfortunately, I have to work. For now, I manage to balance my art budget and buy new hardware, which is good enough for me : I don’t think of art as a way to get rich. I’m not sure a lot of my fellow digital artists are able to live out of it, unless when making a lot of commission works (cd covers etc.) which is not in my plans, because I don’t like to follow directions. So I work as an IT guy for now, and I used to work in medical healthcare : I was an animal surgeon, worked in medical research, in hospitals, in old people homes… I saw a lot of awful images, participated to a lot of strange experiments, all of this marked me for a long time, and you can track that in my pictures.
Are you assigned to a gallery at this moment – if yes, for how long?
No, I just work with galleries for exhibitions. We, digital artists, have hard time being considered equals to painters or photographers. People generally don’t get we do art on our own and not retouch work for others. By the way, I’m still new in the business : I started my first solo exhibition in a gallery a few weeks ago.
Why did you choose specific to create photographic manipulated art?
It was almost random : I didn’t learn photomanipulation or anything related and just tried a lot of different things. But I think I am clearly a visual artist : even when writing, my texts are full of visions and descriptions that follow each other without real coherence. I’m a worthless storyteller !
For a long time I used to play with scanners, webcams and free retouch softwares. I was just experimenting, but I managed to improve enough to be able to create interesting pictures when I got my first decent DSLR. I bought it just to have an extra creativity option, without any previous idea. After a few months, I thought it was more fun and less painful to make pictures than to write, so I progressively shifted the focus from one to another.
I’d love to be a painter or a movie director but I have no skills in these domains. Photography is easy but not very interesting to me : it doesn’t separate art enough from mere reality to my tastes. People are ugly and the world is bland, no matter how much care you take. No need to represent that again and again and again. I hate these extremely sharp pictures that we are fed all the time, as if we would need to get even more real. I try to enforce an oniric, surreal ambiance. So I guess photomanipulation was and is the best compromise for me.
Has your artistic style changed over the years and have you ever tried to experiment with other types of artistic genres?
I started pictures with urban decay photography, but you don’t have that much room to express yourselves in this genre. A lot have been done already. I’m not exactly sure why I first decided to work on portraits, but since my first session, I knew it would be my favorite genre. Since I constantly doubt of myself, I experiment a lot, to improve or to mix my style with new elements and influences. I tried to collaborate with a lot of fellow artists like Matt Lombard, Daria Endresen, Olivier de Sagazan to find new ways to work. I tried a lot of different genres (textures, urban, spontaneous portraits etc.). Mostly, these experimentations help me improve technically but didn’t revolutionize my usual style that is kinda living a life on its own, even against my will.
What or who inspires you when creating art? Are there other artists you relate to or consult with in your creative process when you experiment with new artistic ideas?
I was formed and deformed by years of reading religious texts : the book of revelations and Upanishads would be my main influence, along with a lot of other ancient sacred texts. But that’s not a very direct influence. When I start to work on a project, I generally don’t think of a particular artwork or artist. But obviously, like everybody, I’m a product of cultural background and various influences, ranging from medieval painting or indian art to modern pop culture (mangas, videogames…). I could cite Fra Angelico (and the inhuman grace of his characters) in the same sentence as Silent Hill, Gandhara Buddhas and Akira, Valhalla Rising and cathedral of Chartres, the lost identity in the paintings of Olivier de Sagazan or Eric Lacombe, the mystic visions of Alex Grey… My favorite painter would be Beksinski though, even if it’s probably not my main influence.
What is your creative workflow when creating a piece? (do you make any kind of research, sketches, drawings, etc. before creating your art? Do you carefully plan each image before a photo shoot or do you have a general idea that you work from?)
I generally get the idea in a flash, some vision occurring during a daydream or just at random. These ideas are very precise, I just add or change a few things. Then a long process of degeneration begins : each step force me to adapt my idea to obstacles and constraints of reality : the model isn’t looking like the character I saw, I don’t have the right costume, I don’t manage to recreate the same light etc… So I test a lot of variations on postures, accessories etc…I give up on some details that don’t work, add new ideas, improvise… And generally finish with a picture totally different from my first idea, but good nonetheless !
How do you select models for your images? Are you using the same models repeatedly and do you know your models in advance before a photo shoot?
I tend to work with friends, always the same two or three ones, because they understand my world and my references very well and don’t have conditions to work with me. Also, that allows entertaining photo sessions. If I can’t work with friends, I try to find a model that both have the look and attitude I’m searching for, and someone I can get along with : it’s easier to direct someone when you feel at ease with him.
Do you maybe even use yourself as a model in your images – if yes, why?
Sure, very often, because I know what I want better than anyone ! I always have very precise ideas, postures, expressions in mind. Sometimes, it’s simply easier to model myself than to explain someone else how to do. I don’t attach that much importance to who models what since I generally tend to erase everyone’s identity with masks of erased faces.
Furthermore, how do you get your models to perform the positions that you have in mind?
Some of them understand very well what I want because they share my references and culture, and do this almost naturally. Some of them are experienced enough to improvise very convincingly and suggest great variations. For everyone else, well, we work our asses off and I try to enforce my idea by explaining and showing. Sometimes I move finger by finger, one centimeter on the left, one centimeter on the right… It’s sometimes frustrating.
I assume you use Photoshop in your creative process. What are your favorite features in the program? (if yes, which version)
Well, without Photoshop, I’d be stuck to material reality and would never have come to photography. I’m a clone maniac, I think I could do 95% of my pictures with this only tool… But obviously I use about every other tool out there, the awesome Liquify filter, the ‘Fill’ function of CS5, healing brush and so on… I tend to use a lot of masks rather than selections too.
I could not imagine a life without music and I always listen to music when I’m creating a new piece of art. Are you inspired by music and listening to music when you are creative? If yes, what type of music?
I need specific music for writing (generally ambient music because I’d be disturbed by lyrics, guitars etc.) For pictures, I just listen my usual music (which ranges from industrial to black metal, neofolk, traditional indian music, noise etc). Creating pictures is ten times easier than writing, for me, I don’t need to focus that much, I just let things flow.
What has been the most challenging part about creating your art? And on the contrary, what is the best thing about being an artist?
I had to stop writing because that was beginning to be too complicated for me : my huge and ever growing quality standards were going crazy and killed me each time I wasn’t writing a perfect and awesome sentence. That was a pain. Also, I have lot of doubts and torments, because I’m never happy with what I do and always want to do better, or different. It’s a huge source of stress, anxiety and sometimes even depression.
Good thing about being an artist is that you’re somehow forgiven for your eccentric behaviors and social awkwardness ! Also, my art allowed me to travel through Europe and to meet, work and sometimes befriend some of my longtime art and music idols : I am very lucky.
There are a lot of digital art on the market these days. Therefore, what do you do in order to differentiate yours from the rest?
Well, I’d like to ask everyone else what do they do to differentiate them from me ! I don’t really think about it. I have my own culture, my own references, and I know my mind is twisted enough to generate a completely personal and different world, something that will be only mine. I don’t have to force anything : being me is enough to be different ! And, as a matter of fact, I’m sure that in some sort of test, you would separate easily my artworks from other people artworks…
When I look at your pictures I feel extremely fascinated and drawn by the dystopian and quite disturbing mood that you create. Which themes in your art do you pursue so far?
What is the theme behind each of your different series of images?
I talk about mysticism : how to escape material form and human experience to dissolve in a greater truth. But obviously, that simple idea had to be declined in a lot of different forms : on one side we have the grotesque and suffering flesh, the sickness, the filth, the pain. On the other side, lighting, halos and serene expressions are there to show the way towards something greater. And between these two realities, there is sometimes a continuity and even a coherence, no an opposition every time : that’s what I try to depict in some pictures where divinity occur right into human body, like in yoga doctrines.
I also talk a lot about anonymity and loneliness inside the masses, search for identity, perceptions and illusions and how to fight them… I generally flee the usual human feelings like anger or happiness, which are really small waves in the ocean of eternity. So I tend to direct my models like puppets : no need for expression besides a serene absence, everything has to pass through postures, hands etc.
Personally, I have experience that my own images have been analyzed in very different ways depending on viewer – and a few times the analysis of my images do not correspond with the ideas I originally had with the pictures. Have you ever experienced an analysis in an art review of your pictures that you couldn’t relate to?
Not really, I’m open to any analysis. I’m a relativist : I think every opinion is valid and wrong at the same time, and mine isn’t more true than anyone else. Actually, I think the artist shouldn’t worry about meaning, message and analysis. That would be the best way to make indigent intellectual art. He’d better worry about what is beautiful and what is ugly, and let his subconscious work for him. Creating from an already shaped conviction is like canalizing wild rivers : it’s sometimes useful, but it’s a shame !
For instance I did maybe ten or fifteen pictures with masks or erased faces before realizing I was probably trying to say something about identity research… And that was actually suggested by an interviewer. I don’t feel stupid of void when creating just ‘cool’ images because I know they are actually full of veiled messages and subconscious visions. I won’t let conscious convictions mold these.
I know you have a web platform called Le Ventre. Can you tell me more about this? How did you come up with the idea? How does Le Ventre relate to you series of images and their themes?
Le Ventre (which means ‘the Womb’) is the name of the fiction world I develop. I use it as a context for my novel, my pictures and also theatrical performances.
You call yourself Nihil Sth – it this your artist name? if yes, what does it mean and how does it relate to your images?
My artist name is nihil (Nihil Sth is because Facebook forces me to take two names). It corresponds to an absence of identity, as ‘nihil’ means ‘nothing’ in latin. It could have been ‘no name’. I try to hide my best behind this absence and anonymity, it’s an important concept in my artistic world.
Which of your own art pieces is your personal favorite?
Saint-Cyanide is my preferred, but I am not sure I could really explain why… Well, on this one you can track a lot of my influences. For a workshop I recently gave in Norway, I showed students how this could relate closely to such diverse influences as dark artist John U. Abrahamson, fantasy artist Brom, medieval painter Fra Angelico, contemporary painter Ernst Fuchs, video-game Silent Hill, anatomy master Albinus, fetish painter Saturno Butto etc.
Which art piece has been the most difficult for you to create?
Well, if you mean “difficult” as in “frustrating”, I guess the most toilsome were just failings and will stay unfinished… Sometimes (a lot of time !) you just can’t manage to make what you had in mind, and are unable to find other, valuable, ideas to save a picture… As everyone, I fail a lot, and hard ! If you mean “difficult” as in “technically difficult”, Soma would be the one. I spent six weeks on it, merging an anatomy drawing with a model. I tend to explore more and more difficult projects, but every once in a while, a simple picture completed in a day is refreshing too. Creating pictures is still entertaining to me, I try not to let the art drama spoil the fun !
Do you have a new series of images in mind for the future?
Not really. It is very painful for me not to be more “organized” in my series, not to have an awesome coherence between my pictures… But I tend to think picture by picture, and not serie by serie. Each time I attempted to walk new ways (like my cancer serie, consisting of only distorted textures), I come back to my saints fast. I guess the religious portrait is the theme that is the more fulfilling to me…
What is your dream project in the future?
More saints ! My plans for my next pictures is to actually create real scenes with multiples characters and get inspired by the magnificent compositions of the renaissance religious painters, but that’s not a dream project anymore, since I am already beginning to work on it. I actually would like to work on a new, apocryphal Golden Legend with my saints and my apocalyptical texts, maybe make a book out of it, that would be a great accomplishment to me. Finishing my novel, expanding Ventre performances, exploring video… There’s still a lot to do ! If we want to talk about actual dream-like project, finding actual suitable places to shoot (like an abandoned monastery or old hospital) would be one. I like my neutral backgrounds a lot since I’m influenced by pious images, but still, using actual ruins as background would be a dream.
Where do you hope to see yourself in the future?
Hopes, dreams, reason… All of this conflicts a lot in my mind ! There are a lot of possibilities for my future, ranging from an ascetic monk in a desert to a standard anonymous employee in a mid-size service enterprise… I can imagine living the most awesome experiences and drowning in depression, maybe even both simultaneously… I seek wealth, comfort and happiness then dream to abandon everything to pursue greater goals… I hope to be able to continue creating and hope to be able to stop, since art is just licking my wounds again and again and again… I guess we’ll find out soon…
I know that you have had a solo show together with artist Daria Endresen at XLAB Corrosive Art Farm from 1.6 – 10.7, 2012, in Berlin. Can you tell me more about the exhibition? Which series of images of yours have been featured?
What is the overall theme of the exhibition?
How did you get in contact with XLAB Corrosive Art Farm and how has it been to work together with another artist and gallery?
The curator of the gallery found my works on internet and proposed me the show. Exhibiting in Berlin is a dream to a lot of artists, I jumped on the opportunity. This is a somewhat underground gallery, not at all the kind of places you’d find in Paris : a very young an alternative audience, the kind of place where you can have industrial performances and propose strange arrangements without problem. I loved it. The whole relationship with the curators was great, very friendly, they treated me like family from the start. I decided to invite Daria Endresen because it was a great opportunity to share. Also, as an anxious guy, I felt that joining forces was more secure… I could already envision myself alone in a void gallery for the opening ! The curators from the gallery fell in love with her works, so it was easy.
We tried to isolate this serene, absent expression that you can spot in a lot of my pictures and to focus on these. I showed some classic and some unpublished works. We spotted the same kind of distant look in some of Daria’s works, so this was the theme we chose.
The opening went great, and we had the chance to meet awesome people, like artists Karl Persson, Paola Verde and Welcome to Mars. Industrial performer Yann Keller played music for the show. We received a lot of feedback and compliments, that was great.
What memorable responses have you had to your work? What has the publics reaction to your work been so far?
A girl decided to cover her whole new apartment with some prints of mine, that’s really a honour for me to see this kind of dedication ! Other people spare money so they can pay for a print and I am almost worried that they prefer my image to some good food or nice week-end (that’s why I tend to sell my prints cheap, so more people can afford them). I recently had feedback from an anorexic who has been in hospital for seven months and explained me she cried a lot seeing my pictures…
For my Berlin show, I decided to show a few English translations of my texts because people only know my pictures and I would like to enforce le Ventre as a complete, multimedia project… At the opening, one guy was fascinated by the excerpts and just covered me of compliments for hours about them. I never had this much, even from the fans of my pictures. So I guess my texts touch less people but can touch them deeper.
Your art works reminds me of Daria Endresen’s art pieces. How and when did you and Daria Endresen start working together?
Have you worked together before and do you have any intension about working together again in the future?
Daria is very famous in Europe and I discovered her artworks like everyone else, on internet. She’s a very impressive, sensitive and skilled artist. Our technic is similar, and even if the feelings we enforce are very different, we had a lot of similar elements : bald heads, wounds, blindness… A fellow digital artist worked with her on a collaboration, so I decided to ask her the same thing. It was early in my art “career” so I was surprised to find out she already knew my stuff and was happy to work with me ! That was an awesome opportunity for me. Everything went fine and we got along incredibly well. Now we share a lot of opportunities, shows and workshops… We often model for each other… I can’t speak for her, but for me she is an awesome model and know me well enough to play really well what I ask. I intend this to continue as much as possible.
In Denmark, where I live, I often find that galleries and art institutions only want to exhibit the already established artists or artists with the right CV. How is this situation in France?
Same, I guess. Established art is a business, I have no chance in there. As a dark artist, and an emerging artist, I am only able to work with people who are willing to take risks, and they are very, very few of them. That’s why I aim for Berlin, Barcelona, London etc. In Paris, you can find some alternative places focusing on street art, surrealism etc. but dark art is only featured in metal bars and the awesome Langage des Viscères (an event featuring concerts, performances and art show). So I guess I will have to fight and get through the so-called handicaps that are dark art and digital art, and prove everyone that my stuff is valuable enough. But I’m sure I can upset expectations, because I use a lot this new weapon that is internet and that is pushing the establishment around !
How do French culture, politics, social environment, religion, etc. affect your art, if they do?
More than French, I like to define myself as an European. I grew up in the shadow of cathedrals and I can’t imagine what I would be if I was born somewhere else. My pictures probably would express the same kind of feelings, but in a drastically different form. My pictures are the result of a long tradition of christian art, and even if I’m very influenced by a lot of different cultures, like India, I’m still the descendant of inquisition, monks orders, religious wars, crusades on pagans, church builders… About society and politics, I don’t feel affected by those. These are just small ripples in a very long history.
What role does an artist and art in general have in society according to you?
An artist have to be no one in society. Creativity doesn’t blossom that much in conformity and social acceptance : artists are marginal, psychos, alcoholics, hyper-sensitive people. They have to stay outside the world, which works with a set of rules that they can’t understand. Artists are receptors that painfully ingest everything world show them, and spit it how they can. They probably can’t adapt that well to anything remotely close to society…
On the other side, art itself is the heart and soul of a civilization. What you remember about previous ages is their art ans sometimes only this. There is no better way to define Aztecs, ancient Rome, middle-age Europe, 19th century China or contemporary USA, than their art.