“Deprivation of Individuality” – The Art Of Nihil
by Mia Makila
While making research about dark surrealist and fine art photographer Nihil, I studied many of his previous interviews. I wanted to find clues about the poetic stillness of his macabre photo manipulations. Where does it come from? The interviews all asked the about the religious themes, about the recurring use of masks, about the collaborations with other renowned dark artists. After my research, I thought to myself – ‘what could I possibly ask Nihil that would reveal something new and unknown?’. So, I decided to use some of these older interviews as a starting point and to dig deeper into his answers. In that way, I was able to wander deeper into the haunting darkness of his Universe. Let me share this experience with you.
In your art we encounter various expression of isolation, elements of constraint (rope, belts and gagged mouths). What were some of the awful things you witnessed? What is the reality of living or working in such closed environment full of sickness?
I worked a few years in medical research centers. We were experimenting new drugs on animals. I witnessed and participated in experimental surgeries and toxicology studies. I keep a lot of vivid nightmarish visions from these years. Infected rodents eating each other while we were observing their agony. Botched surgeries, animals waking up in the middle of the procedure. Animals stuffed in freezers, clawing through their garbage bags. My colleagues were ordering a bit more healthy animals, “just in case”, and at the end of the week they were amassed in gas chambers, being put to sleep while climbing on each other. Sometimes, none of this had any valid scientific justification, we were only asked to work to cover the yearly budget. No one was traumatized or particularly horrified. They were rationalizing everything, using the same arguments over and over. “Someone has to do it”. I was scarred forever by those times. A few years later, I worked in a hospital and cancer treatment center. Things were better for my mental health because at least we were helpful, not harmful. But I still had to deal with the images of agony, old age and sickness, everything the society tries to hide behind white walls. The unstoppable progression of cancer, senile patients strapped to their bed asking repeatedly if I was their son, the inexorable decay of the flesh and the futility of it all. I guess decay and death are just a normal part of life that we should all be confronted with at some point. No reason to hide it.
You often use androgynous characters, mutilated bodies, muted mouths and desexualized genitals. I can’t help thinking about your artist name “Nihil” which means “nothing” in latin, and how these bodies can be another representation of this ‘nothingness’. Where does this recurring theme of nothingness come from and when does something or someone become ‘something’ out of this ‘nothingness’?
What are you left with if you remove the conditioning, the education, the experiences, the genetics? You peel the layers one by one… and you’re left with nothing. Is there a personal “identity”, a self, a soul if you go back to the source? Something that would make the whole construct have a meaning? That’s why I always work on shallow shells of human beings, anonymous mannequins deprived of individuality. That’s just how I see us.
I read these words from you somewhere: “I don’t see any point in capturing reality as it is, I want to alter it”. And: “I use masks and veils as a symbol of refusing to deal with mere reality, protecting from it.” As an artist myself, I completely understand this ambition because there is nothing that scares me more than the rawness of reality. What is your relationship to reality and imagination?
When I was a small kid, I was drawing maps of imaginary worlds. That’s where I wish I could live. Being confronted to limits, insufficiencies, ugliness and evil, accepting the reality of it, is part of being an adult. Accepting that not everything can be like we want, accepting we’re just a part of the whole, that we’re mostly average and won’t amount to much, accepting that we’ll be dead and forgotten before long, and that none of that might have had any meaning… That is being a rational and responsible person. Well, fuck that. I’ll never accept it. I’ll deal with it as long as I’m alive, sure, but don’t ask me to like it. Creating a bubble of alternate reality for myself is a way to cope with reality, this gigantic meaningless machine that just chew souls up. Religion, books, videogames, art etc. Anything to escape, really.
I can’t make an interview with you without asking about the obvious religious elements in your art (from various religions): martyrs, saints, hand gestures and multiple arms, religious symbols like the cross, gloria and the crown of thorns. I remember this quote from you: “Deep inside, I regret to be unable of faith. […] I think I use art as a low-level replacement.” Is this a comforting practice or a painful search for ‘meaning’?
Going into metaphysic or mystical considerations is looking the reality in the eye and fight it, make it spit its inner truth. Unfortunately, I don’t have the education or the talent and can’t force myself to be a believer. So I do what I can instead. Art is my tiny fragile scaffolding to try and touch the sublime and the transcendent.
I guess most artists don’t feel like they have a choice between creating or not creating. They create because they have to, it’s a part of what they are. At least in my case, creating artworks is not comforting or painful, it’s just part of my daily life, like eating or sleeping. If for some reason, I can’t do that for a while, I’ll just start being bored and depressed. That’s what happened when I stopped writing and I started with the images a few weeks after.
You really are a master of the dark art genre and you art has a clarity of the core of darkness. Some dark surrealists add a juxtaposition to dark elements – like sarcasm, humor, nostalgia or romantic elements – but your work is dark through and through without losing any depth or tension. Since you deal with darkness in such a pure form, how do you define “darkness” – what is really dark to you?
I can’t really define my own style that way because I don’t try to create something dark, I just show things how I see them. I don’t see things as positive or negative, ugly or pretty, they’re just what they are. I showed my work to a therapist and she told me I have a porous barrier between conscious and subconscious and I can sometimes access my inner fears and fantasies. Not saying it’s true or false, but it’s interesting, because then you could define darkness as our most inner and hidden instincts, the feelings that constitute the foundations of our being and that we have to push under the surface in order to live a civilized life. Most people would say dark art is about death, but in that way, maybe it’s about life?
I notice plenty of reference to art history in your work, which artists in art history do you consider to be true masters of the dark and macabre?
Before humanism and the so-called Enlightenment, artists were just capturing the spirit of their times and sometimes produced dark images in their corpus, and I love Grünewald, Bosch, Dürer, Memling, Brueghel for some of their works. In more recent times, artists started to egotistically express their own personal vision instead, and I would name Beksinski, De Bruyckere and Odd Nerdrum for the incredible power and darkness of their work. And there many contemporary artists I could name here too.
What is your creative process? Your favorite part?
Sometimes I sketch an idea but most of the time, I start without a precise image in mind. Usually, I just use an opportunity for an interesting photo shooting and let intuition guide me. I hate the photography part because it forces me to focus on technical and social aspects instead of creativity, and that’s a lot of parameters to deal with: light, settings, poses, the well-being of the model and the team… So I try my best to do something good but I often regret later some mistakes or missed opportunities. It’s better for me when I have help with the technical aspects, so I can focus on directing.
Choosing only one photo between two hundreds is also a painful moment, full of doubts and frustration. Then I start working with Photoshop. Sometimes there is a clear idea, but most of the time I need to try a lot of different things. Some ideas don’t work, some are good but I don’t have the skills or photo resources… That can take a very long time, a lot of efforts and pain, to finally find the right direction. Dealing with my incompetence to render what I have in mind is a real suffering. Once I found the right idea, I can finally relax. Working brainlessly on an image, knowing where I go, retouching detail after detail for hours is almost a meditative experience for me.
All my process is only guided by aesthetic concerns, I never think about a meaning or message while I work. It’s usually weeks or months later that I realize what was going on under the surface. So basically my interpretation of my works is not better than anyone else’s, I’m just another spectator of my own images.
As a surrealist myself, I know how the artist can have obsessions when it comes to recurring details. We talked about how we can see many recurring details in your art – masks, rope and religious symbols and gestures. What would we never see in your visual world and why not?
It’s my visual language, but nothing is out of the question, really. My artistic culture supposes the predominance of those elements but I could work with anything and it probably would convey the same feelings in the end. I’m actually looking for a bit of diversity in my pictures because I get bored of the same style, but my skill set is very limited to what I do. I could see myself working on a family portrait and it would still exude desperation and loneliness somehow. Symbols and models, colors, poses, light… Those are just the waves. My subconscious fears will always be visible through the surface.
Last question. Can you feel that your art is moving in a certain direction? Where are you taking it or perhaps I should ask – where is it taking you at the moment?
I find myself more and more attracted towards two different directions. First, barren landscapes and unidentified masses of flesh. I feel like removing more and more discernible elements and symbols and going into almost “neutral” images with no story. I can’t explain why, it’s just a natural thing for me right now. Second, I’m fascinated by the alchemical imagery and symbols. So I might explore into that direction as well. Well mostly I have no clue where I’m going. The past taught me that I can’t predict or plan that. That’s fine, I’m not interested in crafting any kind of career path or coherence here.
– Interview by Mia Makila