Nihil: a new vision at sacred art
Interview by Sara Visconti
Where is the boundary between photography and digital art after the advent of post-production as we know it today? Trying to answer this question, we found Nihil, an artist who often looks to ancient history and past art to create his pantheon of modern saints.
French-born and now in Norway, he creates a kind of new religious art in which aspects that are very common among the sacred artworks we all know (e.g. the suffering of the body, martyrdom and the freedom of the soul achieved through suffering, etc.) are enhanced through the use of digital technology.
Thanks to the mastery with which Nihil transforms his subjects, looking at his works one cannot help but ask philosophical questions of various kinds: who are the new martyrs? What does it mean to reach a transcendental dimension? Is the body just an obstacle that does not allow us to reach it or is there something else?
Hi Nihil, thanks for giving us this interview. I would like to start by asking you something about your background and how you came to approach photography.
Hey! I started with the visual arts about ten years ago. At the time I was writing a lot, and working on a novel. But I went through a difficult phase with writing. My expectations started running faster than my skills, it became almost impossible to write anything I liked. I thought I could take a break instead of struggling in front of a blank page all day long. So I bought a second-hand camera and started representing the characters from the book. Discovering a new way to express myself was helpful, I really enjoyed it and never looked back.
As you specify on your website, your works are strongly inspired by sacred texts, various religions and the iconography that belongs to them. It is clear that you have taken up certain elements typical of religious painting, but at the same time, the darker dimension of some of your works is striking and has an impact, perhaps leading people to associate your photos more with Goya’s “dark paintings” than with sacred art in the strict sense. On your Instagram profile, you also said that the inspiration for your work “Bind”, for example, was a work by the Belgian sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere, so there are also references to contemporary art. In this regard, I would like to ask you which artists, of any kind, contemporary or not, most influence your work?
I’m not usually inspired by individual artists (even though it can happen, like in the case you mentioned) but I try to set myself in the lineage of some artistic movements: first and foremost religious art indeed, but also esoteric imagery, expressionism, visionary art, pop culture… I don’t mind using classic codes and subverting them if needed, or mixing several different visual styles. Anyway, religious art is not all about serenity. At the end of the Middle Age, Grünewald was painting the decomposing, almost green, body of Jesus Christ on the cross and a long tradition of religious art is morbid and grotesque. It highlights a strong contrast with the serenity of divinity. So, dark or not, I do religious art, mostly.
How exactly does the process of making your work take place? I take, for example, “Alchymeia”, which represents the four phases of alchemy. Do your ideas come to you on their own and do you then look for various symbolic references, or do they come about when you encounter or rediscover certain symbols or imagery?
Alchymeia was a commission for the band Raison d’Être, their album was focusing on the four phases of the alchemical process and their psychological equivalents. The band gave me complete artistic freedom and I took some time to think about a visual representation. Aesthetically, I was interested in vast desolated landscapes, coming back from several trips in Iceland, and I was already exploring the central presence of the sun in my compositions (that’s obviously a religious thing). I used a classic example of the alchemical phases represented as four suns with four colours, then blended a few Icelandic landscapes together, adding personal textures and the colour themes.
Looking at your social networks we often see other artists and designers mentioned with whom you collaborate to create your work. Is there someone in particular who has caught your attention lately and with whom you would like to work? How important do you think exchange and collaboration are in the art world and especially in your personal experience?
Art is an individual, almost eremitic process when it comes to expressing personal feelings and themes. But it’s also a formidable opportunity to share, communicate and meet other creative minds, and I really like that part. I’m not defensive when it comes to sharing my techniques and I learn a lot from other artists. I was already collaborating a lot when I was writing. I like art collectives, communities, organizing my own exhibitions and sharing them with my artist friends, making things happen. Currently, my projects are personal, but I’m always happy to collaborate whenever there’s an opportunity, and I’m sure it will happen again soon.
In addition to religious suggestions and those linked to particular symbolism, another important element is certainly the body. You often see naked bodies, very bare, almost monstrous, but at the same time emanating a very particular form of sensuality. How do you think these aspects fit together and what role does the body play in the imagery you have created with your style?
A really interesting question is the relation between the body and what we can call the soul. For some traditional religious movements, our divine soul is entrapped in the evil mortal plane and we need to free ourselves from the world. For others, the spiritual and carnal considerations should be reconciled. The body may be considered as the vessel of the soul, the human experience as a necessary continuum towards transcendence… The martyrs were accessing the heavens through their suffering, the tantra disciples were gaining their deliverance through bodily and sexual experience… Is the human body monstrous or graceful, is our time on earth torture or an opportunity? I’m conflicted, to be honest. But I’m obviously fascinated by the visual, necessarily human, representation of transcendence through the flesh.
How did you come to develop this aesthetic? Did you start working on these themes and with this approach from the very beginning, or did you get there over time?
I think most of my themes and even my aesthetic were already articulated in my writings, even though the medium is different. I was already writing almost exclusively about transcendence, suffering, human experience and transformation… Some themes may appear or disappear, but mostly everything was there since my childhood.
Are the characters in your photos inspired by real people or events of your acquaintance, broader concepts and themes or are they simply figments of your imagination?
It’s only visual representations of my inner fantasies and impulses. I’m not very interested in real life. I need reality to escape it, to reformulate the same dilemma I was mentioning in a previous answer. The only influence of the real world on my art would be through ancient history. I’m fascinated by ancient civilizations and you can find some references in my work.
How much of your photography is created on set and how much is the result of post-production? Before post-production, do you already have the final image in mind and do you remain 100% faithful to it or do you completely change your initial idea in this second phase?
Without photography, I can’t do anything, but I like to consider myself a digital artist first and foremost. The photograph is a resource, the real work starts after. I don’t want to beautify reality, I want to transform it into something else. The answer to your question varies from one artwork to another. Sometimes I manage to keep true to my initial vision, but most of the time, I fail to make it happen because of my lack of skills, and I have to come up with a plan B. It can be frustrating but it’s part of the deal of being an imperfect human being, apparently.
Do you think you have found your ultimate style and will continue on this particular and unique path or would you like to try something else in the future?
I really hope I didn’t find my ultimate style and that I’ll be able to evolve! Artists are never content, by nature. I would be sad to stagnate in what I consider to be mediocre art. It might not look like it, but most of my artworks are attempts to get out of my comfort zone. I experiment with landscapes, psychedelic colours, outdoors photography, abstract art etc. I suppose it doesn’t alter too much the inner coherence of my work, but even if it did, I wouldn’t mind. I’m not on earth to do the same things over and over again. I also can imagine myself experimenting with new media in the future.
Last question. Are you working on any projects at the moment? If so, can you tell us a bit about it and give us some anticipation?
The best experience of my short art career has been publishing my first artbook a few years ago. I’m starting to work on a new one, in collaboration with a music band that would create a soundtrack for the book. I imagine it would be published sometime in 2022.
We’d like to thank Nihil again for this interview! We look forward to seeing his next works and working together again.