Interview with Nicole Wassall


Inês Mourato: How does Isis Influence your contemporary art practice?
Nicole Wassall: I mentioned James Putman to you before; I first came across him when I attended a talk he did on the ‘Book of the Dead’. At the time he was curator of the Contemporary Arts and Cultures Programme at the British Museum. Earlier that day I‘d been working on a revolving story. I was not sure how to resolve it and it was making me restless.
James started talking about the Book of the Dead, which he called ‘rw nw prt m hrw’, and explained the translation as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. He also covered how hieroglyphics changed over time and the intent behind this. Ancient Egyptians felt some things should be lost in time, like doors closing behind them. And in this context the revolving story slipped into place. The significance is that it brought into clear focus a different way to look at things.
More recently in a collection of work I was making, called ‘Precious Mettle’ I re-visited ancient Egypt. Both in terms of learning to water gild, a technique they used, and the goddess and god stories and the cultural context that created. The initial talk had opened ideas into how they thought and that’s how the influence started. It’s not literal, nor illustration, but many threads of influence that fit together.
So Isis, for arguments sake, can be taken as an historical ideal of womanhood. Initially as the daughter and then the ‘good wife’ teaching Egyptian women traditional skills. Later, after repeated jealous strikes from her brother and patiently protecting her son into adulthood, she has her moment for revenge. However, she takes pity on her brother and as a result is beheaded by her son (fortunately for her, her head is later magically reattached). But what does this say about inherent expectations on how an ‘ideal woman’ should be?
In the piece ‘Equality’, the wait for equality seems as old as time, whether it be feminism, slavery etc.. How long should Isis/women hide in the marshes of the Nile, protecting our sons and waiting for them to grow up, and how will they react when they do?
The metronome references the shape of the pyramids and uses water gilding to apply gold. The reflective surface allows us to see ourselves in the piece and in history. The slow ticking, which eventually needs rewinding, the ongoing effort, the changing speed of the metronome as the weight is moved, and so on, open possible dialogue within the piece.
And just as historical ideals of perfect women refocus, Isis too was morphed into goddesses like Demeter and Aphrodite as Egyptian and Greek cultures mixed. It is also possible to see how pagan artistic representations of Isis and Horus influenced early Christian depictions of Madonna and Child. In the piece ‘And somehow we’re meant to be perfect…’ the concept of perfection is explored with the creation of 3 icon boards.
This was the first time I had used the technique of water gilding (the application of leaf metal to wood with a substrate of gesso and clay). The technique is said to take around 7 years to become competent at and 21 to perfect. The piece documents the 1st to 3rd attempt, in the form of “icon paintings.“
Icons traditionally capture the story and spirit of a saint or Madonna and child. However, here the icons function as gold mirrors with the viewer replacing the saint and holding ancient and contemporary together in one space.
Multiple metaphors about perfection and concepts of self are captured in the piece. For example, from a couple of meters away, ones reflection looks like a painting, yet up close, the golden reflection shows very fine but limited detail. However, if someone else looks at your reflection when you are close to the mirror, they can see a fuller reflection of you than you can see of yourself.
A key dialogue within the piece is that, as the technique improves life lessons can be taken from the process and visual results of each mirror. And despite the attempt at perfection, each board is unique and it is the imperfections that are enticing. I like this because it dis-empowers the traditional male subordination and idealised image of the feminine, cutting through the superficial of society and connecting us back to something more real. I like too that Isis became bigger than a ‘bit part’ in what could so easily have been a male dominated story or as you say ‘ Isis is a wonderful example of how women were powerful and sometimes more powerful than men’. When we realise the journey is not about becoming impossibly perfect we open ourselves up to embracing something more enticing.

IM: Would you consider yourself a feminist. If yes, explain.
NW: I would consider myself egalitarian, my work reflects this, naturally this includes the experience of being a woman. As a consequence, it was recently brought to my attention, that I am ‘absolutely a feminist’ (by Annie McGrath, a comedian).
However, I recently conducted a social experiment called ‘Thank you’, which sees a man steal a ‘feminist’ artwork. The piece deals with unequal pay and sits naturally with the #metoo movement. It worked so well I found myself shot out of my echo chamber at surprising velocity, the social experiment mirrored life more than I expected.
Further, I posted footage of the theft on YouTube. Surprisingly quickly, complete strangers commented, and projected a strange version of feminism onto me. I felt like an obscure version of a scientist in a white lab coat, patiently replying to them, as they revealed perfect insights into feminism and the issues that exist. It revealed more male vulnerability than I expected, but I remain a defiant egalitarian; a feminist.
You will see the joke there I am sure. Even the idea of being a feminist has been made dangerous, a thing to attack. Yet, it is unclear what a feminist really is, because so much is projected onto us by the anti feminist. This is of course handy, because it demonises what it is to be ‘a feminist’ and in so doing silences the most reasonable requests.

IM: Do you think that all female work needs to necessarily be a feminist statement?
Absolutely not. Although, it is interesting to play with that lens; to differing extents the viewer will bring their own ideas to your work and you can use ‘being female’ to add depth to a piece.

IM: In what extent will Once upon a time, and Now! Teach something further about feminism?
NW: There is a dynamic between artefact and art, which creates dialogue. The challenge, whenever linking back to ancient knowledge, is how much to tell people. So that when you present ancient contexts in parallel with contemporary thought, you can propose some level of ‘universal truth’ or its opposite, to shift the angle of feminist debate and shine new light from an ancient sun. With this in mind I will be intrigued to see how the show fits together, each artist will bring a dynamic and it will be interesting to see how this works as an online exhibition. And the dialogue between the different artists work will be key in influencing what people take away from the show.

IM: What is your biggest inspiration for your work?
NW: Life. A curious life; I research and that takes me to places I do not expect. So it’s the influence of ideas from a broad range of contexts that, when brought together in a piece or a collection, helps me unlock ideas in my own mind.

IM:What is your favorite book?
NW: My notebook, and all the notebooks that have proceeded her! I don’t think that is quite what you were after, but it is honest. I really do love my note books. I don’t have one favourite book other than these. Trying to single out one favourite book is like asking for my favourite idea, I have lots of favourites and it may just depend on the time of the day, the season or the last person I interacted with.

IM: What message are you trying to conceive with your artwork?
NW: It’s more of a conversation than a message. People access work on different levels, some people want an aesthetic hit, others want to feel something, others want you to entertain them or make them think. And whilst I have these in mind, it’s more interesting when people come to me and chat, like they are continuing a conversation they’ve already been having with my work. For example, when you wrote to me, you talked about how you liked the idea of a mirror and how women look at themselves and find flaws in what ever they see, and how the role of the mirror has gone from being seen as a ‘beauty element’ in a positive way in Ancient Egypt to ‘somehow that reversed’ to be the opposite for women today.

IM: What role does art play in your life?
NW: Art is the seed. There are many ways to think about that, it is the same with art. How it grows within you but also how it grows independently from you, right the way through to providing the oxygen you breath. It is also how I interact with the world. How I process and how I communicate.

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