in conversation with
Gregor Quack – Your contributions to this show come in a range of materials and include both wall-pieces and freestanding sculptures. Yet their titles identify them as part of a single group of works—“The Demonstrators.” What unites them as a series?
Nina Beier – All of these pieces came out of my exploration of stock images as source material. Every piece in the series consists of an object paired with a photographic image. I dip the print in poster glue and hang it on an object to dry. For a while now, I’ve been fascinated by a specific type of stock image that is common on platforms like Shutterstock. They are images of quotidian objects photographed against a simple white background. In almost all cases, the objects are then subjected to some sort of destruction.
I was intrigued by the way these images are distributed. Because of the way payment works on these websites, images of open-ended visual metaphors tend to generate the most revenue for their maker. The more “open” an image is, the higher the chance that someone will buy it. Unlike with other forms of photography, the most sure–fire way to increase one’s earning potential is to simply produce more images. That’s how these databases grow so rapidly. There is just a constant stream of coins submerged in water, of crabs holding pills in their claws or light bulbs being hit with a hammer. You find the same tropes repeated again and again, and their creators attach keywords to them that point in all possible directions. For example, the images of the slowly tearing rope that I use in several pieces are tagged as symbolizing both hope and despair.
GQ – Besides this online format, what do you like about the images themselves? They don’t look particularly beautiful, and you just explained that by definition, they’re not likely to be original or innovative, either.
NB – There’s something I like about their purity. Because we don’t know the author of these images, we cannot read them as coded messages about the creator’s emotional or psychological life, as we tend to do with other forms of image making.
GQ – So for you it is precisely their muteness that makes them interesting?
NB – Right. I’m interested in the self-organization of images in collective production. What survives? What will be copied, imitated and multiplied? The chance to get paid on these platforms is higher if you can create a variation of an image that nobody has done before. But rather than pursuing huge creative innovations, most people introduce incremental variations on already existing tropes.
GQ – So in some ways, the source materials for your artworks are images that are specifically un-artistic?
NB – Yes, but it’s not because one type of image production is fundamentally more interesting than the other. If you just scan through these image banks, it feels like you can sense shifts in the zeitgeist long before anyone starts attaching names to them. It’s almost like consulting an oracle or talking to a medium. Because these works are relatively innocent of a grand political vision they become a great diagnostic tool. The only agenda that drives them is very short-term, small-scale profit. Their task is to visualize what people will need to say in the future and to provide the tools to do so.
GQ – It’s interesting that you think of these images as innocent. For me, what is most striking is their corporate aesthetic. Aren’t advertising images the opposite of innocent?
NB – There is an important difference between a commissioned image and an image that is produced before anybody can think of a use for it. The latter is ready to be filled with whatever meaning. These images are containers. In a way, we cannot blame them for whatever meaning may be attached to them after the fact. If the keywords for an image contain both the word hope and the word despair, the image can potentially span everything in between those two poles.
GQ– I’m not surprised that you picked up on the way words interact with images. You have a very specific way of using titles as well. You have a way of using a very simple word to extend the meaning of a visual gesture.
NB – Actually, I think that the way I use titles is kind of harsh and clumsy. But maybe it is precisely the one-dimensionality of my titles that force the works to exceed them.
GQ– How did you arrive at the title for “The Demonstrators,” for example?
NB – The title referred to the idea that I was making three-dimensional objects that hold up a sign or a poster—like people holding signs at a political demonstration. The crucial thing is, of course, that these stock images are specifically message-less. So in that way, the title’s function is to point to what’s missing, to have the title be something that captures the outside perimeter of the work but leaves the essence undisturbed.
GQ – In the finished work, even more interesting than your image selection is the way the three-dimensional object interacts with the image. You called the objects ‘support structures,’ but in person, it is often hard to figure out who is supporting whom. Was the object there first or the picture?
NB – When I started the process of the hanging my poster-glued pictures up to dry, it soon emerged that the picture could never be taken off without destroying the object. The object and the image end up entangled with each other. The strange thing is that ultimately it’s not unlike the photographic process. The images start out in a wet, glued-up state, and the finished, dried work is an attempt to freeze and fix that moment of flexibility and wetness for the future.
GQ – Since we are talking about a show that is concerned with ideas of location and place, I thought it was interesting that every CV of yours that I came across online had you living and working in a different city. Do you live in Berlin full-time these days?
NB – Yes. I just recently moved back here.
GQ – How does an itinerant lifestyle influence your work and your thinking? You live in Berlin but you also spent years in New York, Paris, Denmark, and many other places. It must have an effect to constantly move to new apartments and to new studios?
NB – It probably does. I lived in Mozambique as a child. I was born in Denmark, moved to Mozambique with my parents who then went on to live in Portugal and in Denmark. I suppose I learned from an early age not to feel attached to a geogaphical location. Though I’m often introduced as a Danish artist, I’ve lived abroad longer than I’ve lived in Denmark. There’s no denying that this has formed me. The fact that I don’t see myself tied to one place or obligated to inhabit only one perspective may be the reason that I am often drawn to objects that at first glance don’t seem to have a strong sense of agency. In the same way, I’m fascinated by objects that function as globally tradable currencies such as Persian rugs, Chinese vases, human hair, precious metals and so on.
GQ – And the thing that drew you to online image archives is that you never know where the creators might be located?
NB – Exactly. It’s unclear whether your creator is in Europe or in Southeast Asia. The historical origin of the image tropes is obscured. But the images are often variations on image genres found in many cultures. For example, I use an image of the seemingly “bottomless” coffee cup that is basically a variation on the quasi-universal symbol of the “horn of plenty” that seems to exist in many otherwise unrelated cultures around the world.
GQ – Before I saw “The Demonstrators” I always thought of you as primarily a sculptor. Is this series the first time you work with photography?
NB – So far, this may be my most sustained engagement with the medium itself, but a lot of my work over the past years has dealt with the idea of a frozen moment and with how that is tied to photography. In some recent works, I framed wigs made from real human hair. This series springs from the idea that the work is both hair and an image of hair at the same time. The main characteristic of hair is that it grows. It doesn’t stop changing. The wig’s hairstyle, however, is caught in that moment of time. It speaks to the particular moment when the hairstyle was relevant as well as how the wig—in this flattened, framed state—becomes like the idea of photography.
GQ– It seems that contemporary photo artists want to show that they are aware of the limits of photography, and that they know it has lost its authority to represent a one-to-one image of the world. You, on the other hand, seem to very intentionally confuse that distinction. Image and object are hardly every separable in your work, no?
NB – Exactly. I always end up working with materials that somehow sit in between representation and being-themselves at the same time. That unsettling state of not taking on one or the other identity is what keeps me interested in them.
GQ – And that also goes into how we, as beholders, can interact with your works.
NB – As it has turned out, all of my objects that look like images are highly Instagram-able. I never planned to make a work about social media or anything, but the fact that these three-dimensional things already look like photographs seems to trigger the desire in people to bring them back to a flat surface again.