Desire arranges multiple ways to express itself…the least object, to which no particular symbolic role is assigned, is able to represent anything. The mind is wonderfully prompt at grasping the most tenuous relation that can exist between two objects taken at random, and poets know that they can always, without fear of being mistaken, say of one thing that it is like the other…. Whether in reality or in the dream [desire] is constrained to make the elements pass through the same network: condensation, displacement, substitution, alteration.
André Breton, L’Amour fou (Mad Love), 1937
At the beginning of André Breton’s autobiographical novel L’Amour fou he describes how, in 1934, he and Alberto Giacometti each bought an unusual object, une trouvaille (a lucky find) at the Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris. At the time he was obsessed with a phrase he had invented – cendrier de Cendrillon, the ashtray (cinder-holder) of Cinderella – a poetic intertwinement of desire (woman) and extinction (ashes). The object that Breton bought was a spoon-shoe, a wooden spoon with a little boot at the end of its handle to act as a spoon-rest. Man Ray’s photograph of it, taken later that year and entitled From a Little Shoe That Was Part of It, was reproduced as an illustration in L’Amour fou.
This piece of cutlery made of wood possesses a fairy-story element, a dream-like inevitability. Its bowl could be used as an ashtray and its single shoe associates it with Cinderella and her lost slipper. Breton wrote about this object as an exemplar of ‘convulsive beauty’, that elusive quality he continued to seek all his life. In the early 1940s he went weekly with Marcel Duchamp and Robert Motherwell through the streets of New York to identify examples of such beauty in the windows of secondhand shops on Third Avenue, after sharing an inexpensive lunch in a French bistro on West 55th Street.
Defining convulsive beauty, a fundamental concept of surrealism, is no easy feat and is deliberately intellectually challenging as this slipperiness and mutability prevent it from fossilising. Breton wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and kept on redefining it until the 1960s. At its heart surrealism, like dada, is anarchic and its politics is about freedom not conformity. In a speech in Prague in 1935 Breton said: ‘The thing that characterises surrealism is that it proclaims the equality of all normal human beings before the subliminal message.’ Whether found or constructed the surrealist object is a passage to the unconscious.
According to Hal Foster the mysterious spoon-shoe is a symbol of woman yet at the same time it is a symbolic penis or indeed, that rarely located but often discussed organ, the maternal penis. In L’Amour fou Breton wrote: ‘it symbolised for me a woman unique and unknown’.
I first read about this legendary shoe-spoon, probably whittled by a French peasant in a surrealist burst of freedom of association and chance connection while researching some of Giacometti’s early works like Woman with her throat cut (1932) and Disagreeable Object To Be Disposed Of (1931) after being reminded of them by the intense, inscrutably quirky mix of personal and impersonal sensations in the sculpture of Michelle Nikou. Having read about the spoon-shoe before I saw its photograph, I imagined a tiny woman’s shoe carved under the spoon’s handle, a shoe that would not be visible but that the hand would feel as the spoon was being used. Thus it would be discovered by touch, and would have a secret erotic existence.
The actual spoon-shoe, Man Ray’s photo of which is reproduced in Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty, uncannily echoes some of Nikou’s artworks. This is particularly true of the recent Rack (2004), a bronze toast-rack shape which, because it maintains the furniture (funnel and sprue) associated with lost wax casting, appears to have a heel and thus be a strange kind of metal platform shoe; and a work made in 1994, a single narrow high-heeled shoe made from nail clippings embedded in chicken shit. Both these ‘shoes’ are resonant with potential narratives. Rack reminds me of a fairy story/folk tale read long ago involving the painful wearing of heavy metal shoes as part of a series of trials, like knitting grey-green yarn spun from nettles gathered in cemeteries at midnight, endured over several years by a princess to overcome a witch’s spell. The little ‘nail’ shoe’s materials immediately evoke ideas of sorcery, fetish and transformation. Either work could be read as a version of a Cinderella shoe, even a cendrier de Cendrillon. Almost anything can be used as an ashtray after all. Nikou titled the ‘nail’ shoe Grapnel (1994), another name for a grappling iron, in her words ‘a clutching word for a clutching object’. She describes the size of the shoe as ‘Cinderella’ meaning slightly smaller than average.
Grapnel was shown in a group exhibition called Fania curated in 1994 by Erica Green at the University of South Australia Art Museum for the centenary of women’s suffrage in South Australia. The exhibition was named after Nikou’s grandmother, Fania, a Macedonian peasant woman who, having migrated to Australia and unable to speak English, compulsively made dresses for herself in a particular design using pieces of hessian for her pattern. Her compulsion extended beyond the borders of practicality as she continually asked the family to take her to fabric shops and then endlessly cut and sewed dresses out of inappropriate and randomly patterned cheap cotton fabrics. The repetitiveness and impracticality of this task allies it to some perceptions of the activities of artists. The dresses became legendary within the family, representing storage problems – she made one hundred of them – as well as embarrassing examples of foreignness and obsession. Yet they are impressive signposts of the tough peasant qualities of tenacity and productivity, precious cargo echoing a task in a fairy tale.
My discovery of an unexpected but genuine association of Nikou’s artwork with the spoon-shoe of L’Amour fou thickens again when attention is drawn to the various works she has made using cutlery. Spoons (2000) are thirteen roughly cast lead spoons of different sizes, each with one or two lead lumps of chewed food stuck to its bowl. They stick to the spoon like lumps in the throat. To me they suggest indigestible food and long leaden family meals in which time stands still. Nausea and an inability to eat are frequent responses to repressed strong emotion in such situations.
At other times Nikou has cast chewed mouthfuls of food (bronze) in InLovewaste (2002), Lifesavers (lead) in Life’s over Candy Neck (2002), and half bitten Yo-Yo biscuits (lead) in Half of Everything (2002). She made all of these objects into jewellery – extensions of and furniture for the body, a place where statements can be made. All are metaphors for emotional states that are hard to put into words. Certainly I can’t say exactly what they mean though Half of Everything (2002) has some connection to the division of property through inheritance or fractured relationships.
Another piece of cutlery Untitled (1998) is a thin metal knife with a hole bored into it and nails soldered around the hole through which a small piece of circular knitting hangs down. It looks as if it was created by someone in solitary confinement. The knitting nancy has its origin in the medieval lucet, a harp-shaped two-pronged fork with a hole in the handle used for ‘French knitting’ to make braids to be sewn onto dresses or used as cord. Had Breton and Giacometti found a lucet in the marketplace they may well have considered it as an example of convulsive beauty.
How eloquent, how sensual something like cutlery can be is quite remarkable, this also applies to crockery. The plates and cups, the knives, the spoons and forks that we handle by eating and washing every day are touched as often as we handle our bodies and have an intimacy with us of which we are mostly unaware. They are almost like body parts or perhaps more like Stelarc’s prostheses, inanimate extensions which will outlive us but retain a history of our association.
Such linked chains of connections and echoes – into and out of art and literature, everyday life and family interactions, relationships and poetry – characterise the art of Michelle Nikou which traces lineages into both high and low cultural references (with a quietly persistent layer of deadpan humour.) Nikou trained in the late eighties for four years in the discipline of ceramics and found empowering mentors in ceramics lecturer and artist Liz Williams and artist-in-residence ceramicist and jeweller Gerry Wedd, both at the South Australian School of Art. Subsequently when Nikou turned away from the functionality of ceramics towards fine art, travelled and undertook postgraduate study, she looked closely at the work of surrealist artists as a starting point for constructing her methodology for making art. There she found such principles and strategies as chance, automatism, spontaneity, correspondence, the dream, compulsion, found objects, detritus, collage, the discovery of sexual or psychological metaphors in everyday objects, humour, surprise and juxtaposition as well as the latent political subtext of locating and transforming the marvelous in the everyday.
This is not to say that Nikou is a card-carrying surrealist but that her practice has productively drawn on and reflects back upon surrealism. And perhaps surrealism, whether it is named as such or not, is around us all the time. Maybe Breton and his peers did not so much invent surrealism as uncover it.
Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst’s preface for the 1933 Pierre Colle gallery’s Surrealist Exhibition includes a list asserting the vitality of the object: ‘…automatic or inadmissible objects…everyday appliances…retrospective bosoms…fried eggs; atmospheric spoons…loaves of bread.’ This roll call finds distinct echoes in Nikou’s frequent use of essentially domestic items. She has often used the kitchen both for raw materials and as a studio. The work Potatoes (1999) consists of eight potatoes cast from lead, which sit on their little funnels like boiled eggs or tiny sculptural busts, coronas of leaked lead surrounding some of them like elaborate hairdos. Carrot Necklace (2002) is a concrete carrot, painted to look remarkably like a carrot, which hangs from a copper neck-ring. Then there is crockery like Revenge (2004) the six earthernware plates made for a group exhibition on the theme of revenge at Downtown Art Space in Adelaide in 2004. Each plate, which is deliberately awkwardly dipped in dripping and pooling dull green, beige, blue and tan glazes, contains a large finely made three dimensional dog’s tail with the fur carefully built up from very thin rolled worms of clay, except for the one smooth dog’s tail. The work draws on two maxims: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’ originally occurring in Pierre Choderlos de LaClos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses of 1792 and the child’s nursery rhyme line ‘What are little boys made of?’ Nikou is deeply engaged with language and frequently makes a work around a single phrase or word that then becomes concrete poetry. She even used concrete, again to cast potatoes, this time for Concrete Potato Necklace (2001) a somewhat heavy necklace in which the grey and somehow expressive potatoes are fairytale pearls or wave-worn pebbles as much as vegetables. Again the emotionality of food and families, poverty and fantasy forms an implicit subtext to the work.
There is frequently something obsessively domestic and suburban in Nikou’s work. It is especially apparent in the handmade metal curtain rings which contain phrases from the soap operas The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our Lives carefully stamped inside their coils. My experience of daytime soap operas is linked to watching them with old people, sick people, unemployed people – those who are often considered in some way marginal to mainstream society. Thus, the words of these stereotypical soap operas evoke for me not just their creators and actors but the presence of all the people who, for whatever reason, are sitting inside during the day, drawing the curtains on the wider world. I sense their lives as a subtext to the aspirations and voices released by these artworks. Nikou conflates the clichés of sentimentality (unearned emotion) into serious and hard-won objects which speak of interior lives and private places. The letters are laboriously stamped onto the rings before they are coiled. The unevenness of the letters and thus their lack of a machine aesthetic suggests to me that these banal statements are used to express genuine emotions well as fake ones. Their poignancy stumbles against the shininess of the metal; the artist does not simply or easily disparage the inadequacy of the words but offers them as hiding places of the heart.
In conversation with me in December 2005 in her Adelaide kitchen as I prepared to write this essay, Nikou imagined a house in which every ordinary functional element has text upon it and thus embodies a voice, like her work Swan Season (1998) which consists of six cast aluminum door handles with letters beneath them which say: ‘don’t – pass – the – ball – to – me.’ Her embrace of this dream has also edged into reality in her toilet paper projects. A few years ago she removed toilet paper from restrooms in small country towns north of Adelaide and from the Art Gallery of South Australia. She then imprinted the toilet paper with stamps she had ordered, rolled it up again and replaced it. Thus the visitor to the Ladies’ toilets, at Burra or Saddleworth, or on North Terrace in Adelaide’s cultural precinct, would tear off a length of paper and, gazing absentmindedly down at it, read something like ‘that’s what me and the others think’ or ‘make me’ or ‘do you remember this – do you remember that’ or ‘we’re losing our atmosphere’ or ‘I called you majesty’.
The desire to situate art in daily life rather than the gallery environment is a concern for many artists; early in her career Barbara Kruger pasted her statements in public phone boxes. Nikou’s toilet paper stamping has reappeared in a recent work, Untitled (love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement) (2002), which contains the paper reading ‘do you remember this – do you remember that’ accompanying a toilet seat cover and two toilet paper roll holders covered in grey tapestry. The title of this work refers to W.B. Yeats’ 1933 poem Crazy Jane talks to the Bishop.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’
The mildly inept grey tapestry used in this work reappears in other pieces as slightly bumpy tissue box covers, as a covering for a door-stopper (a brick), as a sausage-like draft-stopper and as match box covers. Nikou has exhibited the latter as flat abstract forms on the gridded tapestry mesh on which they are stitched. Somehow the greyness and muffling quality of all these works returns me to Nikou’s evocation of soap operas. They do not attempt to cheer up, brighten or ameliorate the day and the shining hour like handicrafts are supposed to do (think of the charity shops and stalls and their millions of bright aprons, plastic-bag holders, tissue box covers, and knitted grimacing bears and dolls – testimony to the hours – loving, wasted, frustrated – spent upon them by women with busy hands). Instead they emphasise numbness, dullness, the potential nihilism and anomie of suburbia. In an earlier work Signifying nothing (1998) the artist collected lint from laundromat dryers to make four grey, fragile, non-functional pockets on the backs of which are crudely stitched William Shakespeare’s words from Macbeth’s speech that begins: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…’
Though made by a well-informed contemporary artist, Nikou’s oeuvre often borrows the awkwardness and solipsism of outsider art. Taking ordinary emotions that are responses to everyday situations but rarely put into words, and finding physical form for them is a creative effort that involves both courage and wit. Even though Nikou frequently deals with painful and solemn subject matter her self-awareness and sense of the absurd are never far away. One of her most recent jewellery works in the form of a text necklace says not the stereotypical ‘I love you’ or ‘hug me’ but go away (2005). An accompanying series of large cast bronze text-works monumentalise grumpy or hostile monosyllabic exchanges.
Combining opposites – soft with hard, food with lead, ordinary objects with venerable sculptural techniques – Nikou is as much an object-maker as a sculptor. Her work does not order space so much as be a space. We do not look at what surrounds it but at what and how it is. Her recent bronze works – hand-built mounds onto which thin broken threads are pressed or through which Braille letters are perforated; cast tissue boxes; the letters of single words; cast doorstoppers on little supports and giant wedding rings with doorstoppers draped over and around them – all mostly still covered with the debris of their manufacture – contradict the dignity and history of their fabrication with their deliberately awkward appearance. Parts of the works are finely and carefully made, (the wax that becomes the wedding rings is smoothed till it looks like tempered metal), while in other sections a lumpy texture including fingerprints emphasises their slow formation by hand. Many resemble the sort of enigmatic and awkward object that might be found in a shelf at the back of a dusty shop, some ‘thing’ or cendrier de Cendrillon handmade by an amateur art/craft person whose clumsiness and rawness are equaled by their zeal and obsession. Nikou’s totally professional and knowing artwork does an uncannily good and often ironic job of somehow evoking every complex element of that anonymous person’s passion and inarticulate longings.