The interrelations of shaping: An interview with Nona Inescu
Nona Inescu studied at Chelsea College of Arts & Design in London (2009-2010), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (2010-2011), and at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (Photography and Video Department), where she graduated in 2016. Nona Inescu works with photography, objects, installations, and video to define contemporary relationships between the human body and its environment through the lens of posthumanism. Concepts of geological time and our intense interrelation with our surroundings compose an aesthetic of a primal contemporary togetherness in an organic and biological techno-sphere.
This interview was conducted in summer 2021.
Hi Nona. Where are you at the moment? Can you describe the environment and send us a photo?
Hi Lucia! I just got back from Belgium, from Brussels. I am currently in Bucharest, at home, but only briefly. I’ll be on my way to my new, second home in Berlin, next week.
Can you tell us about your background? You’ve studied at several artistic institutions in several countries, including the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the National University of Arts in Bucharest. How has the international nature and variety of academic institutions in your artistic development influenced you? And what preceded academia?
Since high-school, I’ve had the idea of studying and moving abroad. First stop was in London, where I did a Foundation Course in Art & Design at Chelsea College. The multidisciplinary approach of this programme has definitely shaped my practice. I wasn’t sure about my career path at that time and I was interested in fashion and graphic design, as well as art. After that, I decided that living in the UK for one year was enough for me and moved to Antwerp, where I was briefly studying fashion design at the Royal Academy. Soon after, I realised that it wasn’t a great fit so I ended up coming back to Bucharest and followed up on my art studies here at the Photography and Video Department of the National University of Arts. The three years spent studying for my bachelor’s degree in Bucharest offered me the time and the space to develop my own projects as well as doing graphic design jobs on the side. I guess navigating all these different schools and international contexts left a mark on my practice, by opening it to different influences and practices and by never settling for just one medium of expression.
You mentioned in a previous interview that your main artistic practice is a hand with five fingers (each finger stands for a different discipline: photography, sculpture, objects, installations and video works). What determines which finger will be used?
Well, I guess I can never separate them completely. It depends on the nature of the project. A solo exhibition is encouraging me to do works in several and maybe all of the mediums that you’ve mentioned above. Other times, I need to adapt to the specific context where my art would be shown, by working closely with curators to establish a good balance between the works. My working process always starts with research, which is a combination of reading, travelling and exploring different sites and visiting a lot of museums, mostly science, archeological and Natural History museums, as well as historical art institutions. Sometimes, during this process I come across obscure topics or micro-histories, real or speculative, which I later on integrate in my work. For instance, in the case of my work Harriet (2020) I explored the formal and ecological relationship between the nervous and root systems based upon a specific case from the 1880s of a woman who allegedly gave permission to have her entire nervous system extracted after her death. I found the image of Harriet Cole’s extracted nerves around the same time I found scans from the book ‘The ecological relations of roots’ (1919) by John E. Weaver. I could immediately make a connection between the two. Also, the production process of this metal sculpture, done by carefully soldering metal wire, reflects the fragility of the nerves, as the work is very brittle.
It could be said – perhaps slightly reductively – that your interest lies in the dichotomy or the intersection of the human body x nature (mainly inanimate – stones, objects, etc) through the prism of posthumanism. Could you elaborate?
I am trying to establish or put a spotlight on the connection between human bodies, shapes and processes and other natural elements and inhuman beings, from the mineral, vegetal and animal realms. In other words, the focus of my work is on the interrelation between humankind and nature – animate and inanimate. I try to combine found objects from nature, such as stones or corals, with artificial or processed materials that imitate natural qualities. I then dissect the objects, removing them from their original contexts, to carefully arrange them in sensual, poetic compositions of formal similarities and material juxtapositions in the exhibition space. Stones and plants are enlivened; subject and object merge into each other and are no longer clearly distinguishable. By doing this, I try to draw analogies between human, animal, vegetal and mineral features and propose possible interactions between human and non-human bodies through physical contact or touch. In this way, I examine the interrelations of shaping or giving shape: have humans shaped nature, or has nature shaped humans?
How do you incorporate sound into your work?
Usually, sound comes into the picture whenever I am producing a video work. On each occasion, I collaborated with talented friends and former SHAPE alumni like Chlorys and Simina Oprescu. I am very happy whenever I can create the right context for a collaboration and when the collaborators accept the invitation to enter in a dialogue with my work. For my most recent video, I worked together with Simina and we actually produced and released a very limited edition record with the sound that she composed for “Hydrophites”(2021), featuring the voice of Geo Aghinea. Sometimes, the sound is incorporated into the work from the beginning and it becomes one of the main elements, such is the case for the installation “Echo”(2017), conceived together with Chlorys and Vlad Nanca.
You also seem to work with archive/history/past as a medium. For instance, in your piece Meander you worked with geology and layers of rock as an open archive, which chronicled the remnants of our ancient ancestors and landscapes. What role does history / geology play in your work?
Geology was present in my life from an early age, as both of my parents are geologists and I was visiting geological museums and various sites as a child. My mother has a small collection of minerals and gems that she keeps in the living room of the flat where I grew up. I started to incorporate and reference geological processes in my work somewhere between 2015-2017 when I encountered a particular type of stone, a concretion. These geological curiosities became an important element in my practice, as they are almost like a living organism, developing lumps and ‘growing’ over many years. A lot of questions and ideas arose to me by studying and working with these particular stones, questions relating to inanimate bodies or processes that we perceive to be unique to humans. How does one classify these things that transgress traditional natural history classifications of what is mineral, what is animal and what is vegetal? Also questions pertaining to a geological time scale and the awareness that there are organic and inorganic predecessors that will ‘outlive’ humans and will still inhabit this planet independently from us.
With the worsening of the environmental crisis, how do you see the future, and how do you think artists can / should react?
The future looks pretty bleak to me. There’s more talk now than before on this topic, but not so much action. As I write this today, I was just checking the news and I found out that the World Heritage Committee agrees not to place the Great Barrier Reef on the ‘in danger’ list. A lot of local initiatives get tangled in greater global economical interests and get killed off by the fossil fuel lobbyists. I believe we are running out of time to do anything meaningful to reverse the worst case scenario and the only real global priority seems to be “to get rich fast or die trying”. Artists should engage more in this conversation and produce awareness and knowledge in any possible way.
At this year’s musikprotokoll, whose visual identity also bears your stamp, you’re presenting a sound installation called “Echo” connecting 18 pairs of EarPods with 36 snail shells, which act as small resonance chambers.
“Echo” was originally conceived together with Chlorys and Vlad Nanca on the occasion of an exhibition entitled “Notes on the Afterlife”, curated by Rokolectiv Festival in Bucharest, back in 2017. The work is based on the analogy between the human ear and shell, which was first formulated by a 16th century anatomist, who named the inner-ear spiral cavity the Cochlea, latin for snail. The history connecting shells and sound is filled with popular science beliefs and symbolism, shells reflecting the inner sounds of human bodies or containing worldly echoes. The work references an inwardly focused era, with both snail shells and headphones marking a personal space, allowing us to feel safe and comfortably alone. The outside world, once a shared auditory environment, has been effectively fractured by endless white earplugs, with shells as resonance chambers of individually located bubbles of self-programmed sound.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova, conducted in summer 2021