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Olaf Nicolai
by Thomas Fechner-Smarsly

Olaf Nicolai, "Plant/Interior", installation (1996)

The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) believed in tailoring his domestic surroundings to his profession. The walls of his country house at Hammarby, near the university town of Uppsala, were literally papered with engravings cut out of scientific books, depicting the entire known world of plants, from the primrose to the palm tree. But for Linnaeus, the great cataloger and classifier, this was not enough: his personal gallery of prints also included portraits of his family, systematically arranged according to what the scientist saw as the general pattern of creation.

This idea of bringing nature indoors, or of using it as a principle by which to structure an interior space, can be seen as the general theme addressed by the Leipzig artist Olaf Nicolai. His artistic engagement with the natural "order of things" is documented in two recent exhibitions, shown at the Galerie Hohenthal und Bergen in Cologne and Munich, and at Eigen + Art, Nicolai's "home" gallery in Berlin.

In the spacious loft area at Hohenthal und Bergen, the artist presents a series of three works. Beginning with hand plant writing from 1994--previously seen in the more comprehensive exhibition "Sammlers Blick" ("The Collector's Gaze") at the Lindenau Museum in Altenburg--Nicolai leads the viewer around a conceptual itinerary that trenchantly recapitulates the transformation of nature into culture, or even of nature into design. The first work combines plant forms with depictions of hand gestures, taken from Italian Renaissance paintings in the Lindenau collection. Here, one is immediately struck by the close resemblance between the human hand and the drawings of leaves and branches, suggesting that there is a symmetrical relationship between nature and those who seek to order and shape it.

Even at the technical level, this also applies to construct/hortus, 1995, a series of cut-out silhouette portraits after the manner of Philipp Otto Runge, which are framed in black and hung with a further work entitled wallpaper, 1996, which runs around the corner of the room. One of the silhouettes also provides the model for the printed wall decorations that Nicolai has had specially made in several colors--for the installation at the gallery he chose a pale beige with faint overtones of pink. The fragile ensemble is completed by two glass cases containing models of plants, which look like the ones used for instructional purposes, but in fact, these forms are just as imaginary as the leaves and flower shapes in the silhouettes. Thus the eye advances from the model to the silhouette, and thence to the wallpaper; the image or representation of the object becomes part of the wall itself.

Having seen Nicolai's terrace work for the new exhibition center in Leipzig, many critics feel that this transformation of nature into interior is a purely decorative undertaking, a relapse into ornamentalism. But all misapprehensions of this kind are banished by the Cologne exhibition, which fills in the conceptual gaps and documents the artist's specific interest in the aesthetic appropriation of nature.

This floral "reading" of an act of acculturation is given a more exotic twist by the exhibition at the more cramped premises of the Galerie Eigen + Art in Berlin's Auguststrasse. Here, a glass case houses an object resembling a cross between a cabin trunk and an oversized jewel-case. The lid is opened to reveal a number of ethnic-patterned blankets or rugs, stowed in the drawers, together with several sheets of glass engraved with plant ornaments and, once again, a model of a plant, which has a fleshy, lubricious quality and is evidently a foreign import. This is the only element of the bizarre in Nicolai's otherwise decorous formal rituals. It is an unmistakably sexual image, conveying a sense of temptation and danger. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Linnaeus also sexualized nature (albeit inadvertently), at the same time as he was endeavoring to structure its wildness. In the process, he made it aesthetically legible and domesticated it--by literally bringing it into the home.

The work titled itamaraty is a product of a trip to Brazil, and according to the artist, it forms part of a calculated experiment in reimporting cultural models and ways of seeing. The patterns in question are directly held up for the viewer's inspection in the shape of the rugs, which are copies of native Amerindian designs made on a loom in the Saxon town of Chemnitz--the joke being that, when the work was exhibited at the Goethe Institute in Sao Paolo, local textile manufacturers expressed a keen interest.

Whether in an Enlightened or a Romantic spirit--following Runge, Linnaeus, Levi-Strauss or Foucault--every effort to order the natural environment is an act of deciphering, of close and attentive reading. The work of Olaf Nicolai offers a kind of second-order reading, a reading of the way we read nature. It's as simple and as complicated as that. The things that stand in the botanist's study or decorate his walls are the things that evade his attempts at categorization. The rest is an uncharted wilderness.

Thomas Fechner-Smarsly

Berlin, Germany
1996

Translated from German by John Ormrod

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