Curator Sophie Prince sat down with artist Nabilah Nordin to discuss her iterative exhibition Please Do Not Eat The Sculptures, an orchestrated dinner where Nordin invited artists (and sculptures) into her home. While first staged in 2020, the exhibition explored ideas aligned with Nordin's current sculptural practice which engages with texture, colour, form and process, and brings into consideration the relationship between context and artworks and pushes the thresholds between art and life.
Casting my mind back to our first discussions of Please Do Not Eat The Sculptures as a project, I think we just delved straight into conceptualising an event that would have the potential to bring together food and sculpture, art and life. I don’t think I ever asked you, was there a particular moment when you thought to bring food into your practice?
I think the first time I thought about incorporating food was well before COVID-19, but Melbourne’s nine-month lockdown was when I really started experimenting with food and sculpture together. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I’ve always talked about cakes as an idea – I like the concept of making this tall, towering cake – and I soon thought, “Oh! I can expand this interest into other types of sculptural food, and it can be kind of anything – any food material now.” I’m really attracted to cakes and cookies because they have this element of nostalgia for me – they make me think of childhood and they’re really playful – and I just wanted to move my practice towards a more playful direction.
Yes, I can totally see a playfulness in this body of work, as well as total dedication to your long-standing explorations of form, colour, scale and texture. However, I also see something else. I see thinking around ‘the social’ and community. How are you thinking about people in this iterative exhibition?
My infatuation with cakes is tied to my interest in bringing a sense of theatre into life. I want to bring a playful kind of humour and ridiculousness to living – and by dressing up and eating towering foods, and offering a space dedicated to that, we are doing and celebrating something that is not the mundane.
When we first started the project we were asking, “How do we create this one event and have it convey everything to everyone?” We were labouring over an impossible task. At first we didn’t know we were going to do the dinners at my home with artists only, but now we’ve refined the framework by having a specific focus on the artist community. We decided on this focus by identifying a need to connect with other artists and strengthen our community through meaningful and diverse encounters.
Yes, it evolved into something that is really considered. This is important because I believe that when you’re hosting an artistic event, rather than a personal one, there’s a social obligation to some extent. Well, I personally think so. What about you?
When you are conceptually speaking to a specific ‘community’ or industry, your actions have implications because you are engaging in relationship-building within a broader landscape, which is really different to just having a whole bunch of your friends together. It’s different because there are formalities that come with the arts industry – like, right now there are a lot of boundaries that are needing to be actively broken down, so we are engaging specific people to diversify the representation of artists, subverting traditional groupings that are often informed by likeness in age, identity, practice and experience. Our thinking is quite formal in a way – but the dinners themselves are relaxed.
In what way has the project ‘worked’ for you so far?
We have done one dinner so far, and already the specific context we have created and the arrangement of inviting three artists for the dinner amongst sculptures has proven to be really positive. What is really special is that we’re inviting each person because they are an artist, and they are not coming with their partners or with anything other than themselves and their practice. From this shared vantage point, we can share our unique positionality with the group, or not at all, as we chat about various subjects. All the artists, which for this dinner included Lou Hubbard, James Nguyen and Trent Crawford, have amazing and incredibly interesting practices that ended up being the main focus of what we wanted to exchange with each other.
We also discussed life as an artist, because this is our common ground and you can’t help but discuss what life is like. This was significant, because there are a lot of things that people don’t really get if they don’t understand how an artist works. Within the artist community, every single person is going through their own challenges and successes all of the time, so there’s a lot of opportunity for us to relate to one another on a very personal and deep level. This dinner with the sculptures intertwined with the food creates an entry point to a safe space where people can go deep about how it feels and is to be an artist functioning in the world today. It will be interesting to see how the next dinners play out because for the first one I felt a sense of warmth, even though we didn’t know each other. There was also this shared feeling that it was really nice to be in the room with people.
How do you think the art contributed to that energy at the time?
Having the food integrated with the sculptures there in the space makes it feel special, because it’s not an ordinary arrangement. Within this visual presentation there is a lot of thinking and play that’s right in front of you, so hopefully that makes people feel that they can also play, because it is definitely not a serious ‘eat properly’ space! Yes, but it will be almost a completely different thing to what we’re doing in my house. It’s intimate here, and because the final exhibition will be in a gallery context and only for one day – one event open to the general public – that sense of intimacy will be difficult to achieve because, hopefully, there will be quite a large number of visitors. Just knowing Please Do Not Eat The Sculptures is going to take place in a different context means that the relationship between the viewer and the art will be also different. For the event, we will have to decide at what point we relinquish control of how things look and are being handled, and let the relationship between the people and the art run its course.
So far, the dinner with artists has provided space for both multifaceted and deep interactions, and you have been a major player in navigating that by being so present in every aspect. At the final dinner you won’t have the same kind of presence for every single person – do you think this is a significant difference?
During the final exhibition the artwork can kind of do the work for me. At the artist dinners we can go deeper all together through a literal collective conversation, but in the gallery context we won’t be attempting to recreate that. The art will need to do the work because the artist will not always be there.
Right! Can you tell me a bit about how Please Do Not Eat The Sculptures fits within your enduring sculptural practice, in terms of how you see your work speaking to the viewer?
I am very process driven and have a material practice that I’m engaging with in the studio every day. Food is one part of what I’m experimenting with in my expanded sculptural practice, and exploring social engagement is a new thing. Ultimately, there are many different directions that my practice shoots out to. Now, I want to start experimenting with making hats and wigs – and with wigs, it’s like that thing with cakes, the towering shape, especially those reminiscent of the 18th century style wigs that go really high. This year I am also doing a lot of work with costumes. I’m building costumes with community groups and with schools, which really demonstrates that sculpture can be seen and handled in a lot of different ways.
So you’re working with communities, making art all the time, you do exhibitions, as well as work in education and plan events – that’s a lot! Do you see yourself as wanting to pursue different experiences in your life?
Yes, definitely. And to break the norm – by which I mean exploring different ways of art making and gathering people together to help them be in a moment that doesn’t feel like real life! To achieve this kind of subversion is a practice and it’s impractical, it doesn’t make sense – it feels different to the routine of the everyday. But doing something that doesn’t necessarily make sense is also really important because you have to practice nonsense and doing things without necessarily having a clear outcome of what they are. There are all these expectations from the world, so to be in a space that’s in some ways shut off to that, is for me what having a sculptural practice does. Then to bring other people into that space is always a good thing.
Do you ever feel like you are resisting something?
I guess I’m resisting the idea that everything has to be outcome-driven and that you always need routine and for an outcome to happen. As I see it, within this system there is a routine and that makes sense, and then there’s an outcome that measures how successful or unsuccessful you are based on that consistent rhythm and how you’re using that space and time. Art is, however, a space and a place for practicing being impractical and not trying to be successful, because if you can break away from what you know then you’re constantly learning and discovering new things – and realising the ridiculousness of things.
I suppose you really are redefining ‘sense’ – perhaps there is inner or subjective ‘sense’ and then outer or collective ‘sense’?
My conviction about ‘inner sense’ and resistance is also very much connected to ideas of efficiency, so there is still a relationship between these seemingly contrasting systems. I like living life within these kinds of contrasts because it helps me strengthen why I do what I do when I’m making art. I live between extreme spaces – from a really tidy Excel kind of space where I’m being really regimented, and then on to five hours of art making where I’m completely sucked in and I don’t know what I’m doing or what I’m building, and I can fully let go because I’ve dedicated time for that. When I slip out of that, I feel the contrast and I feel the importance of what it means to have that space.
There is certainly a contrast between your worlds, but I have also recently observed more and more slippage, where you bring art with you into your daily life through costume and fashion.
I wouldn’t say fashion because I don’t like the word fashion and all of the social attachments that come with it, but I am moving towards a space where art can slip into my life. With hats and clothes for example, these are something that I wear and, like the food I eat, clothes are a good avenue for bringing art into life because even though there are many different directions for art that often challenge life, I don’t ever want to separate the two. Integrating art and life is a practice, and I’m finding more and more ways to make that practice richer by the day. ‘Practice’ goes back to this idea of efficiency, which is also really about rigour. In order to be really experimental you have to push things – you can’t be lazy – and you have to always want to see and be curious about how far things can go, which is a type of efficiency but not with a clear outcome. I am guided by the outlook that there’s always room for art to slip into every aspect of life.
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