Tanja Nis-Hansen’s artistic practice can be viewed as a delineation of the nervous, vibrating energies and emotional states bursting from within.
Through painting, performance, text and collaborative projects, TANJA NIS-HANSEN’s work explores the existential and material hardships we face living under hypercapitalist conditions. In conversation with Christina Gigliotti, she speaks about the content that goes into her work–from processing emotions and personal experiences, to encountering and refining her own aesthetic footprint.
Your work possesses a kind of milieu of references. A mish-mash of histories feels present, from Art Nouveau of the 19th century, to Whimsigothic of the early 1990s. How did you come about this way of painting?
I guess some could call it undecided when I shuffle through different styles, and once in a while I find myself doubting that strategy because it might not be the best way to promote oneself as an artist. In the end, it is a strategy that is based upon trying my best to create a sustainable practice where I, literally speaking, don’t paint myself into a corner and continue to surprise myself within the process. Having this mish-mash approach to style or movements is my best attempt to work with the medium of painting in a way where it knowingly enters a discussion of its histories, its elitism and its skill-fetischism and at least tries to suggest another space where there is no attempt to accelerate the development of a new genius style or invent a new brand or withholding information that you need in order to unravel its mysteries though still remaining humble towards the rich history of painting.
The way I paint is a result of a discussion that I have with myself on how much to let the taste and interests that I tended to before I started studying art win over the side of me that has now been taught what good sophisticated painting could be and which components possibly make a good artwork. It basically all comes from a little provincial riot within. What I am trying to reach is a point that doesn’t satisfy any of the two different sides completely, that would somehow be a failure.
What catches your eye or stirs you nowadays?
I am inspired by many things, among others, the flatness of theatre props, the rusty garden-decorations I find at my mothers, the distorted figures of new objectivism, mimicry, exaggerated mimics of a judgemental audience, the alien as a figure, art brut, horizontality, sleeping women in art, paintings of sickbeds like those of Frida Kahlo or Edward Munch, my colleagues, my family, my own growing understanding of what it means to be a woman in the world and the weird patterns that appear on the inside of your eyelids when you give them a gentle push for a bit too long.
In addition, I often reference a theatrical scenery in order to talk about the role of the spectator, judgement and the performativity of human nature. I also work with a theatrical language doing performance, text and sound both alone and together with my colleague Niclas Riesphoff under the name CONNY.
Are there any texts in particular by other authors that make their way into your work?
A big part of my practice is dealing with topics of anxiety and relief especially in relation to the sick, exhausted or non-functional body – non-functional in relation to the capitalistic expectations that a working body is the ultimate body. I recently read Anne Boyer’s »The Undying«, and through that book I came across »The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe« which is a sci-fi novel by D. G. Compton which tells the story of a woman who unwillingly becomes a reality star because she is terminally ill in a world where you no longer die from disease. This is what I will be reading next with the expectation that it will be the starting point for one of my upcoming shows. The latest series of work I did which will be shown at the Liste Art Fair in Basel this September is inspired by the 1892 text »Notizen über den Tod durch Absturz« by Swiss Geologist Albert Heim. He is describing his own as well as others encounters with surviving falling from mountains, scaffoldings, rooftops etc. After reading the text I held on to the image of falling as a marker for how to live with anxiety and through my own experience of falling I started looking into the staircase which then became a symbol for the concept of work. The work you do in order to take care of a sick body, the work you do to ease an anxious mind, the work you do to provide for yourself, the work you do while grieving, the work a mother does, the work of an artist which can feel like one long ascending and descending of staircases.
The well from which anxious thoughts spring can sometimes feel bottomless. Even the most banal encounter or experience can result in mental turmoil.
When it comes to anxiety I am personally quite curious about what one could call anxiety provoking content; shark attack home videos on YouTube, mountaineers climbing Mount Everest, or this one podcast called how I survived which is describing near-death experiences. It’s a matter of wanting to revisit certain feelings that one can have when being scared of dying and that becomes weirdly calming. I am not really interested in the adrenaline rush of a shock, splatter, fictive horror or unnecessary violence, but I think that the reason why I keep on re-visiting these triggers is probably because it’s hard to understand people who choose to climb Mount Everest or in general seek the rush of extreme sport, risking their lives. It seems ridiculous to me that anyone would risk their lives when you can so easily lose it without even trying.
Do you think that exploring these kinds of disturbing narratives or »provokers« that make their way into your work is a way to soften the blow of the fall?
My work is definitely a lot about alertness and how this active high sensory attention also becomes an exhausting job to keep up with, therefore I also let the characters in my paintings rest once in a while. I don’t think the blow of the fall will be any softer by being prepared for it but I do believe that you will recover faster if you are aware of the hardness with which you might possibly hit the ground, not having to first go through the mental shock that not everything comes with a soft landing.
A certain uneasiness quietly emanates from many of the figures or characters in your compositions – as they hunch over tables in unadorned interiors, or slink through damp alleyways under blue moonlight. One figure recurs more often – »the alien«, as you put it, or homunculus, to perhaps come back to Munch. Who are they?
The characters are not created with the intention to let them have their own personality or storyline, they are put into the composition as bystanders, conditions, actors or proxies for emotions, psychological spaces and social dynamics which are hard for me to depict otherwise. They don’t belong to a gender binary and their phenotype is mostly a bald, morphed, radiating and jaundice haunted one. I see them as newborns just as much as mutants or aliens. It is a lot about experimenting with representation. How can you depict a human condition without reproducing stereotypes? I get more and more intrigued by abstraction the more I work with figuration, not to say that I will become an abstract painter, but I will keep on thinking about what it means to add more images of the human body to the pile that is already existing. I recently began to leave the figures out of some paintings to instead see how the topics that I work with can be treated through text on the canvas or depicting an almost psychedelic architecture like that of the spiral staircase. These new works are an attempt to abstract my visual language from the flesh while still talking about the weird sensation of existing within a human body.
Can you talk about the psychotropic or almost hallucinatory elements of your work? There’s a certain oversaturated, undulating and at times phantasmal feeling one gets after looking into your paintings.
There is definitely an intention from my side to create these visually vibrating spaces both as a depiction of something claustrophobic and overwhelming but also as an alternative which offers some sort of high or relief. Until now I have mainly worked with this on the canvas as smaller digestible fractions and sooner than later this will also seep deeper into my texts and performances and transfer into bigger room installations as my intention is for the body to feel the sensation of being absorbed by a whole. I myself have found great relief in hallucinatory experiences. Not those induced by stronger drugs but the milder ones that appear as fractal patterns in front of your exhausted eyes after having cried for hours or a more bodily dizziness from having weird withdrawal symptoms from medicine, or having smoked weed or meditated. These sensations relate very much to my work around the sick body and I guess that as with any other positive experience we have in life I constantly try to recreate the same feeling which has earlier offered me solace.
Full bodily absorption is definitely something I seek to experience at exhibitions. This makes me think of late works by Rothko, wherein his large-scale, burgundy colored canvases were said to evoke a feeling of being inside the womb. If you could send the viewer anywhere, where would it be?
I would like to join you on that Rothko womb journey, that must be one of the biggest enigmas I can think of; how it must have been to lie in the warm womb of our mothers. I think the womb is not far away from a place I would like to send the viewer too, though not necessarily for its warm red radiating features but more due to its function as a waiting room or a safe space that is knowingly temporary before we enter the daunting world as newborns. If I were to send someone somewhere, then I think I would want to send the viewer straight into the 30th minute of Allegro non Troppo from the Italian director Bruno Bozzetto where Ravel’s »Bolero« starts playing. The title means »Not so fast« and is meant to reference a musical instruction but I choose to see it as a subliminal reminder as well. It’s an Italian animation film from 1976 that I stumbled upon some years ago and it is comedic, tragic, kaleidoscopic and totally weird. If the viewer is not so much into Italian animation film then a visit to the doctors might do the trick as well.