Olaf Nicolai

IN GERMANY, the opposition between realism and abstraction has always been intertwined with the colliding political ideologies of east and west. Olaf Nicolai, an artist of East German origin, anticipates the next stage in this cultural battle with his sculpture A Portrait of the Artist as a Weeping Narcissus, 2000. By producing a life-size cast of himself, he calls up the earlier conflict around the dogma of Socialist Realism and recasts the issue by referring it to his own body. At a time when traditional approaches to painting are enjoying a boom with the vogue for a retro style of figuration, Nicolai's sculpture is more than an ironic commentary on the return to a long superceded discourse of mastery. In fact, his reference to the figurative is thoroughly conceptual. While formally the work corresponds to a conventional representation of reality, the depicted situation eludes precisely this kind of visibility. For at the moment he sees himself, Narcissus detaches himself from his real milieu. He falls in love with his mirror image on the surface of the water and becomes incapable of identifying with the world.

At the same time, the artist confounds this simple reading: Every few seconds a tear falls from the eye of the sculpture into a puddle of water on the floor before it. This breaks the self-referential system. Following the logic of the myth, the mirror image is blurred by the tears falling on the surface of the water. The absolute beauty at which Narcissus gazes disappears. Not only is the artist's relationship to his environment broken off, but the desired object that he represents for himself also evades his perception.

The artist's blind spot is always his own creative production. That realization becomes the basis for questions about the status of art altogether. Today, social functions are seen as the primary field of artistic concern. Nicolai does not deny this claim; rather he searches for its consequences. Creativity has been pushed to the foreground as the essential motor for services, start-ups, and commodity production in today's economy, and the artist can hardly escape this demand: Amid the confusion of the new markets, he should, according to Nicolai, “develop attention resources.” Generally, Nicolai connects this aspect to the man-made naturalness that he has staged in a number of works. For the 1997 Documenta, he presented in Landschaft/Interieur: Ein Kabinett (Landscape/interior: a cabinet), 1996–97, light boxes and artfully overgrown lava rocks as a kind of second-order botany. His room decoration Landschaft, metaphysisch and konkret (Landscape, metaphysical and concrete), 1998, at the Kunstverein Ulm, was a three-dimensional transposition of a painting by Max Bill, who had taught design in Ulm. For the Bundesgartenschau in Magdeburg in 1999, Nicolai developed a perfume for trees, which he advertised in fashion magazines, thereby taking up the question of publicity as a prerequisite of art in the public sphere.

Nicolai's new work follows this sequence of forms in the mirror of the social sphere. Since the dividing line between fine arts and visual culture has been breached, there is no longer a position outside of the omnipresent information society—inside is outside and vice versa. Nicolai's Narcissus is not a utopian model, but an entropic one. The realistically designed surface does not lead back to the individual or to the author; it is rather the result of abstraction: a standardization in dealing with constructions of the self. Narcissus is an Other, as well as all Others.

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Elizabeth Felicella.