Interview: Nicolas Feldmeyer

Interview: Nicolas Feldmeyer

You studied architecture at ETH Zurich and earned an MFA from Slade School of Fine Art. The architectural dimension is apparent in your work. How would you interpret the impact of architecture on your practice? What has your training in architecture brought to the domains and mediums you work in?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: I heard an expression once, something like ‘you can’t separate the flour from the cake, or you can’t take the eggs out of an omelette’, I can’t remember unfortunately, but that’s how it feels with art and architecture for me. They got so intertwined on the way that I can’t really discern what came from what. There are the things that were there first – I loved drawing and literature as a teenager, but also geometry, mathematics, so I felt drawn to architecture. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to build buildings. Then I spent 5 ½ years studying architecture for my MSc Arch in Zurich. A lot of the studies were creative, conceptual explorations about contemplating space and light, landscape, dreaming up new spaces – a lot of self-expression. I also discovered utopian architectures, such as Louis Boulle, Piranesi, Superstudio. I got fascinated by gigantic, landscape-size proposals, the infinite possibilities of architectural drawings as an expressive medium. All during my studies I kept making art, drawings, installations as well, so the thoughts influenced each other. 

 For a while I tried to get rid of all this ‘architectural baggage’ and experimented with writing, even performance. But it kept coming back – what Le Corbusier called ‘the magnificent play of volumes under the light’. So I came back to working with space and light, the relationship of geometry and Nature, calling upon different media (drawings, scale models, computer rendering) to try and figure out, flesh out ideas of spaces. Sometimes it becomes an image, sometimes a physical space, sometimes something in-between. I would still love to build a more permanent work on an architectural scale – not a ‘building’ exactly, but I have some drawings in store in the studio.

Turm, 2004

Similarly, your works also speak of the relationships we form with exterior spaces. Is there something that particularly interest you in this relationship?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: Yes. It is both a trivial thing - you experience it every time you go into a building - and something profound – sometimes stepping in or out of a space can transform you. Sometimes the relationship between inside and outside isn’t so clear - it isn’t obvious where the inside or the outside begin, like in a forest for example. I find that very interesting. I also experimented with blurring these boundaries in my postcard collages, where a whole city can be inside a cave, or a classroom seamlessly merging into a landscape - reminiscent perhaps of what happens in dreams.

Experimentation with space, perspective & geometry are some of the recurring concepts in your practice. During the initial period of the lockdown, when we spent most of our time indoors, did you develop any new ideas regarding spatiality in your practice?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: When I found myself having to isolate within our isolating household for a week, I made a miniature landscape image - a clear form of escapism I guess. I constructed an imagined little world with 3D tools on the computer, with fields and trees, a low sunlight, and printed an image out of it (Estate 6). When my isolation-within-isolation ended I showed it to my wife and she laughed and said: well, it looks exactly like the Jura (the Swiss landscape of my childhood). I hadn’t noticed it.

Estate 6, Nicolas Feldmeyer

You have engaged with diverse media. Beyond video art and photography, your practice is brimming with site-specific installations and public art projects. Could you explain how you initially began to experiment in public art and the essence of your interest in it? 

Nicolas Feldmeyer: I made my first public art project (Turm, 2004), when still an architecture student. I spent a whole summer making art. I made drawings, and experiments with the computer, but mostly I wanted to make something that was as ‘there’ as architecture: under the sky, with no museum around, something big, at the scale of the city. I had no budget, but one day while swimming I had one of these ideas that come all complete in your head. I used borrowed slide projectors to project a pattern of windows onto a huge concrete monolith - a chimney in the city centre, transforming it for a few nights into a mysterious tower. I have since worked with fabric, light balloons, timber, polished concrete, and even made a project with water fountains on the roof of Graz’s Opera (Austria), following the same desire to make/sculpt spaces that are not functional buildings, but at the scale of buildings. I remember someone – I think it was Junya Ishigami - musing about making space without making architecture, I thought that was interesting.

Untitled (Woven Portico)

In 2021, the columns of UCL were intertwined with white fabric sheets in your installation Untitled (Woven Portico). It appears as pattern on pattern, two human constructs; architecture and weaving overlapping each other. Could you tell us more about the ideas behind Untitled (Woven Portico)?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: At that time, I was studying for my MFA at the Slade. I walked every morning in front of that grand and unused Portico (the door is only opened for ceremonial events). It seemed to be calling for an intervention, and I was making sketches and models but couldn’t figure out what to do. At the same time, I was making geometric abstract collages and drawings with woven patterns. And then it all came together. I remembered that years ago I had had a lecture in Zurich about Gottfried Semper, the 19th century architect (who build the ETH where I studied). He saw in the archaic act of weaving the origin of the wall in architecture. So then mixing a classical Portico with a weaving pattern felt like bringing two very fundamental things together. I was delighted when the Musée du quai Branly in Paris included my work in a publication about Gottfried Semper.


Towards the Horizon, 2016

Your site-specific artwork Towards the Horizon takes the audience to the vastness of a wide-open seaside space. Was there any difference between the concept, the intention, and the practical experience of this work?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: The landscape was vast, my ambitions were too, but the budget wasn’t. So initial ideas had to be dramatically scaled down, reviewed or abandoned. But in essence the ‘bones’ of the project stayed the same: more than putting an object on the beach, I wanted to make a work at the scale of the vast landscape, to make a mark – even modest – that would register in this vastness. I saw it perpendicular to the shore, walking towards the horizon (Fanø island is on the West of Denmark, and the installation stood on the Western-most point of the island, looking straight West into the North Sea). There were many hurdles, but thanks to the curator Nina Wöhlk’s determination the project could be realised. It was 45 minutes’ walk on the sand from the nearest car park - which become part of the contemplative experience - and on some days visible from 3km as a white shimmering mirage.

Paper Moon, Nicolas Feldmeyer, 2016

What is the relationship between your site-specific installation Paper moon, nature, and reality? What were the inspirations behind this artwork?

 Nicolas Feldmeyer: The inspiration for the project came from the beautiful formal garden at Boughton House, near Kettering, Northamptonshire. I was invited by curator Lisa-Raine Hunt to propose an installation during Greenbelt Festival. I visited the site and was struck by its radical geometry and beauty. Again, the budget was modest, but I still wanted to activate the whole landscape. So, I worked with a company who make helium balloons with powerful lights and placed a stationary balloon exactly in the middle axis of the garden, beyond the great lake. My motivation was primarily about the sculptural impact, a sculpture of light nailed in at a focal point to activate the whole landscape. The title came later, inspired by song ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’, sung by Ella Fitzgerald amongst others:

Say, it's only a paper moon

Sailing over a cardboard sea

But it wouldn't be make-believe

If you believed in me

I didn’t really intend people to mistake my installation for the moon – although funnily enough I overheard a group of teenagers – perhaps not completely sober – loudly discussing whether this was the moon or not. But I perhaps wanted it to reproduce in a small, DIY way what the moon does: a sphere shining pale light onto the landscape.

I thought a lot about this – illusions – especially when making images. Is the pictorial illusion a deception? It’s a vast subject, but I like Camus’ answer best: ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’

Paper Moon, Nicolas Feldmeyer, 2016

The new collection En Attendant(While We Wait), which is recently launched on Sedition, includes the works from the series Estates. Could you explain the concept behind the Estates and the inspiration for the title?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: I live in Hackney, and when I walk around there are a lot of council estates. That’s where it started. I lived in three different ones myself. I started to find a lot of beauty in them, sometimes because they are well designed, but sometimes simply the light and shadows on large empty brick walls. There are so many, and they are designed in a repetitive manner, it becomes a kind of generic backdrop – something universal. I had learnt the tools of 3D rendering as an architect, to visualise potential buildings – it’s a way to pitch an idea essentially, to show the unique qualities of a proposal. And I wondered what would happen if I used the same tools to re-construct fragments of things that no one is pitching to anyone so to say. I wanted to capture some of the atmospheric, enigmatic qualities I experienced. Then the series evolved naturally, growing beyond the original estates to include other ‘generic’ fragments: parks, highways, a path, a staircase, … - The word ‘estate’ lent itself to interpretation - it is used to describe the richest as well as the poorest housing, but also industrial estates, …

Estate 5, Nicolas Feldmeyer

The collection Passages, that was previously launched in Sedition, includes works from the series After All and Even After All. The images in Passages all share a ‘frame within a frame’ pictorial composition, one space opening up to another, giving a sense of openness to the viewer. Is there something that you particularly pursue through patterns? 

Nicolas Feldmeyer: Yes, the frame within the frame is perhaps similar to what is called a ‘mise en abyme’. I knew it from literature – a story about a writer writing a story, … Apparently it is a term coming from heraldry, when a copy of an image is placed within itself. I guess you could call it a fractal symmetry. It introduces a meta-level: you are conscious of looking at an image built within an image. It deconstructs the pictorial illusion to a certain extent.

Even After All 7, Nicolas Feldmeyer

You create works in both physical and digital realms. Could you explain how you interpret the interaction between them?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: That’s interesting, I’m not sure. The digital realm has no weight, no scale, no limits so to say. You can explore gigantic scales with digital simulations for example – like with my After All or Archways series. You pay for that freedom in a sense with a certain coldness. It requires a lot of work (noise, scattering, 3D particles, random-generated patterns, hand-drawn textures mapping) to create something atmospheric with digital rendering tools. I think I am quite old fashioned – even though I use new technologies I don’t get that excited about ‘virtuality’. When I read a novel, I am immersed in a virtual world as well, this is nothing new. I like to see all these new tools, like 3D renderings, as extensions of drawings. That’s how they make most sense to me. You can draw whatever you want. With 3D, you can create any world you want, and then step into it. That’s quite fascinating. But in the end what moves me is I think always rooted in the physical, sensual experience of the ‘real’ world. The evening light on a wall, or the smell of wet decking at the lido. New technologies to me are just new pointers to a very old thing.

In 2016, you won the public art competition Rosengarten Zurich and in 2012 Channel 4's New Sensations. Are there any memorable project(s)/exhibition or residencies that you regard as a milestone in your artistic journey?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: Yes, these two were very important. I mentioned before my first installation Turm in Zurich, 2004. I was 23 and for the first time I felt like I could have a voice as an artist. It had a big impact and was published in the newspapers; I was very proud. It had been a test for me. Can I spend a whole summer ‘marinating’, drawing and thinking, and come up with something? And after that I felt I wanted to do it again.

The Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed me to study at the San Francisco Art Institute for one year, was a turning point as well.

The Slade degree show in 2012 was definitely a milestone. I did the Woven Portico installation for it, but also the first After All rendering, postcard collages, so many things I would end up working on for years afterwards.

Are there any works or figures in the history of art that you see as reference points aesthetically or conceptually?

 Nicolas Feldmeyer: There are too many to list here! But here are three of my favourites: Caspar David Friedrich, Agnes Martin and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Alongside your art practice, you are also an associate lecturer in BA Drawing at Camberwell College of Arts, UAL. What do you enjoy most about this aspect of your career?

Nicolas Feldmeyer: I love to be side by side with the students, looking at the work, trying to figure out what is happening, what we’re looking at, how it could be better. It feels like some form of midwifery. I try and help the students give birth to their own visions. It is so inspiring. I learn a lot myself; it also gives me a fresh way of looking at things. We have so many talented students, a lot of the work we have to do is help them remove obstacles, gain confidence. A lot of young people are too hard on themselves. I’m all in favour of hard work – but self-bashing is unhelpful. A lot of the studies are about failing, and failing again, until you hit something that really resonates- that’s an often painful process that requires patience and kindness.

Could you tell us about your recent projects? And what makes you excited about the future? 

Nicolas Feldmeyer: I am working on a new series of renderings, a monumental architectural project, and new watercolours. As long as I have some time and paper to think up new projects, I can be excited.

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