by Stuart Aarsman, 2009

Stuart Aarsman: we haven’t seen each other in years. When was it? Four, five years ago? Why did you choose this swimming pool for the interview setting?

Ioana Nemes: Because I swim daily again and I feel incredibly relaxed here.

SA: It smells of chlorine!

IN: I adore the smell of chlorine! It reminds me of childhood. I used to go swimming when I was a kid, but I was growing too much for my age so my parents decided to withdraw me from the swimming courses. It was then that I learned different swimming styles. By looking around, it amazes me to see how few people swim correctly. They seem to torment themselves rather than enjoy this sport.

SA: I always thought people look a bit ridiculous when swimming. It’s as if swimming is not exactly a suitable activity for the human body. It lacks some sort of wings, a functional organ that would propel it smoothly in the water.

IN: Swimming is something that people learned to do. It’s not natural for them to do this, true. Nevertheless, it’s in the water that I feel really free. It’s probably because I can’t feel my body weight. Sounds are deformed and reduced to some muffled echoes, and light acquires a fuzzy fog, displaying something like a solidity that you will never see outside.

SA: I’m frightened by this solid block of water, held together by four walls. There’s always the danger of spilling looming above a swimming pool.

IN: Can you swim?

SA: No, I can’t.

IN: That’s why. You’re afraid because you don’t know how to defend yourself. Isn’t it interesting that the first thing you learn in any sport is how to fall correctly? The moves you make in the water are not as important as the way you breathe. Breathing is what keeps you afloat. Those who can’t swim correctly seem helpless and desperate. Floating in water depends very much on how you breathe.

SA: How often do you come here?

IN: One year ago I suddenly missed swimming. I also do cycling here. I had to start doing sport again because of my knee problems. My joints are in tatters due to professional sport. I suffer from a sort of arthritis in which the knee bones don’t have the joints between them anymore, so every move becomes painful. I’m not allowed to run or to jump. The leg muscles can take from the bones’ friction so I’m trying to reinforce my muscles.

SA: You say you can’t run anymore. Didn’t that change the way you walk on the street?

IN: Yes, it certainly did. Imagine, I sometimes forget I can’t run to catch a bus. I can’t hurry up as I used to and this made me aware of a certain category of passers-by that I haven’t noticed until now – the retired people. Sometimes I realize I move in the same rhythm as someone from the opposite sidewalk and realize it is a very senior citizen. Physical slowness paradoxically accelerated mental speed.

SA: I was going to ask you that. Does the slow motion change the way you think?

IN: Inevitably. Things got balanced. Nothing is lost, everything stays in the body.

SA: I haven’t seen you since the Lira Cinema interview, can you believe that? How have things evolved since then?

IN: The last years have been very intense, very concentrated. They seem to have passed so unbelievably rapidly, even though I felt ten years have gone by, not four. I think I’ve evolved enormously.

SA: In the meantime you participated in several biennials: Prague, Iasi Periferic, U-Turn in Copenhagen and now the Istanbul one. As an artist, how do you perceive participation in biennials? Can they be compared to European championships in the sport world?

IN: There is similarity in terms of the scale of the event and the international selection. Nevertheless, a European sports tournament can’t compare with an art biennial; in sport everything is much more tensed and thrilling.

SA: Therefore a sports championship is much more interesting than an international art biennial?

IN: From the excitement and entertainment point of view, absolutely. Emotions are bigger, the stake is different, as a whole it’s more rewarding than a biennial.

SA: More rewarding in what sense?

IN: In the end of every championship, someone takes the cup home, someone is crying exhausted on the field, someone is watching from the stands in frustration. In sport things are so simple. I’ve been raised in this competitive spirit and I can’t get rid of it so easily. It follows me in everything I do, whether I try to overtake passer-by in the street, whether I read a book in which I underline the sharpest ideas, whether I make ratings and rankings and tops out of everything I assimilate.

SA: What’s the last ranking you’ve made?

IN: I was leafing through the last volume of Art Now by Taschen one of these days. After I studied all the pictures and read the paragraphs under each artist’s name, I’ve made a personal Top Ten of the best artists.

SA: Who ranked first?

IN: David Altmejd, a young artist I’ve recently discovered.

SA: And last?

IN: Franz West. But you see? That’s very inconclusive. I really like Franz West. He belongs to another generation and I could never compare them.

SA: So what’s the use of your top ten?

IN: It helps me to know that in 2009, after browsing through Art Now, I thought ten artists deserve special attention in the future.

SA: How does this help you?

IN: It’s like a Polaroid. Equally tempting, it helps me capture the spirit of times.

SA: I think the way you evolved in this competitive environment clearly changed the way you assimilate information, especially the way you categorize and archive it. What do order and clarity mean to you?

IN: Order is essential. Especially because I tend to be very chaotic in my everyday thoughts. I’ve realized I spend a lot of time thinking of nonsensical and ludicrous things, and I’m not quite present in the everyday reality. Sometimes, mostly in the evenings, the traffic of thoughts in my head is so intense, all of them squeezed in a narrow space, just like a jammed highway overpass somewhere Tokyo. The traffic is so congested I can’t even sleep. There are these two completely opposite poles that fight for supremacy. One is chaotic, childish, creative, and the other one is ordered, responsible, inflexible. I’ve always dangled dangerously between these two extremes.

SA: What you are saying reminds me of your work, The Positive & Negative Ring (2003) that you showed in Leipzig in 2007. Can you tell me more about this drawing?

IN: I’ve gradually reached this visual representation of positive and negative energies, polishing its abstract form ever since my student years. It looks like something extremely complicated and profound, but it’s not. Sometimes, the most simple and ordinary things are the hardest to find. Briefly, the discontinuous ring describes the connection between two different entities, be it the black/white or future/past dichotomy. I prefer to name these entities energies, since energies have a more general character, they can take different forms in the pragmatic world. I’ve always felt that opposite energies are extremely close to one another, and not at opposite ends.

SA: You said you were built around two completely different poles; isn’t this general theory nothing but your way of perceiving the world around you?

IN: Yes, it might be. I’m happy I could verbalize through this drawing something that I’ve always felt. It’s difficult to compress something like this in a drawing.

SA: Have you felt the need to alter the drawing in time, to change or improve it?

IN: No, not yet. Maybe in ten years or so. Or maybe never, who knows?

SA: I know you still record daily the data describing time elapsed each day. Monthly Evaluations project continues. How long do you think you are going to do this?

IN: Until I reach a major understanding of what is happening with time around me. Since I’ve first exhibited this project (2004, Amsterdam) I began perceiving it from various perspectives. This process of public display is really interesting. One publicly offers what is private, and people have every right to understand whatever they want out of it.

SA: You’ve guessed my next question. How much have you altered or improved the way you work for this daily project, since it became public?

IN: The method I use to collect data and the evaluation system remained the same, as well as the drive behind the project. Monthly Evaluations is nothing more than an experiment. It’s interesting to notice how differently it has been perceived by the audience. I find it fascinating, this attempt to analyze and archive impalpable elements that belong to the emotional sphere with the help of mathematical, economical instruments. It’s after all a utopian gesture, since something gets lost on the way when I try to turn colours and emotions into figures. Nevertheless, I do my best to perfect this process, to constantly improve the evaluation system.

SA: Why this curiosity to see emotions and colours turned into figures?

IN: It must be my way of negotiating between the functioning structure I used when I was a professional sportswoman and the current one, being a civilian that works in such a creative field as art.

SA: What do you mean by civilian?

IN: It’s hard to imagine the draconic regime that professional sportsmen endure, without which they couldn’t reach the records they reach. The training of a professional sportsman resembles a lot to the drill of a soldier in an elite military troop. Iron discipline must rule, as well as a structure of regulations and laws that you wouldn’t find in the daily life of normal, civilian people. Looking back I realize I was suddenly thrown (due to my knee accident) from a strict environment into an opposite world – the chaotic and creative field or art. It’s probably in the major differences between the two fields that Monthly Evaluations found a fertile ground to develop.

SA: The tension between the subjective, personal, intimate and the objective, scientific is irrefutable and it is what makes the Monthly Evaluations project more interesting. How autobiographical is this project?

IN: I am at the same time the pseudo-scientist – since I possess the necessary curiosity and the ability to objectively undertake the evaluation system, as well as the subject, the studied guinea pig. I’m not at all interested in the psychological quality or the emotional variety of the subject I’m analyzing. My only preoccupation is the correctitude and transparency of the collected data. I’m interested in the subject’s sincerity – the success of the experiment depends on that.

SA: What would the success of such a project mean?

IN: The success of the project consists in this procedure correctly executed. There are no good or bad results. Only incorrect, incomplete ones.

SA: You once said you’d like to undertake this experiment on someone else as well.

IN: Yes, that was the initial idea. It was very handy in the beginning to choose myself as guinea pig, the subject to be analyzed. Over time I tried to recruit other subjects too. There’s no one until now. Even if I do this experiment, it would last a limited amount of time (a month, for example). Also, it wouldn’t impeach on my own self analysis. In fact, analysis is not the right term. What this project does is a Polaroid of time consumed in a standardized amount of time.

SA: Why would you also continue your self-analysis?

IN: Because it’s like a prayer, a process of self cleansing and purification.

SA: Can Monthly Evaluations be regarded as a sort of ritual?

IN: Definitely. Though a scientific, not a religious one.

SA: Do you believe in God?

IN: I was expecting this question, not its directness. Even though I was born in the orthodox religion, like most of Romanians, I don’t consider myself as belonging to any religion. To answer your question, I don’t believe in the God the Bible describes nor in the one painted in the Christian imagery. Nevertheless I do believe in a superior energy that made the formidable equilibrium in nature possible, and that is responsible for the planning and execution of all natural things around us. In nature everything is so meticulously designed, everything functions in perfect synchronization. Nothing is left to haphazard. Even accidents are very carefully programmed. I find incredible this creative energy.
But this doesn’t mean I don’t like the dark interiors of orthodox churches, with their cluster of golden objects. I adore the smell of the burnt incense. And the glittering robes of orthodox priests. I’m fascinated with holidays in the orthodox calendar and the devotees’ obstinacy in not forgetting them. I don’t necessarily associate the observing of religious events with faith in God, but rather with the human instinct to mark time. Without these holidays, people would lose track of time.
Getting back to churches, I think it absurd and amusing that people need these chambers in which to cram alongside other devotees in order to communicate with God. By concentrating faith in these spaces they drove it out from the homes and private life. Religion, like any other form of entertainment, is nowadays consumed in public.

SA: Coming back to your Monthly Evaluations project, last time we spoke you wanted to push it more towards sculpture. In 2008 you made the first sculptures in this project.

IN: They are not the first. The diorama that I presented at Fotogalerie Wien was an attempt in this direction.

SA: Why did you choose to show that day in the form of a diorama?

IN: It was a photo exhibition, the gallery was dedicated exclusively to photographic projects. I had just graduated the art university, photography section. For me, a diorama is the ancestor of the photography, so it seemed appropriate to exhibit one. The day I chose, 29.03.2005 was a rather incredible one, with surreal things happening. I felt I had to wrap it in a theatrical décor.

SA: Meticulously made, the work resembles a diorama containing stuffed animals in a natural science museum.

IN: Details were of paramount importance. The work had to have this real feel about it, even though it was a miniature diorama. It was essential for it to look like a black and white photography so we built a mock wall in which to hide its box. From a distance it looked like a framed photography with glass cover. From up close one realized it was a 3D diorama built within the wall.

SA: Let’s get back to the eight coloured plastic sculptures displayed at Jiri Svestka Gallery. How did you come up with this form? In the IDEA interview (#20, 2005) you have chosen the cube as the encapsulating form for your days.

IN: The cube seemed to me at that time the cleanest geometrical form. The purest. Still, as time passed, I came to perceive the archived days as some files or slates put in chronological order. After a Gilbert & George exhibition in London, an idea got stuck in my head – they used a sort of stamp to sign their works. I’ve realized this was something that my project lacked, a mark that would authenticate the entire scientific approach. I therefore invented a superior institution – “The Presidium of Time”, I designed a logo for it and rethought the layout of these documents. It is important that each document be archived in a standard form. I’ve included in this form all the information I needed to archive that day. From that layout on paper there was one more step to the plastic slates of the days in the Time Exposure series.

SA: A very suggestive title for the exhibition. One has the feeling to participate in a gathering where time was frozen by the flash of the camera and afterwards revealed to the public for eternity.

IN: It’s Alina Serban, the curator of this exhibition, who chose the title.

SA: I felt that in front of them, perception dramatically changes, everything becomes more organic. Why this 100/70cm size?

IN: I thought it was only natural to proportionally increase an A4 sheet. That would be the most familiar shape that could enter a file up there at The Presidium of Time.

SA: The page layout has something of the stiffness and formality of bureaucratic documents. In the same time, their materiality and polished surface are so organic, so natural.

IN: I wanted these documents to have something of the heaviness of funeral stones, of their silent, solidified-in-time presence. All eight works originate out of an identical mould. The plaster original was manually made, polished until it had the feel of a stone washed by wind and water.

SA: Why didn’t you cast a mould for each day?

IN: Because I’m intrigued by the beauty, or better said, the aesthetics of mass production. Ford’s copies produced on the assembly lines possess a certain undeniable charm. I like to put something hand made in the sphere of mechanical reproduction. There’s a negotiation, a tension there and I like to see objects in that area. In a way, each day is a copy of the preceding one, it couldn’t be otherwise. Nevertheless, each day has its own characteristics, colours and words.

SA: What criteria did you use in selecting these days? Obviously, chronology didn’t matter.

IN: The selection process is a most thrilling experience when I’m asked to exhibit a group of days. I’m in the position to create new meanings for them. I admit I feel really powerful in that moment: I have the distinct sensation I can play with time, manipulate it in any direction I fancy. Isn’t this the dream of every human being, to rewrite his history here and there, to reinvent it?

SA: It looks rather tempting indeed. Nevertheless, you must also feel responsible when you decide what to edit, what to put forward and what to leave behind. Who makes this final selection, the pseudo-scientist or the guinea pig?

IN: I think it’s the artist. It is his/her responsibility to reconstruct the narrative in this project.

SA: So there are three characters living inside you.

IN: Yes, you could say that. In what the selection is concerned, the only criterion I take into account when I decide what days should take part in an exhibition is the narrative. The days put together should create a sort of meta narrative of consumed time. There are some areas of interest; days from different periods of time could point to the same topic or could surface similar ideas. I find it fascinating, that everything turns in a spiral, vertically. Things don’t cease to repeat themselves, to influence one another dramatically even though their succession is not chronologically linear.

SA: When selecting the days, do you take into account the public you’re addressing to? The space you are exhibiting in?

IN: Absolutely. The context in which I show dictates the topic or at least the interest area to search for in my archive. It is in fact the first criterion that matters in choosing the days.

SA: I recollect the work you exhibited in Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (2006). You decided to show only one day, that deployed itself in the generous space of the building like a wall painting.

IN: For that exhibition, I had intensive talks with Alina Serban (the curator) and I tried to fully understand the concept of the show, the logical position of the space assigned to me within the whole show, and the general context. The work changed immensely when I exposed it there. The rather intimate and private message of the day had to fight with the almost monstrous size of the room. Marlene Dumas said that intimacy can’t be blown up. It’s true, you can’t shout an intimate thing in the public space, but my project was not a private and intimate one. Fortunately, it worked in that context.

SA: When you write your ideas, do you ever take into consideration how the audience will perceive your days?

IN: No, it would be impossible to play the audience role as well. The three roles I already have are entertaining enough.

SA: How do you archive your days?

IN: I note them down in my Moleskine agenda. Quite predictable, isn’t it? But they are the best notebooks, and I adore good quality stationary. I’m in fact obsessed with the quality and design integrity of the tools I’m working with, and my writing this with a pathetic ballpoint pen borrowed from the swimming pool reception makes me blush. I adore when things are excellently made. And this includes everything, from clothes to furniture and accessories.

SA: What happens to the days that don’t become headlines?

IN: Nothing exciting happens, they remain in the archive. You never know when they can be selected. It’s amazing how many boring days one has. It’s appalling! If I hadn’t recorded them, I would have had the impression I had an interesting life. Still, many days are empty, days in which nothing happens, neither positive nor negative, days that disintegrate in a grey puddle. I would like to make a selection of these boring grey days, after all, they make most of the time we have.

SA: Yes, it would be interesting to see the trivial remains, the residue of daily life, correctly and conscientiously analyzed. What does colour represent in Monthly Evaluations project?

IN: Colour is situated in the emptiness between + and -. Between subjective and objective. I admit I’m irritated when I see artists using it only subjectively, because that’s how they felt or because it came from the subconscious. Indeed there is a part in colour that we can’t control; nevertheless various scientific experiments have proved there is an ineffable link between our emotions and the colours we favour in certain occasions. Dr. Max Luscher for example, recognized that the sensory perception of color is objective and universally shared by all, but that color preferences are subjective, which is a distinction allowing subjective states to be objectively measured by using test colors.

SA: Do you use your intuition when assigning colours to each day?

IN: Yes, I initially used my intuition. Then I tried to analyze and record the pattern I use when I assign colour. I’ve made my own colour chart, assigning colours all sorts of emotions that I associate them with.

SA: I know that for the Istanbul Biennial, you will exhibit one day from Monthly Evaluations project. Have you decided yet what you are going to show?

IN: Not yet, I have to make a research at the location. It irritates me that I perceive Istanbul as this extremely exotic place though I’ve never been there. I imagine it like a boiling cultural and political bazaar. You know, a lot of words in Romanian are of Turkish origin dating back to Ottoman invasions. Certainly, the biennial is recognized as being an important international event. I rather like events with big audiences, it make me think there is a stake somewhere. After all, artists have always dreamt of a huge public.

Stuart Aarsman is a writer and independent curator. He studies art and philosophy at Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam. Currently MA at Central Saint Martin College of Art and Design, London. Writing for Metropolis M, Baby, RE-, Blvd, Afterall, Frieze etc.
All the facets of the same B. – philosophical essay about art & consumerism published in 2002 by Artimo/Gijs Stork.