Feature

“I’m interested in emotional metaphors, and I’m really interested in the process of reaching those conclusions,” says sculptor Michelle Nikou. “It takes a lot of work, in an artwork, to get to the truth of what you need to do,”

Nikou is not an artist who enjoys decoding her work. To a certain extent it is resistant to language, even while formally it often includes single words or fragments of language.

“I like the idea of trying to stay with the strengths of sculptural language rather than prescribed, rational meanings,” she says.

“My big thought is trying to get people to work with the meaning that’s in the work, rather than the meaning that I tell them it’s about. I really want people to enter the gallery space with their rational expectations pushed aside and to just feel what is happening.”

The Adelaide artist is about to present her first major Victorian exhibition, titled Michelle Nikou: a e i o u, which will open at Heide Museum of Modern Art then tour to venues nationwide, with the support of funding from Visions Australia.

“We basically feel that Michelle is a significant but slightly under-profiled artist, particularly in Victoria,” says Heide curator Kendrah Morgan. “She’s very well known and respected in Adelaide and in Sydney, where she’s represented by Darren Knight Gallery, but her practice isn’t so well known elsewhere in Australia.” Morgan has curated the exhibition with Melissa Keys of exhibitions touring body NETS Victoria.

“Michelle has had a sustained practice for a long time – she’s in her late 40s – and her work is very appealing to a broader public because a lot of it involves domestic metaphor,” Morgan continues.

She describes Nikou – who trained as a ceramic artist at the South Australian School of Art, where she has now returned to pursue a PhD – as blurring the boundaries between art and craft. At Heide, Nikou’s work will find its counterpoint in the domestic environs of Heide II, the modernist former home of John and Sunday Reed.

Nikou works with surrealist strategies to transform everyday objects – food is a particular concern – into permanent forms imbued with new significance. The artist often casts her objects in metal, in particular. Neon is another favourite material.

The title work of the exhibition, a e i o u, 2012, is five bronze ‘fried’ eggs on the wall. At first they just look like eggs, and then you realise they are subtly shaped like the letters of the five vowels – the ‘e’ is formed by a double-yoker.

“That work in particular,” Morgan says, “really derives from [Nikou’s] frustrations with the limitations of verbal language… the most crucial letters are the vowels, which are like the building blocks of language, and she thought, well, maybe I’ll reduce the vowels down to an embryonic state and when she thought of an embryonic state she thought of unfertilised eggs.”

Michelle Nikou, a e i o u, 2012, bronze, edition of 3 (with variations), 5 parts, 124 x 16 x 1.5 cm overall. Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. © Michelle Nikou.
Michelle Nikou, a e i o u, 2012, bronze, edition of 3 (with variations), 5 parts, 124 x 16 x 1.5 cm overall. Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. © Michelle Nikou.

Though it’s not all food, of course, the exhibition also includes permanent renderings of gherkins, potatoes, toast and other sundries. Eating vessels such as cups and plates also figure strongly. Nikou says she can’t explain why she’s attracted to food as a subject matter.

“I don’t know what draws me to that and it’s funny because if there’s one thing I would probably try to avoid, it would be setting myself up as a kind of ‘kitchen artist’. But I just can’t seem to avoid those things that come to me.”

Morgan points to a few art historical precedents. “Many kinds of food and domestic objects are used significantly in surrealist art. You’ll find eggs as substitute bodies in Salvador Dali’s paintings, for example.” But these everyday objects are presented in an unexpected way in Nikou’s work.

“There’s an element of humour involved as well, and the way she selects and casts ordinary objects, you can find examples of other artists doing that, especially in the Pop era. Jasper Johns did beer cans and Claes Oldenburg did hamburgers and giant lipsticks and so forth. Michelle’s work is embedded in that tradition as well, as well as in the domestic traditions of artists like Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse.”

Michelle Nikou: a e i o u
Heide Museum of Modern Art
23 April – 28 August 

Varia Karipoff