5 Questions for Christian Nerf

Christian Nerf
Christian Nerf | Christian Nerf. © Goethe-Institut. Photo: Miriam Daepp

Christian Nerf’s open studio at GoetheonMain, entitled „Things Are Odd“, gives visitors a glimpse of the artist’s creative process. We spoke to him about life and art.

Your artistic practice has been described as “maverick, absurdist, astute, playful, and serious.” With which of these do you agree most, and with which ones least?

I neither agree nor disagree with any of them. I am inclined to think that I am just a person who knows how to do things without money. I want to investigate the world and what makes us human or inhuman. It is fortunate that there is a category called art; I am not quite sure what I would be if I couldn’t be an artist. I try to be very agile and go into each experiment with as little baggage as possible, so I may be very conservative in one instance and entirely flexible in another.

You say you strive to create works that encourage not only the art community but the public at large to think. Is art only for a handful of insiders; in other words: is art elitist?

Some of my projects are activated on the street, for instance The Polite Force. The people who encounter it don’t even know it is art. Without that baggage they don’t freak out and think they don’t understand the language of art. Artworks that wouldn’t survive well outside of “the white cube” are elitist to me. I try to avoid this type of art and instead make my work inclusive by using methods to make complex concepts accessible. Talking to people in the art realm or intellectuals is very different to talking to everyday people.

One way I engage with people in the street is by handing them signed and numbered one-dollar-notes or asking them for some of their waste (empty soft drink cans or similar), in order to start a conversation. Not a conversation about art however, but about the economy or the system of voting in a political party or a president for instance. I am intrigued by the idea of everyday people giving away their right to have a say by voting someone else, in other words: to choose a boss. I believe we are each our own boss.

You say what you bring to a collaboration is nothing, which allows for anything to happen. What did you bring to Goethe on Main, and what emerged in these three weeks at the open studio?

I am post-collaborative, I no longer collaborate. Collaboration was a kind of education for me. Part of my work here at GoetheonMain is a reflection on my old projects, which makes it difficult to bring nothing. Bringing nothing in this context is more about not bringing preconceived ideas. When I came to the GoetheonMain studio I had some ideas about what I wanted to do and how to install things, but then I ended up rearranging these ideas and objects in different ways. I travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg by bus with very light baggage, carrying all of the exhibition objects along. The bicycle, the flag, and the table you see in this exhibition are all foldable.

In my earlier years I used to be an avid collector of things, and then I realised that these things were weighing me down. Consequently, I either gave or threw away almost everything so that I could be open to new possibilities. I found that if I have a studio full of objects they start talking to me, asking me how I am going to install them and balance them with other objects in the exhibition. I want to avoid this so I try to be light in every way.

I also incorporate some of my ongoing work into this exhibition, for instance the plant sculpture, through which I explore the concept of being somebody’s boss, of manipulating another being. Throughout the past eleven years, I have been subjecting the plant to alternating cycles of deprivation of soil and light and observing the resulting growth patterns. The plant sculpture is an experiment in manipulation.

I would describe my work as portable, agile, humorous. While trying to find your way through life is very serious business one needs to find ways to engage with it in a humorous way.

As part of “Things are Odd”, you hosted a braai lunch on a Wednesday noon every week. Who attended the “braai club lunch for the unemployed” as you named it and what is the aim of the project?

A few freelancers attended and people who took half a day of leave. The braai lunch club is about the idea of free time. I want to raise questions like: how much time do we sell and how much of our lifetime is actually ours. The braai lunch club is a reminder for people to reflect on the use of their time and their life. A huge majority of the population cannot attend an event that is happening on a Wednesday noon because they are not in a position to dispose freely of their own time.

You say for you, working through art is a way of interrogating and revealing the idea of truth. What is The Truth?

I have honestly no idea. My life’s work revolves around finding the truth, pinpointing the idea of the truth. I think there is a general consensus that the truth comes in many forms. It’s a bit like it is with belief systems: people agree to disagree. The truth should be quite a definitive concept, but it’s not, it is very slippery. My personal truth, at least for now, is to spend my time wisely. Time is not flexible; we are born and we die. So the question is: what are we going to do with the time in between.