Nina Rike Springer, 2018
born 1976 in Klagenfurt; lives and works in Vienna
GRAZING. HOVERING.FLYING. The Existential and Essential in the Works of Nina Rike Springer
Two cows are standing in a field. One says to the other: “What do you think about this mad cow disease?” “What do I care?”, says the other. “I’m a helicopter.” — It may seem weird to begin a text about art with a joke. But there is something in the joke. It comes from a book that is as amusing as it is profound: Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar … . Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. ¹ Both studied philosophy at Harvard. And together they come to the realisation that philosophy is sometimes better understood through humour than through hard thinking. — The joke with the cows is in the chapter on existentialism, and illustrates a central maxim of Jean-Paul Sartre – that says: “Existence precedes essence.” Accordingly there is no intrinsic purpose for us humans that we owe to an ontological or metaphysical essence of whatever kind, but rather: “We are indeterminate, always free to reinvent ourselves.” ² — As expected, both philosophers are not content with simple answers. On the face of it, the answer of the cow suggests that it is already mad. Yet perhaps it is not mad, but ingenious. Looked at existentially, it has shaken off its presumed intrinsic purpose and simply reinvented itself. Looked at empirically, that is rather improbable, yet possible. Linguistic philosophically one would have to prove that the cow can fill the term ‘helicopter’ with meaning. Epistemologically this would at least require that it knows what a helicopter is. Do both cows have a common understanding of reality in the first place? Or do we and the cow? Can we in fact verify the degree of reality of its utterance on the basis of our conception of reality? An error would after all be conceivable on both sides. And so on until one ends eschatologically at some point with the question of the final things. — It is similar when one looks at the artistic works of Nina Rike Springer. At least the path from the cows to Grasen (Grazing), as one of her early animations of 2006 is called, is not far. A galvanized cachepot, out of which grows a rather forlorn green lily, stands on a cow stool. Between the sparse leaves something is suddenly happening: a tuft of grass makes its way out of the pot, over the stool and down to the ground. Along the wall it quickly sets its sights on the window, and so goes up to the window sill. The window casements open and after a good half minute the grass tuft disappears into the open air. In the animation Grasen II (Grazing II) from 2008 another tuft of grass similarly slips out of a pot, overcomes a chair, and sniffs around on the floor before disappearing again back into the flower pot. Nina Rike Springer sets the absurd and comic scene to suspenseful music thereby producing a dramatic effect that is after all far removed from what is happening.
The films last no longer than it takes to perform a joke, but in both cases the punchline is felt long afterwards. This is because the humour in Nina Rike Springer’s work is always so profound and thought-provoking. We are reminded of the cow that is literally fed up with the constant grazing and ruminating. And we observe the animated grass in Nina Rike Springer’s stop-motion film that takes its thrown-into-the-world existence in its own hands and searches for a new purpose: the grass is not just grass, but does something – it grazes! This makes a big difference if one believes Martin Heidegger, that other great existential philosopher: “Being always sees itself from its existence, the possibility of the self to be or not to be itself.” ³ Measured by the seriousness of the situation one must also consider that even grass could be capable of deciding to be or not to be itself. — Through alienation and defamiliarization Nina Rike Springer throws things into a mighty jumble. But what is alien about making a couch dance together with its cushions (Couch Polka, 2006) or having some petits fours magically perform a Mehlspeis Tango (Pastry Tango) (2011) in formation on the dance floor? It is a question of imagination and intuition, how much freedom one allows things, and above all the mental picture that we have of them. — At the same time Nina Rike Springer in her animations and tableaux has departed more and more from things in order to devote herself to the possibilities and the purpose of her person as a human being and artist. In 2014 she staged herself in the photo series Schöne neue Welt (Beautiful New World) as Triad, as Müde Heldin (Tired Heroin), as Salonfähige Einheit (Socially Acceptable Entity) or in Blindflug (Blind Flying). For this she created virtual stage spaces that were formed and deformed by geometrical surfaces. Completely in white with a strange bathing cap on her head, the artist plays all the roles herself. The figures remain as enigmatic as the narration, which – particularly in the triptychs – takes place at different locations: absurd, fantastic, surreal, unreal, but quite possible. — Exactly this is taken up by the three most recent animations and a photographic series, all of which emerged in 2018. In the short film Skills she reappears, the artist, this time in a yellow bathing cap, in mint green sweatshirt and blue jogging pants – color-matched to the reduced arrangement of the scenery and props. Whereas the vocational world demands from its qualified specialists every sort of possible skill, and even the youth has incorporated the ‘skiller’ admiringly into its vocabulary, Nina Rike Springer’s film totally does without spectacular gestures or skills. Standing, she slides from the left into the picture, squats, stretches the arms out to the ringing of bells, and disappears again. She pushes a yellow cuboid into the room, slides from left to right while squatting on it, takes the cuboid with her and disappears. A short moment later she runs back through the picture. While the picture fades, we hear a thunder storm from afar.
In Artificial the artist swallows a blue pompom, that grows several fold out of her head a moment later. The pompoms take on a life of their own, and like an industrious armada carry off the components of a geometric composition – until only a white area remains. It is to some extent the reversal of an artistic process that does not begin with an empty sheet, but ends with it. There is also nothing really spectacular in that – except the recording of that famous sentence sent to the Earth by Neil Armstrong on landing on the surface of the moon on July 21, 1969: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — So high up is not what Nina Rike Springer has in mind, certainly not in the heroic and earth shaking dimensions of space travel. If weightlessness appears unattainable in the eyes of the artist, the dream of flying at least lies in the realm of the possible. Its pre-stage is found in the large format digital photographic work Schwebeperformance (Hovering Performance). As in the photo series Beautiful New World – the setting is formed more by a virtual stage space in which coloured geometric forms function as backdrops. Small circular areas serve as props for the figures. Behind a neon pink rectangle the distinctive bathing cap of the artist peeps out, behind a further rectangle her stooped back, and above on the left backdrop the bodies of the artist lie on top of each other like laundry bags. Two figures appear to hold a kind of balance beam on which however no one is balancing. In the middle of the picture the artist hangs horizontally like a weather flag on a pole. — If one wants, this Hovering Performance can be read as a multiple self portrait that keeps the being of the acting figure in a hover and instead distributes its purpose over several states: struggling and bracing, trying and failing, not necessarily leading to success. As an aid, in the series Flugkörper (Flying Bodies) Nina Rike Springer designs fantastic flying suits that in their expansive forms and bold colors inevitably bring to mind Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet of 1922. The round tableaux form the frame, a rectangular area of color the background, in front of which the artist poses with the various flying suits that she has digitally tailored. — But is that sufficient for flying? In the stop-motion animation I Believe I Can Fly Nina Rike Springer firmly believes that it is. But flying we guess is far more arduous than hovering. The flight preparation is everything. The artist prepares for take-off, the hands simulating the alignment of the take-off and landing flaps, she checks once more the function of the landing gear … and … Cut! In the next shot the artist lies horizontally on an almost invisible pedestal with outstretched arms. She is flying! To the airy strains of the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss. “Super!” is how the artist finds it at the end of the film and, winking, flexes her non-existent muscles.
Naturally common sense tells us that these flying suits along with the person might be pretty much anything – it is just that there are no flying bodies; and that the mere belief in flying is not sufficient to overcome the laws of gravity. But we already knew that from the cow that thought it was a helicopter. Looked at existentially, Nina Rike Springer has shaken off her presumed intrinsic purpose and simply reinvented herself as a flying body. Looked at empirically, that is rather improbable, yet possible. Epistemologically this would at least require that she knows how one flies. Discursively one could again ask oneself whether her perception of reality is compatible with ours – and also the notion of flying. An error would after all be conceivable on both sides. And so on. — Nina Rike Springer nimbly defies everything that philosophers, physicists and common sense want to tell us. This is a particular quality of her artistic work. What it needs in addition has been sententiously explained by Robert Musil in one of the most significant novels of the last century Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities): He distinguishes between a ‘sense of reality’ that only recognizes what is really in anything, and a ‘sense of the possible’ as the capability to keep overriding reality toward something new. The ‘possibility person’, according to Musil, gives “the new possibilities their sense and their purpose […], and he awakens them.” ⁴ — Nina Rike Springer is such a ‘possibility person’. She takes the liberty to constantly reinvent herself. And she appeals to us as viewers to override reality in order to give more room to the ‘sense of the possible’. Existential and essential. With humorous profoundness. Grazing, hovering, flying – and above all: animating in a way that is as unsettling as it is beguiling.