‘Memento Mori’ by Nicole Weniger: How Absence Makes Things Visible

‘Memento Mori’ is a solo exhibition by Austrian artist, Nicole Weniger, who is in residency at Space Between Gallery in Cape Town. Stylistically inspired by Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, her multidisciplinary work centres around concepts of presence, invisibility and immortality. The arresting imagery present evoked through her sculptures, videos, drawings and photographs has a mythological quality that feels simultaneously familiar yet strange. Her work is riveting, eerily beautiful and prompts the viewer to engage with what it means to be present in a world where surface is paramount, prejudice is infectious and existence cemented by cyber realities. 

Memento Mori

You’re at Space Between for a month’s residency. What brought you to Cape Town? 

I was here in February last year, I love Cape Town – the mix of mountains, the seaside and the city. I decided to spend more time here and get to know the place, because previously I’d only been here for one week. 

What’s the experience been like so far? 

It’s been nice but short. I have settled and have had too many ideas but not enough time to execute them. I like this area of Woodstock – it’s interesting and dangerous. 

Tell us a bit about your creative journey…

I got to university when I was twenty and was really young. People are usually much older when they start studying art. Before that, I was always drawing. I once wanted to become a dancer and my teacher at the time was encouraging, saying I should go for it but that I should only focus on dancing. I thought no, I want to put my own ideas out there. 

In what ways has the environment where you grew up influenced the nature of your work?

I grew up in the Alps and feel like I’m a real mountain girl. I moved to Vienna to study and lived there for 8 years but I really like surreal landscapes and the idea of being somewhere alone. My home town is surrounded by 2500 metre mountains and I always had the desire to climb up and see what’s on the other side – the unknown. This is also a metaphor for making art, you should always try and see another perspective. It’s important. 

‘Memento Mori’ is a multidisciplinary exhibition. What’s the central theme and why have you decided to explore it in different mediums?  

It deals with the absence and presence of things. There’s a lot of sculptures and photo works and they’re all based around the question of whether or not you need a body to be present? I’m also exhibiting drawings of volcanoes which links to the idea of invisibility. And then of course, my photo series with golden Burkas. Having studied trans-media art, I like expressing my ideas in different ways. 

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What inspired this series? 

It actually started in Budapest with a collective of Austrian, Hungarian and Palestinian artists that I was part of. We were participating in an exhibition called ‘Burka – Between Identity and Demarcation’. It was about the influx of Arabic tourists in Austria during the tourist season and how this would be affected with the possible banning of the Burka. Austria is very welcoming of other cultures but in this case, it’s mostly because Arabic tourists spend a lot of money. There are issues around integration. For example, to attract tourists, restaurants have changed their names to Ali Baba. I call it seasonal integration.

With my work, I started to put these golden Burka people in surreal surroundings that makes it tricky to identify who they are and where they’re coming from. You have a simultaneous image of arrival, settlement and migration. This is also linked to the refugee crises. You see a lot of imagery of refugees wearing these blankets. The Burkas are made out of emergency blankets, which were originally developed for outer space. I play with the idea of crises, aliens, displacement and landscapes that look like they are in the middle of nowhere but have a universal quality. 

Have you exhibited these images before? 

Yes, but not all of them. I shot some on the beach here. Most I’ve already shown in Austria and Northern Ireland.

How were they received in different countries? 

In Northern Ireland there were a lot of riots so for them it was interesting to have this activism thing in this city. I didn’t just exhibit the photographs, we also did a live performance in gold Burkas, but I couldn’t perform in the city because it was too dangerous and they would have thought I was a terrorist.

Did you expect that? 

Not really, but in Austria people were saying “Taliban, don’t blow us up”. There’s so much Islamophobia. Not everyone is a terrorist.  

In your opinion, how rife is Islamophobia in Vienna now? 

When it comes to refugees and terrorists, people are really scared. It’s just fear. When I exhibited in Austria, people asked me if I was saying that the Burka is good. I was just trying to encourage conversations around it. I’m not judging a traditional religious thing and I also think you shouldn’t just prohibit something out of fear. 

Yet in these images I can’t tell who is beneath the Burkas…

There’s a lot of men participating but you wouldn’t know and that’s one of the main reasons why they want to ban it. They say it’s a security thing but it’s Islamophobic thinking. It’s a super complex issue that I like to get people to talk about. 

Is there any link between title, ‘Memento Mori’, and traditional vanity paintings?

No. I’m just fascinated by selfies. Vanity paintings depict something that isn’t present anymore – the leftovers of people or places. The question now is, “Do you need a physical body to be present?”.Today, when you take and share pictures, videos and texts, your body isn’t linked anymore. My series with the selfie sticks explores this. 

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In those portraits you’re surrounded by nature and the viewer is witnessing the act of someone taking selfies as evidence to document their presence. How does that tie into your central question about existence? 

Now, being in nature is treated like a therapeutic thing. The idea was to link it with the painting of Narcissus – he looked so much at his own reflection on the water’s surface that he drowned. Linked to this is people’s Narcissistic reception of the world – how we have to make sure we are always present in the photographs we take. People took selfies before it became such a big thing but now they feel the need to share it, that they only exist if other’s can see where they’ve been. This theme also ties in with the sculptures I made, they’re like bodies that don’t exist. Everything is surface. 

In one of your videos, there’s a huge golden emergency blanket that fills the entire frame. How does this resonate with the rest of the work? 

The blanket is like the ocean. You can only see the material and hear a deep voice sharing a memory that happened a long time ago on the beach. It’s about memory and the ocean but also the act of remembering and how it’s superficial. It’s not the sea, it’s staged.

The colour gold has lots of connotations, what informed this choice? 

It’s linked to immortality, eternity and God. In one of my images there’s a golden flag placed in the middle of nowhere. This is like replacing your body with a gold flag to immortalize yourself. The actual material is cheap but at the same time it’s gold! You realize that somebody placed the flag there but you don’t know who. They’ve positioned themselves there but now it’s their absence that makes them visible. 

Lastly, how do you think the exhibition will be received here? 

It’s hard to say, I’m curious because I love exhibiting in a space where viewers feel they need to be present. I want to give you the feeling of “here I am”, because everything is in one room and you’re interacting with the space. I’m excited. 

‘Memento Mori’ is on from the 22 to the 30 October at The Space Between Gallery

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Memento Mori

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