In time of crisis, homelessness is becoming a burning issue again. After a long period in which it appeared to be decreasing, 2010 marked a drastic change in trend. Over the course of last year the number of people approaching their council as homeless has raised by 15% and 3,975 slept rough in London during 2010/11. A persistent economic downturn and the Coalition Govern’s radical reforms to housing and welfare portend that homelessness will increase yet further in the coming years.
Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people established in 1967, has organised a valuable show – The Crisis Commission – bringing together some of today’s most celebrated artist to confront the problem of homelessness. Curated by Laurence Sillars – chief curator at BALTIC Centre of Contemporary Art – and hosted by Somerset House, the exhibition includes Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro, Yinka Shonibare, Gillian Wearing, Jonathan Yeo, Bob & Roberta Smith, Nathan Coley and Nika Neelova; their works are on display alongside those of artists who are themselves homeless or vulnerably housed. In the context of an exhibition which is undoubtedly far more than a charity event, particularly entrancing is Partings by Nika Neelova, a 25 year-old Russian born artist based in London. Nika has kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?
I think the idea was in my mind for as long as I can remember, but the full realisation of it only came in my first days as an art student at the Royal Art Academy in the The Hague. Until then, I was only flirting with the various manifestations of art, but there it became immediately obvious to me, and it was also immediately obvious that it was going to be sculpture.
If you had to name a few artists who are a constant source of inspiration, who would these be?
For me it is very difficult to name just a few artists. But certainly to begin with, I would say Miroslaw Balka, Gabriel Orozco, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum.
How does it feel at your age to take part to an exhibition with the likes of Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro and Gillian Wearing? Although you’ve already taken part to many shows, I assume it must be pretty exciting.
Unbelievable. Incredible. Incredibly exciting. It is a great honour for me to take part in the exhibition, featuring the works of Sir Anthony Caro, Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, Yinka Shonibare, Anthony Gormley. I really admire these artists and their work has had a huge influence on me since the very beginning, when I first discovered contemporary art for myself and came to love it. I read books about them, quoted their texts in my dissertations and, surely, went to see all their exhibitions. I never thought I will have the opportunity to meet them one day, let alone take part in the same project. It was also a great opportunity to learn from them, seeing how they have approached and dealt with the theme of the show.
Your installations and sculptural interventions seek to depict decaying architectural structures which seem to be inspired by “spaces” that once existed; in a way, I would say your art deals with “fragments of past lives” and thus perfectly corresponds to the aims of an exhibition focusing on homelessness. How have you approached this issue?
Indeed, the intent in my work is to address memory from a historical and personal perspective by resurrecting fragments of the past and bringing them into the light of the wrong day. By deliberately choosing the history of the past that hasn’t made it into the present, the work often imagines what this history would look like had it survived until now. The piece for the Crisis Commission features eleven doors cast in dark concrete. They are abandoned doors, no longer belonging to anywhere, doors taken out of their doorways. The particular door used in the work is a cast from an original door borrowed from Somerset House. Its reoccurrence in the space as part of the piece creates a sense of displacement and dispossession, emphasising the contrast between the doors that are part of the architecture and the doors that have fallen out. Bearing the traces left by time and history, this door carries along its own story, which involuntarily embeds into the collective story of all doors. I think it acts as a metaphor for the theme of homelessness and its presence in modern society.
Time and memory clearly play a crucial role in your work. Today’s world seems to be short of memory and perhaps even unable to successfully plan its own future: it focuses eminently on the “present moment” condemning itself to a crisis which is not merely “material”. How do you think art should respond to these economic and “spiritual” straits?
I think art should be able to have access to and use its own past and history in order to foresee a distant future. In a way, it should be able to brush history against the grain as to evoke the past out of this continuity and make it valuable now. I think history finds the manifestation of its “memory” shaped through the notion of ruination, which is a notion that is incredibly important in my work. Ruins represent simultaneously an absence and a presence, which I believe is a condition relevant to the “present moment”. However, by pointing to a lost and invisible whole, their still visible presence also references durability and perhaps perseverance, in a way becoming their response to time.
GlaxoSmithKlein has entirely covered the cost of creating the art works which will be auctioned at Christie’s on May the 3rd – all proceeds going to Crisis.
The Crisis Commission will be running until April 22nd at Somerset House, Strand, London, Greater London WC2R 1LA.
All images are © Mark Bourdillon
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari