Nicolai Howalt is a Danish artist whose photographic work spans documentary, conceptual, and installation modes. He has exhibited around the world, including Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York, The National Museum of Denmark, and the Center for Fotografi in Stockholm, among other venues. His work is held in numerous international collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Maison Europeenne de Photographie, Paris, France, and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Howalt has collaborated with Danish artist Trine Søndergaard on several projects and books, including How to Hunt (Hatje Cantz, 2011) and Dying Birds (Hassla, 2010), and their work was published in Lay Flat 01: Remain in Light (Lay Flat, 2009). Howalt currently lives and works in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Rachel Stern: The history of photography is deeply entrenched in the recording of death. From funerary portraiture to the documentation of war and tragedy, the photograph is often able to function as a substitute for a physical memento of the dead. In works like Megafossil and Endings you seem to use the physical dead itself (ashes and a fossilized tree) to create imagery which address something else. What are your ideas about the relationship between the physicality of death and the imagery of death?
Nicolai Howalt: I’m not sure whether I’m interested in death as an isolated theme. I see death more as an unavoidable aspect of life — part of a continuum. In general, I’d say I’m more interested in connections and relationships than oppositions and dichotomies. While death is clearly an aspect of my work, I see it as a part of my investigation of life.
Endings is a series of images of cremation ashes — human remains. The title implies an ending of sorts, but also a denial of obliteration in some kind of eternity. Through the use of 2-3 kilograms of the chemical element strontium, we can all be reduced to remains in the world in some form or other. Human remains which remain, contravening the ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ of our western burial ritual. We leave behind an inorganic, non-degradable mass, yet an element that can enter into new compounds and from there begin a new cycle. I have a quote from T.S. Eliot that I like: “The end is where we start from.” Our ashes may be stripped of anything recognizable and devoid of any meaningful context, yet they remain — as eternal as the night skies I see them bearing such a striking resemblance to in the works.
The same question about death and eternity can be asked of Megafossil, a work made in collaboration with the artist Trine Søndergaard. Here, eternity is almost physical — or at least temporal. The tree in the images is between 1,400 and 1,800 years old, one of the oldest trees in Northern Europe, and it’s still alive! The installation at The National Museum of Denmark includes a small exhibition case containing a twig that was growing on the fossilized trunk when we photographed it — a new shoot drawing nourishment and sustenance from an apparently and visually ‘dead’ trunk.
RS: In your diptychs of young boxers, do you tend to be drawn to the photographs from before or after the fight? Are these pictures about anticipation, results, or the not represented time in between?
NH: Boxers consists solely of images of young men taken before and after their first boxing match, outside the ring. Anticipation is key, but the results of the fight are of little interest to me. We cannot know whether they have won or lost, and the portraits are not of winners and losers but of young men who have endured, who have survived an initiation ritual and made the passage from boyhood to manhood.
RS: Your portraits of these boxers are such dramatic documents of the struggle to claim masculinity. The young men seem so tragic and yet resolutely determined. How did you first become interested in boxers? Why is their youth important?
NH: Their youth is important because of what I see as the ritualistic nature of the first fight. I remember it very clearly myself. I was twelve years old when I had my first boxing match. I’ve never forgotten it, and was convinced from the very beginning of the project that the first boxing match is a psychological and existential act that far exceeds the fight itself. It’s the boys’ first time entirely alone in the ring. There’s no one to help them. In my interpretation, they stand on the cusp between being a boy and being a man — it’s as if they experience the loss of innocence between childhood and adulthood from the first to the second image.
RS: In Boxers and Car Crash Studies, you provide your viewer with the opportunity to concurrently feel the anticipation and follow-through of a pivotal moment. You seem to de-monumentalize the trauma of the actual moment of experience and focus instead on the resonance of aftermath. How does time function in your work?
NH: The resonance of aftermath is a really good way to describe Car Crash Studies. As I just said, with Boxers I was interested in the loss of innocence, not the knockout in the ring. In Car Crash Studies, the moment of impact, with it’s potential for tabloid sensationalism, holds little interest for me. Many of my works are marked by the absence of the decisive moment and, just as we can’t know who lost or won the boxing matches, no one — including myself — knows what actually happened to the people who were in the wreck they left behind in Car Crash Studies. We don’t know if anyone actually died in those cars.
Car Crash Studies and Boxers were both key works in a solo exhibition I called Sammenstød. It’s a Danish word that means collision or clash, but also conveys the idea of two or more elements in collision. “Sammen” meaning together, and “stød” meaning shock. There are elements of brutality in both, but also something else. A quietness, a calmness – something that I think is also true of the work Dying Birds.
RS: Are your works intended as warnings of coming disaster or as a record of current tragedy? I am especially intrigued by your apocalyptic collaboration with Trine Søndergaard, Dying Birds, in this regard.
NH: It’s interesting that you see dying birds as apocalyptic. It made me think about the visual associations that open the work to that interpretation. I think for us, or at least for me personally, the work is less about portending disaster or even recording a tragedy. Each of the images in the series is extracted from a larger image, a detail of a scene, magnified to explore the same kind of moment as the other works we’ve talked about. Here, the resounding silence after the shot — after the moment of impact.
RS: Your work oscillates between nature and culture, life and death, constructed and documented. Are you interested in these polarities and limbo spaces? How do projects like How to Hunt relate to your ideas about nature/culture relationships?
NH: Limbo is an interesting idea, because it’s a non-place — an undefined realm between the defined. In Dying Birds, for example, you could say that the silence between the shot and the bird crashing to the ground is some kind of limbo. You could also argue for its presence as a place itself. Again, it’s a continuum rather than a gap or absence of meaning between polarities.
The nature/culture dichotomy plays the same role for me (or rather, the absence of a dichotomy does). Denmark, where I live, has no real wilderness. There is no escape from ‘culture’. We joke that it’s impossible to go anywhere where you can’t see a lamppost. That’s a slight exaggeration, but the apparently natural landscape is entirely cultivated, including the landscape in How to Hunt. All the elements of the Danish hunt are manmade. The pheasants are bred and fed, the hunt itself is carefully planned in advance. It’s a ritualized performance — a sport or hobby — of something that was once a basic human need. Trine Søndergaard and I decided at a very early stage of the project that ‘the kill’ itself was not our focus. Something reflected in the works themselves; there’s no documentary ‘moment’. Our collaborative intervention and interpretation comes after the click of the shutter, as we construct an apparently photographic reality by layering multiple images.
My solo work Borderline maybe illustrates another approach to the nature/culture divide. Here, I photographed 96 of Denmark’s borders — barriers and customs offices, but also the landscape bordering Germany and the seascapes of Denmark’s coastal borders.
The word ‘border’ gives an impression of something tangible and well defined — the cartographer’s red lines on a map — but standing on a border in the middle of a field, it seems more conceptual than factual. There are no lines on the ground, and the landscape is identical for miles on either side. You’re standing in the middle of nature, but are firmly plotted in ‘border’ culture.
Nature and culture, like life and death, are constantly present in my work, but I don’t see them as opposites. They’re interwoven and interdependent — a relationship I keep coming back to explore.