Nicolai Howalt is a photographer with a particular interest in science. Using contradictions to find balance, his artwork is based on what comes from nature but is transformed by man. We talk about his work, mostly inspired by scientific phenomena and human instinct, as well as his new book and some future projects.
You studied in Denmark and graduated with full honours from Denmark’s Photographic Art School Fatamorgana. Scandinavia, Denmark more precisely, is widely known for seeing many international artists rise. How do you think your origins influenced your artistic perspectives?
I probably got a great introduction to make arts in the idea of doing everything yourself, and do it twice.
In your work, it is easy to find dualities and oppositions through different series of photos, such as life and death or light and darkness, as it can be seen in your latest project, Light Break Wavelengths. What is so appealing about dualities?
The strange and very sexy thing about light is that you see it everywhere and, at the same time, you can’t see it at all. But through some medical lenses I could borrow from The Danish Medicine Museion, could I make some experience, a bit like an alchemist’s method to see some photographs without seeing anything on C-paper. But sure, I’m very interested in more kind of existential questions. What I am also very excited about is this kind of concrete/abstract method, which my works almost always end up being.
Still based on your latest project, it appears that science and art drove you to find rare and unique stunning pictures of the sun. What is the reason behind mixing science and art? Do you have any academic scientific knowledge, or have you learnt during the process?
Not at all, I’m just a curious person who tries to get wiser on the world quite literally. So one can say I use art as an excuse for a lot of unreasonable trials and studies.
Your photography seems to be based on time, on particular instants that will not come back. We see this in many of your projects, and it is a concept that accompanies your entire career. Not only you appear to be fascinated by uniqueness, but also by time passing by, as we can see in 78 boxers, for example. What attracts you from time? How would you describe the phenomenon in terms of art?
I think it is a fairly general condition for all life, and not least photography – it has always been. Perhaps, I am more aware of the concept of time in a rational form, something that has been and is in the picture that occurs in the documentary, basic form of the photograph.
You have recently published a book called By Looking Up I See Down. By Looking Down I See Up. But you already have quite a long list of publications about your photography and your collections. What do you expect to express with such books? How’s the process different when thinking/planning an exhibition or a book?
For me, the book is a different media/platform from an exhibition. You can build and put works together on some other premises, and the work can be redeemed in a book – and it is quite sovereign. In addition, the book is still standing when the exhibition is gone and the works are either sold or in stock. That way, it maintains the work in its own frame and beyond time.
In one of your works, How to Hunt, you photograph scenes of hunters chasing birds, focusing on the act of hunting, but not the result itself. In a way, this work is directly related to the relationship humans have with their surrounding, formed by nature, animals and ritual practices around them. What is the meaning of choosing this practice? What is the relation between hunting and nature from your point of view?
I did that work in collaboration with another artist, Trine Søndergaard. We did not realize that the actual killing was particularly interesting. It seems quite obvious to us that when you go hunting, you will kill the bird. We were more interested in the self-determination of the concept of hunting today – not in a ridiculous way; more in an attempt of understanding the fact of being in nature and following its instinct to get the food on the table, perhaps an excuse to move into nature, a rational errand. In fact, it’s quite romantic.
Your work has received many grants from Danish institutions, going from The Danish Ministry of Culture to private funds such as the Hasselblad Foundation. What does this recognition bring to your work?
Very simple: an opportunity to realize it. Not that I’m not happy; I’m honoured and feel my work is appreciated but I also know that when you receive refusal on other great ideas and work, you have to tackle that refusal and continue. You should not let it influence your work and process too much.
What projects are you currently working on? Any upcoming exhibition where we can enjoy you art?
I’m busy doing a huge decoration in a hospital with the Light Break work.