Where science examine, measure and seek anchorage in the real world and in those things that can be methodically observed, art does not restrict itself to the knowledge we rationally agree on. Following these lines, the Danish artist Nicolai Howalt does not use his photographic experiments – that melts photography, science and art together – to explain the world as structures, dynamics, histories or meaning. Instead, he wants to challenge and explore the basic components of photography as well as visualize existential themes such as, in the exhibition Element at Viborg Kunsthal, the notion of the chemical elements of the world.
The idea of primary matter dates back to ancient chemistry with thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, who were preoccupied with the idea that all substances was made of a primary matter that consisted of four elements: water, air, fire and earth. Under the name “Aristotelian chemistry”, this idea came to reign as the main theory for the next two thousand years. Medieval chemistry was characterized by alchemy, the art of making gold of base metals. If both gold and other substances such as base metals consisted of a combination of the four elements, it had to be possible to mix and break down the material and then rebuild it with a new element composition hereby transmuting base metal into gold.
The story really took off in the mid-1800s, when it was generally accepted that all elements have a characteristic atomic weight. The weight did not seem to show any pattern; however, chemists looked for one anyway, as it was an attractive idea, that elements had a common origin, and that by decoding the weight of atoms the supposed unity of nature would declare itself. The periodic table as we know it dates back to 1869, when a Russian chemist, Dmitrij Ivanovitj Mendelejev (1834-1907), developed a schematic arrangement of the elements in order of the increasing atomic number.
An element consists of atoms with the same number of protons in the nucleus and the elements may enter into various chemical compounds, by which they can be converted or transformed. How this takes place is determined by the number of electrons each individual atom is in possession of.
This ongoing study of the character of the elements and especially their capacity to convert and transform, is the impetus for Nicolai Howalt’s exhibition Element. Howalt has photographed a number of selected elements in their original and found form. With an almost scientific thoroughness, he has transferred and developed photographs of for example silver, iron, copper, sulfur and gold on plates of different materiality.
Beforehand the plates, made of for example aluminum, brass and iron, have been treated with a photographic emulsion (silver bromide) and thereby a photographic process is created where the treated surfaces lets the motive come into view with its own unique physicality and texture. The chemical compound creates new transformations between the motive, the alloying and the process, which thus becomes the image-making element.
The works equally combine motive, process and materiality: the photograph is removed from the paper, and the elements detached from their origination where they are combined in the chemical part of the photographic process and transferred to the metallic plates. The processed surfaces allows the motive to
appear in varying degrees and whatever the result, these chemical clashes can never be defined as a failure or unsuccessful; everything is a part of an experiment in which a specific and perfect motif of an element is not part of the search.
Howalt puts photographic processes in progress and lets the processes carry out the creation of the final work.
His photographs of elements is an artistic experiment, an attempt to embrace the uncontrollable and
unexpected in the transformation of metals, motif and abstraction obtained by a photographic process. The works are not a methodical and rational depiction of the particular elements, but an artistic experiment where the process plays a fundamental role and significance is sought beyond the factual.