Australian Idols: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

As he prepares for Vivid Sydney, the ceramist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran talks to T Australia about critics, conservatives and the religious figures he draws on.

Article by Jordan Turner

The artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studio in Gladesville, Sydney. Photography by Jordan Turner.The artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studio in Gladesville, Sydney. Photography by Jordan Turner.

There is a sudden break in Sydney’s wet weather deluge and the Sri Lankan-born artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is drinking herbal tea from a champagne flute in his Gladesville studio. He sits among tables filled with clay works, some drying and others waiting to be fired. In front of him is a sketch detailing his much anticipated installation for Vivid Sydney, to be unveiled in just eight weeks.

“It is going to be quite a strong, powerful image but it needs to be really filthy and wild and over-the-top,” Nithiyendran says of “Earth Deities”, a seven-metre-high sculpture that will be exhibited at Hickson Road Reserve, a coveted spot between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House, with Luna Park in the background (from May 27 to June 18). “It’s an amazing location to create a dialogue around Sydney mythology,” he says, “because architecturally, from the outside looking in, it is surrounded by Sydney’s major iconographies. That’s what I’m engaging with in the work.”

A ceramic and mixed-media artist, Nithiyendran, 33, has captured international attention with his vivacious reflections on ideological and politicised figures. His works have been exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival and Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai, where he recently held his first solo show in South Asia. On describing his work, Nithiyendran says, “I’ve never been interested in realism. Even as a child, I never wanted to get a pencil and copy something. I’ve always been interested in more speculative approaches to the world.”

The exact materials for his Vivid installation — which he describes as a four-legged structure with four heads — are yet to be finalised, though Nithiyendran says it will include LED lights, smoke machines, painted metal and a dystopian soundscape. “With my aesthetic, I can be flexible,” he adds. “I’m not making symmetrical structures that need to be finished a certain way, so often when we encounter problems, there are really creative solutions.”

Nithiyendran’s family migrated to Australia in 1989, when he was 11 months old. His parents come from very different backgrounds; his mother, who is of Dutch Burgher heritage, had a Christian upbringing, while his Tamil father was raised in a Hindu household. Nithiyendran has never been religious, but he experienced both faiths in his childhood. “I remember always loving the imagery at the temple, but not liking the imagery at the church,” he says, admitting that he feared the latter.

“As a child, it wasn’t philosophical, it wasn’t ideological; it was just pure and immediate,” he adds. “I remember going to Sydney Murugan Temple when I was about five — I always loved the sculptures there because they were superhuman; they had blue skin and lots of arms. When I started studying this kind of imagery, my interests were more connected to the mechanics in which they emerged — and that’s what I reference. But I think that moment as a child, of seeing the contrast, was really significant.”

In the years since, Nithiyendran has come to represent a rapidly changing art scene. In 2015, he won the Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award, one of the most significant honours a ceramist can receive for a body of work. “The year I won, the awards shifted to more contemporary or conceptual iterations of what the medium could be,” he explains, adding that ceramics tends to be a conservative medium, prized for its functionality rather than political expression. On accepting the award, Nithiyendran received a torrent of antagonistic emails and online comments, some of which accused him of “dumbing down the medium”.

“What’s interesting, though,” he says, “is even 10 years ago, having ceramic sculptures in contemporary art was rare. Now it’s quite normalised.” His most recent public sculpture, “Double-sided avatar with blue figure” (2020), stands at the entrance of Home of the Arts in Surfers Paradise. In a mythical sense, the large, ferocious guardian figure represents the symbolic scaring off of evil spirits and bad energy. In a contemporary sense, it is an invitation to enter the art space and to think freely. The work has been highly praised and harshly criticised, the latter mostly online and from the local community.

Nithiyendran does not take criticism to heart, nor has it changed the way he creates. As he sees it, boundaries are there to be pushed and rules are made to be broken. What would art be today if Marcel Duchamp had never appropriated everyday objects? And if Louise Bourgeois had not revolutionised installation art, or Ai Weiwei gave up the fight for freedom of expression? All that said, creating your own space in which to exist is no easy feat, especially when you are one of the first to walk a particular path.

“The thing is, a lot of criticism is unfounded a lot of the time,” says Nithiyendran. “It’s based on people’s warped perception of you and what they believe your success to entail. You have to know how to approach that.”

He laughs when he tells me about entering the Archibald Prize, which has become a kind of hobby of his. “I am a big believer in engaging diverse audiences: people who aren’t necessarily engaging with contemporary art on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “I think it’s really important to think about lateral ways for artists to engage audiences. It’s why I do festivals, because it brings people to engage with your artworks in ways that they might not usually.”

As for the Archibald Prize, Nithiyendran has entered a few self-portraits over the years. “And I’ve been referred to as a serial sitter, because there’s often portraits of me in the Archibald, where I would sit for other artists,” he says. Then he laughs heartily and tells me about one of his favourite reviews: “One time, someone said, ‘For his own good, I hope he sticks with ceramics.’ ”

The poet Sara Mansour.
The poet Sara Mansour, of Bankstown Poetry Slam.
The choreographer Stephen Page.
The choreographer Stephen Page, outgoing artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Leading Lights

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran will speak about uncomfortable truths and the stories that define us at Soul of the City, part of Vivid Sydney’s series of free talks. Held at the Australian Museum, the event will be moderated by T Australia’s own publisher and editor in chief, Katarina Kroslakova, and will feature Stephen Page, the outgoing artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and Sara Mansour, of Bankstown Poetry Slam (June 15, from 6.30pm).

Other highlights of the Ideas line-up include the singer-songwriter and arts lover Troye Sivan, who will speak about beauty, creativity and queer politics in a frank conversation with the TV presenter Patrick Abboud (May 29, from 5pm). Plus, the Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, the subject of the film “Bombshell”, will join the TV host Lisa Wilkinson in a dialogue on power imbalances and toxic workplace culture (May 29, from 1pm).

This is an edited extract from Issue 6. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 20, named “Australian Idols”.

In This Joana Choumali Work, a Dreamy, Swallow-Filled Sky

The artist used photography, fabric and paint in a reinterpretation of a sunrise that she witnessed in Dakar, Senegal. The work is also a tribute to her mother.

Article by Alwa Cooper

Joana Choumali’s “The Return of the Swallows” (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater.Joana Choumali’s “The Return of the Swallows” (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater.


Joana Choumali



Based in: 

Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West Africa

Originally from: 

Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West Africa

Where and when did you make this work?

I started it in August 2021 and I completed it that October, in my studio in Abidjan. It’s a small apartment a five-minute walk from my home, a refuge where I can relax and work and really dig into my memories and emotions, and then translate what I’m feeling.

Can you describe what is going on in the work?

It’s a mixed-media piece that incorporates paint, embroidery, collage and cutout figures from photographs. None of the photos I use in my work are staged or found; I take them all myself, wherever I’m traveling. The first layer here is a landscape picture I took of a sunrise in Dakar, Senegal, and printed on cotton canvas. Then I recreated the colours of the sky by superimposing several layers of sheer fabric on top of the canvas, sort of as if I were painting with watercolour. I sewed on the silhouettes of the children to fix the sheer fabric. I don’t paste with glue — I stitch around each figure, then paint over that. And then I added layers of white sheer fabric to capture the misty atmosphere of the morning. It feels like a quilt or a blanket when you see it in person.

It’s important for me to be in between the reality of the picture and the dream of my imagination. I want to create a dialogue between the two, between inner and outer landscapes and between past and present. And I’m fascinated by the symbolism of the sunrise, how it’s a new beginning every day. I started this project at a very difficult time in my life, and working on it each morning was both a spiritual journey and a physical exercise that helped me through.

What inspired you to make it? 

In August, my mother passed away suddenly from Covid-19. We were very close, and it’s still difficult for me to talk about. So all the works that I’m showing in the exhibition, including this one, create a kind of journal of my grief and became a way for me to say goodbye to her. Most of the figures in these works are wearing white, which in our culture is the colour of mourning. It’s the colour we wore to my mother’s funeral. The silhouetted children in this picture were photographed on Senegal’s Goree Island. I was drawn to their innocence and joy, the carelessness that children can have. Sewing images of them onto the piece, I felt like I was creating a representation of my siblings and other relatives and me as children, and was reminded of how we, too, used to be so innocent. The title of the work is “The Return of the Swallows,” and it alludes to the return of better times. That also helped me process things: The springtime return of the swallow is, like the sunrise, a sign of new beginnings, and of resilience and strength. It also symbolises letting go of what you cannot change.

What’s a work of art in any medium that changed your life? 

It could be so many things, but today, the most touching piece of art to me is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970). I play it often because it was a song that I used to listen to with my family, and now has a very deep meaning for me. When I hear it, I can feel my mother’s presence, can see her sewing at the family table on Sundays, listening and singing along as she worked. Through music you can go back: It’s as if you are transported to a specific memory. I’m also touched by the comforting lyrics and the voices — it’s like a lullaby.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

In the German Countryside, a Farmhouse Turned Lush Cultural Retreat

On the grounds of a former agricultural collective an hour north of Berlin, the artist Danh Vo has built a commune for like-minded talents.

Article by Gisela Williams

In the artist Danh Vo’s living room at his farmhouse in Brandenburg, Germany, potted and hanging plants, both living and dried; a leather-covered wire chair by Charles and Ray Eames; and a table Vo built according to the Italian designer Enzo Mari’s “Autoprogettazione?” (1974), a manual of furniture designs that can be made using simple materials and tools. Photography by Angela Simi.In the artist Danh Vo’s living room at his farmhouse in Brandenburg, Germany, potted and hanging plants, both living and dried; a leather-covered wire chair by Charles and Ray Eames; and a table Vo built according to the Italian designer Enzo Mari’s “Autoprogettazione?” (1974), a manual of furniture designs that can be made using simple materials and tools. Photography by Angela Simi.

At the heart of Danh Vo’s farmhouse in Brandenburg, Germany, is an oven. Not just any oven, though. This wood-burning clay furnace, the size of a Volkswagen minibus, painted a dark azure and bisecting the large living area, was one of the few things Vo knew he had to have in the house: a modern version of a traditional Russian stove, which was used for both cooking and heating. Once, these impressive pieces of masonry were the locus of the home and the inspiration for several Russian fairy tales. Many had large shelves or flat-roofed extensions, reached by small ladders and topped with mattresses. Vo’s has a platform that juts out in the rear, radiating heat, with room to seat four.

The monumental domesticity of such a piece no doubt appealed to Vo, 46, a conceptual artist who often makes new objects out of old ones, like the washer, refrigerator and TV his grandmother received from a Catholic charity upon arriving in the 1980s as a Vietnamese refugee in Germany, which Vo stacked atop one another and mounted with a wooden crucifix, refashioning them into art (“Oma Totem,” 2009). “Duchamp did stoves,” notes Vo. But the clay oven also spoke to another desire he had for this house: that it be a place where people could gather. “I love when in the winter everyone is automatically drawn to its warmth,” he says. “This is what I prefer to buy instead of a fancy car.”

In front of the living room’s clay oven is a heated seating platform and, in the foreground, two works by Vo: “Small Daybed After Enzo Mari” (left, 2018) and “Untitled” (2021). Photography by Angela Simi.
In front of the living room’s clay oven is a heated seating platform and, in the foreground, two works by Vo: “Small Daybed After Enzo Mari” (left, 2018) and “Untitled” (2021). Photography by Angela Simi.
A stairway from the office/lounge where firewood is collected. The entire farmhouse is heated with firewood sustainably sourced from a protected nature preserve nearby. Photography by Angela Simi.
A stairway from the office/lounge where firewood is collected. The entire farmhouse is heated with firewood sustainably sourced from a protected nature preserve nearby. Photography by Angela Simi.

Vo’s property, called Güldenhof, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Berlin, past vast rapeseed and rye fields and the tiny village from which it takes its name. It was once an East German agricultural collective, but most of its buildings had been abandoned for almost 30 years when Vo came upon it in 2016, and its uncultivated fields are now punctuated with art. In the middle of this three-hectare repurposed farm is a grassy football-field-size courtyard, framed on each side by a different structure, all originally built in the 1800s. Along with the gut-renovated, three-storey, 650-square-metre farmhouse, where Vo lives, there are three long stone-and-brick buildings, formerly used to house cattle and store feed. Over the past few years, Vo has transformed the property into a cultural incubator. It’s where he invites people to make things, be they art or sauerkraut, and where he himself is always experimenting with things, too.

A view of the field where sheep graze from the large kitchen window. Storage for everything, from the silverware to serving tools, was designed to be visible so that even a first-time guest will understand where things can be found. Photography by Angela Simi.
A view of the field where sheep graze from the large kitchen window. Storage for everything, from the silverware to serving tools, was designed to be visible so that even a first-time guest will understand where things can be found. Photography by Angela Simi.

Vo has never really had use for a traditional studio. His groundbreaking work “We the People” (2011-16) is a life-size re-creation of the Statue of Liberty that exists not as a single object but as a series of shards of around 250 copper pieces, which Vo will never allow to be shown altogether in one place. His art often plumbs the intersections of collective history and personal history — or, as he’s called it, “the tiny diasporas of a person’s life.” Born in southern Vietnam, he and his family fled in 1979 when he was four aboard a hand-built wooden boat that was eventually picked up by a Danish freighter. After several months in a refugee camp in Singapore, they settled in a suburb of Copenhagen; he considers Danish his mother tongue. He has spent his adult life in many different places seemingly all at once — he has a house in Mexico City, an apartment in Berlin and a country house in Denmark. But “if people want to see Danh’s work,” the Thai conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija says, “they should come to Güldenhof. In a way, what he is doing here is his practice.”

A view of the main house from one of the 19th-century stone-and-brick barn buildings that has been renovated with a transparent polycarbonate roof and planted with vines that create living walls within the space. Photography by Angela Simi.
A view of the main house from one of the 19th-century stone-and-brick barn buildings that has been renovated with a transparent polycarbonate roof and planted with vines that create living walls within the space. Photography by Angela Simi.

It was Tiravanija, Vo’s friend and mentor, who first suggested that they buy some property in the countryside, a place for them and other artists to store work, and for Tiravanija, who’s best known for interactive installations that centre on communal rituals — like cooking meals or conducting tea ceremonies — to build a ceramics studio. (He spent weeks at Güldenhof last summer making pieces for the tearooms he’s set up around the world.) But Tiravanija got caught up with other projects, says Vo, so he was left to renovate the compound himself.

Also in the living room, a blue clay stove and pizza oven by the local artisan Falko Martens; a photograph by the German photographer Heinz Peter Knes, Vo’s partner; and a collection of Danish chairs and Chinese stools. Photography by Angela Simi.
Also in the living room, a blue clay stove and pizza oven by the local artisan Falko Martens; a photograph by the German photographer Heinz Peter Knes, Vo’s partner; and a collection of Danish chairs and Chinese stools. Photography by Angela Simi.
A German desk from the 1930s in one of the guest rooms. Photography by Angela Simi.
A German desk from the 1930s in one of the guest rooms. Photography by Angela Simi.

Vo’s longtime studio manager, Marta Lusena, enlisted the architect Pietro Balp of the Berlin-based Heim Balp Architekten, who had previously helped renovate Vo’s Berlin apartment, which he shares with his partner, the German photographer Heinz Peter Knes. But unlike that grand, art-filled Art Nouveau space, Vo didn’t want Güldenhof to feel precious or polished. Here, walls would be cement or plywood. Long metal LED grow lamps, often used to cultivate marijuana, would hang from the ceiling, because they “make such a strong, beautiful light,” says Vo. There were two initial directives for the renovation: to transform one of the barns into a functioning archive that could store everything from photographs to sculptures, and to convert the farmhouse into a proper living space that could accommodate however many guests wanted to stay there.

Hanging on the wall of Vo’s kitchen are artisanal domestic objects he’s collected on his travels, including a broom from Thailand; dried flowers and chiles from Mexico, along with bones left over from cooking; and a pair of egg baskets from South Korea, a gift from his friend the artist Haegue Yang. Photography by Angela Simi.
Hanging on the wall of Vo’s kitchen are artisanal domestic objects he’s collected on his travels, including a broom from Thailand; dried flowers and chiles from Mexico, along with bones left over from cooking; and a pair of egg baskets from South Korea, a gift from his friend the artist Haegue Yang. Photography by Angela Simi.
One of two “Play Sculpture” works designed by Isamu Noguchi for his utopian playscapes, planted on the farm’s land. Photography by Angela Simi.
One of two “Play Sculpture” works designed by Isamu Noguchi for his utopian playscapes, planted on the farm’s land. Photography by Angela Simi.

Today, the farmhouse’s footprint remains the same, but the exterior plaster walls have been painted matte black, the pitched roof is now corrugated metal and one accesses the space through a small greenhouse-like entrance, clad in polycarbonate. Once inside, visitors either climb the original pine staircase (to the upstairs semiprivate areas) or head toward the kitchen to the right through a small adjoining sitting room containing another clay fireplace, engineered to heat a bench at the kitchen table on the other side of the wall. The walls in the kitchen are decorated with mostly handmade tools that Vo has collected over time: a broom constructed of natural grasses and bamboo from Thailand; two straw egg baskets from South Korea given to Vo by his friend the artist Haegue Yang. Beyond the kitchen is the large living area and the blue stove.

The top two floors are dedicated to reading, working and sleeping: At least a dozen beds (the number fluctuates along with the number of guests) are scattered among the house’s small private rooms and larger lounge spaces. (Vo himself doesn’t have a designated bedroom.) A plywood stairway — “a homage,” Vo says, to Tiravanija’s farm in upstate New York, most of whose interiors are completely covered in plywood — leads through a triangular opening to the third floor, which serves as a library and sleeping area: yet another place to bed down for the night.

The stairway leading from the second-floor office-lounge to the library and sleeping area on the third floor. Vo decided to use light plywood for the walls and ceiling of this room, as well as for the stairs. Photography by Angela Simi.
The stairway leading from the second-floor office-lounge to the library and sleeping area on the third floor. Vo decided to use light plywood for the walls and ceiling of this room, as well as for the stairs. Photography by Angela Simi.

Vo’s transformative energies extended beyond the property lines, and as Balp and his team were working on the renovation, the artist was seeking out people from the surrounding area to help reimagine Güldenhof: like Falko Martens, an engineer and artisan who makes bespoke wood-burning clay ovens; or the cabinetmaker Fred Fischer, who now has a carpentry shop in one of the old barns and made much of the furniture in the farmhouse, including the beds fashioned out of plywood. Vo calls his knack for finding such collaborators “luck,” but Tiravanija says that bringing people together is one of Vo’s great skills. Indeed, Güldenhof is always buzzing with people Vo has brought into his world. On any given day, there might be between four and 12 visitors, like Claus Meyer, one of the creators of Denmark’s New Nordic Cuisine manifesto, and the Michelin-starred chef Dalad Kambhu, discussing fish sauce and fermentation. Or Yang, who spent time at the farm learning how to make ceramics with Tiravanija. Or a group that includes Luise Faurschou, the founder of a Copenhagen-based nonprofit called Art 2030, and the Berlin-based restaurateur Oliver Prestele, helping harvest cabbage from the neighbouring farm of Vo’s friends Lena Buss and Philipp Adler. “I don’t grow many vegetables anymore, because I would rather support Lena and Philipp,” says Vo. The biggest event takes place on the summer solstice, a two-day-long party that attracts more than a hundred people.

Vo in the library on the third floor of the main farmhouse. His sweater and knit pants are by the designer Claudia Skoda, who is based in Berlin and has also been a collaborator. Photography by Angela Simi.
Vo in the library on the third floor of the main farmhouse. His sweater and knit pants are by the designer Claudia Skoda, who is based in Berlin and has also been a collaborator. Photography by Angela Simi.
The Berlin-based chef Dalad Kambhu, a friend of Vo’s and a regular visitor at Güldenhof, checks out the progress of a violet trumpet vine. She often uses edible flowers that she collects on the farm in the dishes at her restaurant, Kin Dee. Photography by Angela Simi.
The Berlin-based chef Dalad Kambhu, a friend of Vo’s and a regular visitor at Güldenhof, checks out the progress of a violet trumpet vine. She often uses edible flowers that she collects on the farm in the dishes at her restaurant, Kin Dee. Photography by Angela Simi.

But Vo’s most important collaborator at Güldenhof might well be Christine Schulz, who moved from Berlin to Brandenburg to devote herself to gardening and beekeeping. (“She will move ladybugs from one side of the garden to the other by hand,” says Vo.) She helped transform one of the barns, topped with a transparent polycarbonate roof, into a sort of artistic greenhouse, where cup-and-saucer vines with lilac-coloured flowers grow up over wooden ceiling beams, creating organic interior walls. In the summer, these “rooms” are sometimes used by visiting artists as studios.

A view into one of the farm buildings — with a transparent roof and a packed earth floor — that contains an ever-evolving space where found religious sculptures are placed between walls of vines, which were planted by Güldenhof’s gardener, Christine Schulz. In the summer months these “rooms” are sometimes used as studios by guests. Photography by Angela Simi.
A view into one of the farm buildings — with a transparent roof and a packed earth floor — that contains an ever-evolving space where found religious sculptures are placed between walls of vines, which were planted by Güldenhof’s gardener, Christine Schulz. In the summer months these “rooms” are sometimes used as studios by guests. Photography by Angela Simi.

Vo’s own work seems increasingly bound up in Güldenhof’s landscape. For a 2020 solo show at London’s White Cube gallery, he installed grasses and sage growing out of tubs illuminated by grow lights, and he is currently planning another show in which he will create a garden and a flower shop. “Eventually, I might get to the point that when a collector asks to buy a work of mine, I’ll say, ‘Grow a garden instead,’” he says.

Güldenhof has also reminded Vo that sometimes the best inspiration can be found when everything seems fallow. “For the first time, I am making a point of returning here before the winter solstice,” he says. “I have been drawn to learn how to adapt to the darkness and the coldness. I am suddenly loving being here on the darkest day of the year.” Especially when it can be spent with a few friends by the stove.

The Lusty Creativity of Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

A lesser-known Dutch master with a penchant for male backsides created some of the greatest homoerotic paintings of all time

Article by Arthur Lubow

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1590) at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. (Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

I was walking through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago when I bumped up against an enormous painting that stopped me in my tracks. “The Massacre of the Innocents”, a depiction of the slaying of male babies ordered by King Herod in Bethlehem, placed me cheek by jowl with the most provocatively positioned, beefy male posterior I had ever seen in Western art. The naked butt jutted out, forcing the viewer of the painting to gaze up at the massive glutes and thighs, much like the mother of the unfortunate infant under the murderer’s knife. By comparison, the bathing soldiers in Michelangelo’s “The Battle of Cascina” (1504) — the Renaissance standard when it comes to portrayals of muscular male nudes from the rear — were 40-kilo weaklings. I wrote down the unfamiliar name of the artist: Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem. And then I more or less forgot about him.

Until, on a visit last winter to the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, I encountered three Cornelis pictures (the largest holding by an American museum) and remembered my intention to learn more about this Dutch painter. I obtained the massive catalogue raisonné. I talked to academic experts. I studied his work, and also that of his colleagues — Hendrick Goltzius being the most renowned — and his predecessors. I came away with the conviction that in a flare of lusty creativity, from the late 1580s until the early 1590s, this underappreciated Haarlem Mannerist produced some of the greatest — and strangest — homoerotic paintings of all time. And that this glaringly obvious fact had been studiously ignored in almost all the art historical commentary on his work.

Partly that’s because in Western art, at least until the 20th century, the object of the male-on-male gaze is virtually always an adolescent boy. The most celebrated of these models are Caravaggio’s smirking street urchins, who are coquettishly aware of their allure, even when they’re dressed up as St. John the Baptist. The men in “The Massacre of the Innocents,” however, are manifestly men, going about their nasty business. Weirdly, the muscular infants are also little men. And the acts of violence flavour the eroticism with a sadomasochistic tang.

As I familiarised myself with Cornelis’s work from this early period of his career, his predilections became apparent. “The Massacre of the Innocents” is just one of his evocations of fleshy buttocks on naked he-men. A year later, he did a second version of the 1590 painting, in which another murderous muscleman wreaks havoc in the foreground, while a pointy plant tickles the crack of his bare bottom. A little earlier, taking another Bible story as an opportunity for an all-male display, Cornelis painted “The Fall of Lucifer” (1588), which is now one of the star attractions in the National Gallery of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Here, too, a male rump dominates the foreground, but most of the attention is placed on a bevy of hunky angels as they topple from the heavens, permitting Cornelis to focus from different angles on the nether regions that most captivated him: the buttocks, scrotum and perineum.

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “The Fall of Lucifer” (1588-90), also known as “The Fall of the Titans,” at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen.

Penises he very often obscured. Indeed, the most riveting detail in “The Fall of Lucifer” is the transformation of a penis into a dragonfly. In itself this bio-morphing isn’t so novel — when Cornelis’s Flemish predecessor Frans Floris painted his own version of fallen angels, he turned the genitalia of one into an eagle’s head. But Floris’s beaky protuberance is a symbol, whereas Cornelis’s dragonfly, with its bulbous head and thick body, is as much a male sexual organ as it is an insect.

As I tracked the paintings of Cornelis from this period when he exaggerated the musculature of nudes in a Mannerist mode known as Knollenstil, I grew to recognize certain familiar bodies and poses. Still, I couldn’t help but gasp in astonishment when I came across an oil-on-paper grisaille drawing in the Getty Collection. It portrays the customary brawny nude dude, seated with his back to us, his butt cleavage exposed. However, instead of cutting the throat of a boy, he is passionately kissing one he holds in a tight embrace. A fantasy, obviously, because the little fellow has the chest and thighs of a bodybuilder.

In our day, it’s the sort of provocation that can get you sent up the river. So was the creator of these images a louche outsider, a kind of Mannerist Tom of Holland? Hardly. Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem was the son of a prominent cloth merchant, born into the city’s elite. During his early childhood, Haarlem was a center of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. When his father, and possibly also his mother, fled the city in 1573, 10-year-old Cornelis, who showed a precocious aptitude for drawing, stayed behind as an apprentice to a successful painter, Pieter Pietersz. Very quickly he surpassed his master, winning important commissions. His uninterrupted social climb was cemented in 1600 by his marriage to the widowed daughter of the Haarlem burgomaster, a position equivalent to chief magistrate or mayor.

Far from stirring up controversy, his paintings were coveted by the establishment. The second version of “The Massacre of the Innocents” was made for a grand official residence, the Prinsenhof. Another Prinsenhof commission resulted in “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” (1592-3), a mythological scene that covered an entire wall. These were the most prestigious assignments in the city, garnered by an artist not yet 30.

Even more intriguing than the support of the civil authorities is the early patronage of Jacob Rauwaert, a rich Amsterdam collector and dealer more than thirty years Cornelis’s senior, who had apprenticed with Maarten van Heemskerck, an originator of Knollenstil, before redirecting his energies from making art to buying and selling it. Rauwaert provided the financial underpinnings for the group of Italian-influenced artists that was later termed the Haarlem Academy. The eldest of the three artists at its core was Karel van Mander, a painter who came from Flanders in 1583, having previously spent three years in Rome. He made his mark in Haarlem as a critic and theorist. Goltzius, a draftsman of genius, won fame through his engravings. Cornelis was the ambitious and productive young painter with a gloriously theatrical bent.

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “Two Male Nudes” (circa 1590) at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

In addition to “The Fall of Lucifer,” which, considering the execution time required, was probably commissioned, Rauwaert owned at least 15 paintings by Cornelis, including two other major canvases: “Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon” (1588) and “Hercules and Achelous” (1590). The “Dragon” — which occasioned a magnificent engraving based on its design by Goltzius, his first collaboration with Cornelis, dedicated to their patron — portrays the dreadful beast sinking its teeth into the face of one chap and its claws into the meaty, decapitated body of another. “It doesn’t look like he’s being devoured,” said Aaron Hyman, assistant professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University, when I remarked on the painting’s sadistic relish. “It’s more like he’s being tortured.” In Rauwaert’s third important Cornelis painting, “Hercules and Achelous,” the hero is seen grasping the horn of a river god that has taken the form of a bull.

These large paintings would have been displayed in the reception rooms of Rauwaert’s grand Amsterdam house. What did visitors think about all these lovingly limned male limbs? Probably nothing at all. Like the art historians who followed them centuries later, they would have remarked only on the thematic content. When the American art historian Julie L. McGee published a pioneering biography of Cornelis in 1975, she saw in “The Massacre of the Innocents” simply the theme of religious persecution, timely for Protestant resistors (Cornelis himself was raised Catholic) to Spanish rule. Pieter Van Thiel, in the compendious Cornelis catalogue raisonné that was his life achievement, ignores any homoerotic content in the oeuvre and writes, risibly, that a tepid late painting provided “evidence that he possessed more libido than he usually showed.” A more recent article by Lisa Rosenthal, an associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, analysed “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” of 1592-3 as a commentary on civic virtue. In the four centuries since Cornelis’s death, only Hyman, in a 2016 essay, has addressed the randy elephant in the room.

Hendrik Goltzius, after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, “A Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus” (1588). (Courtesy of The Rijksmuseum)
Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon” (1588) in the collection of the National Gallery, London. (© The National Gallery, London)

Like these art historians, visitors to Rauwaert’s house in the late 16th century would have known that the downfall of Lucifer was a biblical tale. The stories of the followers of Cadmus and the defeat of Achelous they would have read in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” a book that was translated into Dutch in 1552 and became the most popular classical text in the Low Countries. (Van Mander called it the Bible of painters.) The most sophisticated callers might have remarked on the flesh tones of the disgraced angels in “The Fall of Lucifer.” While many are ruddy-colored, as the convention dictated for a male nude, others with equally formidable muscles are pale-skinned. Would connoisseurs have presumed that Cornelis was dividing his troupe between sodomites, who take the active role in sexual penetration, and passive catamites? If so, they would have taken it in stride. “The people who would have been sensitive to these variations in the colour of flesh were people intimately familiar with Book 10 of ‘Metamorphoses,’ with stories of Jupiter and Ganymede, and Hyacinthus and Apollo,” said Walter Melion, a professor of art history at Emory University who has written extensively on Van Mander and Goltzius. “They all knew this literature of man-man and man-boy love. It’s amazing what is licit among a group of elite educated men who are steeped in poetry and the visual arts.”

One of the greatest influences on the Haarlem Academy was the Flemish painter Bartholomeus Spranger, who worked in Prague in the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Bohemia. Rudolf II, a libertine bachelor with advanced aesthetic tastes, reportedly took male as well as female lovers. Prints made to Spranger’s designs, including masterly engravings by Goltzius, circulated throughout Europe. “One reason that the very explicit painting is going on in Haarlem is because it is licensed by the emperor,” Melion said. “A lot of those prints have dedications to very important people associated with the court of Rudolf II.” Many of Spranger’s best paintings are erotically charged scenes of men and women that deal formally with the question of hiding and revealing sexuality. “Extreme torsion is Spranger’s trademark,” Melion said. “The eros is to a great extent in what the body shows and conceals by turning. It’s a way of dealing with a taboo subject — explicit sexuality — because it reveals and conceals at the same time.”

The two male figures in the Getty drawing are torqued to the breaking point. The provenance of the drawing is unknown. That is “often the case,” I was told by George R. Goldner, the curator who acquired it for the Getty at an auction in Paris in 1984. Some experts, primarily Van Thiel, attributed the work to another artist, Jan Muller, who favoured the extravagant dimpling in evidence here. But Muller is not known ever to have worked in oils, and in general, he exaggerated the Knollenstil to the point of caricature.

In the late ’80s, William W. Robinson, who is an emeritus curator of drawings at the Harvard Art Museums, suggested the piece might be a depiction of Jupiter and Ganymede. When I remarked to him that it lacks any of the usual iconography — an eagle for Jupiter, a cup for Ganymede — he agreed. “I probably would feel differently now,” he said. “There was a sense 30 years ago that anything with a finished appearance like this had a subject, however arcane and undecipherable.”

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “The First Family” (1589) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper in France. (Courtesy of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper)

In fact, what the drawing refers to is not Ovid but the Bible — and, more specifically, to a Cornelis painting, “The First Family,” now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Quimper, France. In that 1589 canvas, Adam and Eve are depicted with their two sons. Although this is post-Eden, all are naked. Eve is offering her breast to the younger child, while Adam clasps the alarmed-looking older boy. The pose of the naked man in the painting is similar to the one in the drawing, down to the rock on which his bare butt is resting. But the body of the toddler, softly cherubic and mostly obscured in the painting, is muscular and completely exposed in the drawing. In addition to the passionate embrace, there is a subtler allusion there, too: the man’s large hand melds with the arm of the boy. “One limb elides into another limb — that is a way of indicating coitus,” Melion told me.

So who received this beautiful finished drawing, and would have appreciated how Cornelis had transformed the scene of a father dandling his son to one of a man engaged in sexual intercourse with a boy? The question may never be definitively answered. “We have very little information on who the audience at this period for drawing was,” Robinson said. There are few known finished drawings (as distinct from working or preparatory sketches) by the Haarlem Mannerists or Spranger.

My informed conjecture leads me to believe it had to have been Rauwaert. As Hyman pointed out, coded references to gay relations lurk in the Cornelis works that the Amsterdam merchant owned. In “Hercules and Achelous,” beneath the bull’s balls Cornelis placed a miniature scene of Hercules’s previous slaying of the serpentine Hydra. The pink tip of a snakelike tail, which has curled to form a circular opening (“a not-so-subtle reference to penetration,” Hyman said), extends toward the flushed buttocks of the hero. The engraving of the dragon that Cornelis and Goltzius made as a gift for Rauwaert “has the same circle, penetrated forcefully by its own leg,” Hyman noted. The homoeroticism in “The Fall of Lucifer” is far more blatant. “How is it that people can look at these paintings and not see this?” Hyman said. “There are tropes that cover it up. It’s ‘classical antiquity’ or it’s ‘the massacre of the innocents.’ It’s literally hiding in plain sight. You have to inhabit the space where you’d want to see it. Otherwise you can overlook it.”

Rauwaert died in March 1597. The change in Cornelis’s style in the mid-1590s to a more decorous, less vigorous mode is usually attributed to the influence of Goltzius, who returned to Haarlem in the winter of 1591-2 from a sojourn in Italy with a new and infectious enthusiasm for the paintings of Raphael, Correggio and Veronese. But what was the impact of the loss of Rauwaert as a patron? Impossible to know. Surely, though, for a few years, when the youthful Cornelis produced what would be the greatest paintings of his long career, he was in perfect sync with his chief patron. Rauwaert, whose widespread generosity toward artists was reported by van Mander, once gave Cornelis a present of a diadem of pearls. It may have been in appreciation for the engraving made in collaboration with Goltzius. But I can easily envision Rauwaert retreating to his library, opening a drawings cabinet fashioned from ebonized oak, lifting out an exquisite rendering of muscular man-boy love, and pondering how best to thank the artist who made it for him.

The “Anti-Photoshop” Artworks of Jess Cochrane

London-based artist Jess Cochrane’s powerful new collection examines femininity by subverting the symbols of perfectionism and aspiration.

Article by Rachael Fleury

Jess Cochrane, "Guilt Free", 2021-2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Canberra-born artist Jess Cochrane is known for her large-scale artworks, mostly of women, which feature her signature style of messy, gestural paint strokes over the top of her glossy, flawlessly perfected photographic portraits. The juxtaposition results in an unsettling and thought-provoking examination of societal perceptions of beauty. “All of my work questions what we’ve been conditioned to think of as beautiful and grotesque, especially in the context of femininity,” Cochrane explains. “That leads into an interrogation of our culture. The easy way to describe my art is anti-Photoshop,” she says.

A rising star of the art world, Cochrane moved to London in 2018 and was signed shortly afterwards by her New Compton Street gallery, Rhodes Contemporary Art. In 2019, she was given her first exhibition– a joint show featuring the works of the late modern British master, Francis Bacon. “I still can’t believe I had the opportunity,” she says. “It was my art school dream to be able to connect my work to an artist like that.”

Not only has London been good for Cochrane professionally (“It has definitely stolen my heart,” she says. “It’s the first place I’ve lived where I’ve felt like I can truly just embrace who I am and to shake off this weird self-consciousness I’ve always had, that living in Australia has sort of taught me”), London has also stolen Cochrane’s heart in a romantic sense. She is engaged to acclaimed English record producer Ben Ash, aka Two Inch Punch. The pair are expecting their first child mid-year.

Cochrane is currently back home in Canberra for her latest exhibition, “Mixed Signals”, at aMBUSH Gallery, Kambri. One of the works, “Canberra Milk”, features one of Cochrane’s childhood friends and her baby with a carton of Canberra Milk in the foreground. Cochrane says she initially intended the painting would delve into conversations about how society perceives women who are mothers versus those who are not, and what a confusing and polarising experience it can be for women to navigate. However, the experience became even more meaningful after Cochrane found out about her own pregnancy. “I have found it a really interesting work to create because I knew I wanted to paint it before I came home, but I didn’t realise I was going to be pregnant while I was painting it,” she says.

Like many other of Cochrane’s works, this piece speaks to her fascination with semiotics and the subversion of meaning in imagery coupled with her love of fashion and editorial photography. Her works seek to challenge the highly perfected images we are served on social media and in advertising campaigns and to encourage her viewers to consider what lies beneath the surface.

“If you think of the work that I make and the paint as this gestural, flowing form, it’s very similar to when you’re drawing from life. It’s very honest, and it’s a wonderful feeling to paint something that’s moving and realistic,” she says. “Whereas when you look at magazine images, they’re still very two-dimensional and often very Photoshopped. Everyone who grew up in the 90s and 2000s grew up with the ‘diet culture’, and it has been hugely impactful,” she continues. “I think those two elements will always live within my work. And the work will always keep evolving with those core memories that are personal to me.”

Jess Cochrane in front of her work. Photography by Meara Kallista Morse.
Jess Cochrane, "Canberra Milk", 2021-2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Who and or what have been the biggest influences on your artistic style?

“I always feel like I should probably say an artist or a genre of art but really, I feel that the human condition and my lived experience is very informative to my work. In the sense that a lot of the things that I feel, perhaps being self-conscious or having anxiety about your appearance, or the ways that you express yourself or disguise yourself in life, I think they’re all very relatable traits. And I think that’s my work resonates with the people that it does.

I’ve always been connected to art and liked learning about art. But at the same time, I’ve always just had this obsession and fascination with fashion, popular culture, and the beauty industry. Not so much because I’m some incredibly well-informed fashion guru by any means, but I find it interesting how people take fashion or popular culture things and then make them their own. I have a genuine fascination with character and how we all express ourselves.”

Where did the inspiration for this body of work come from, and what are your key messages?

“It is a natural progression from my last show, which looked at symbolism from 16th and 17th century artworks. These works often had hidden meanings that depicted something about women. For example, a carnation represented everlasting love and marriage. So, if you saw an artwork from the 17th century and you saw a carnation growing on the ground in the corner of that painting, it was a subliminal message that indicated the woman was either worthy of marrying or is married. I became fascinated by how we communicate visually and how so much can be said with these visual cues.

So, when I took that into a modern context, I painted a portrait of two of my friends who live together, and they have such a platonic and wonderful love for each other, and I painted them with a carnation. I have an interest in the subversion of symbolism. I find it fascinating to think that even in the modern age, if someone sees a portrait of two women embracing, they’re probably going to assume, ‘ooh, that’s sexy’, but there’s so much more to that than just a stereotypical view of two women embracing. So, to bring it into my latest body of work, I wanted to carry on with what felt natural to me and take it into a modern context of things that we consume or things we use to represent who we are as a person. Not so much looking a symbolism or semiotics from the past but of the current day.”

Edouard Manet, "Olympia", Oil on canvas, 1863. Courtesy of the Google Art Project.

Do you have a favourite artwork?

“When I learned about this painting at in theory class at art school, I had my mind blown, by a  painting called “Portrait of Olympia, Edward Manet, 1863″. It’s such a beautiful painting, and it says so much about the reclamation of power of women and femininity. So many portraits of the time were for the male gaze with elongated necks, parted lips, and very open facing towards the viewer, but if you look at her body language, she’s really telling the viewer, “Nah- ah”. This artwork has informed my work and my thought process quite heavily when I think about it. It’s such a gentle painting in a sense, but it just says so much, and I think it’s so beautiful. I visited the Musee D’Orsay in 2009 before the pandemic started, and I saw her in real life. It was the best moment.”

How has the pandemic affected your art?

 “I found 2020 particularly lonely. Being an artist, you often get a lot of your motivation and ideas from having creative conversations with other people. I was used to working in studios in a group setting, so there were always people around, and people would pop in, and you could have a chat about art. Or you could go and get a coffee with a friend and get involved with the culture of London. Then, like everyone else, I had to work from home, so it was an odd isolating experience, but it did allow me to cut the fat and focus on researching art history elements. Less procrastination and more reading!”

Do you procrastinate often?

“I am the absolute G.O.A.T of procrastination. Ask my mum. Honestly, I’m very good at it. But then I wonder if it’s there for a purpose. For example, sometimes I feel that I am procrastinating in my studio, but actually, it’s more that I am reflecting on what I’ve made or my next move, but then sometimes I just get carried away with going to the plant shop near my house and not thinking about work.”

What is the worst studio you’ve ever had?

“Oh my god. It was when I arrived in London in 2018. And I hadn’t decided if I wanted to stay, so I was there as a tourist. But I wanted to get a spot to paint in and try and hustle my way into opportunities, and I got this space in Peckham, which was basically like this hot desk workspace. It was really beautiful, but it was mostly filled with graphic designers and people who use laptops rather than do physical work making. It was a railway arch under Peckham Rail station. It was great in Summer, but as it got into Autumn, it was just so cold and dark. The plumbing in Peckham Rye station is so old, and there was a burst pipe at the station that travelled through all the railway arches, so anyone working in the railway arches got the stench of the sewerage.”

How do you know when a piece is finished? What does that process look like for you?

 “Usually, there’s a balance between the amount of photographic image you can see and the amount of paint. There’s no exact recipe; it’s more like a gut feeling than anything. It comes from doing it for quite a few years now and knowing what I’m after for every work. My biggest fear is to overcook a painting. So, you have got to step back and check all the time.”


Jess Cochrane’s exhibition “Mixed Signals” is on at aMBUSH Gallery from Feb 10 – March 20 2022.

An Artist Who Disavows the Possibility of Individual Agency

According to Agnieszka Kurant, everything we make — from the systems that oppress us to the inventions that transform us — is the result of a collective.

Article by Zoë Lescaze

Agnieszka Kurant, photographed in her Brooklyn home. The artist makes conceptually adventurous work that sits at the intersection of art and science. Portrait by Donavon Smallwood. Architectural design by Studio Christian Wassmann

The first brisk day in September found the conceptual artist Agnieszka Kurant perusing Thomas Edison’s lesser-known inventions in West Orange, N.J. Waffle irons, mimeographs, movie cameras and batteries lined a long, creaking hall of the laboratory turned museum, but it was a blond doll in a blue dress that drew Kurant’s gaze. The doll reached forward, porcelain lips parted, as if to touch the artist on the other side of the glass. Equipped with a miniature phonograph in place of a heart, the antique toy once emitted nursery rhymes. “Back then, to see and experience a talking doll must have been just completely uncanny and frightening,” says Kurant. It’s impossible, she says, for us to grasp how shocking the spectacle would have been for 19th-century consumers, now that the breakneck pace of technological discovery has numbed us to even the most startling innovations. But that is what Kurant seeks to conjure in her work: the eerie, uneasy wonder we used to feel toward progress that augured new ways of life.

Over the course of her career, Kurant, 43, has used electromagnetic fields to make stones float above their plinths and trained parrots to bark like dogs. She has released fake currency into circulation and printed heat-sensitive newspaper with disappearing stories based on a clairvoyant’s predictions. She has created maps of nonexistent islands, periodic tables of collective delusions and ersatz fossils using sped-up geological processes as a form of “fiction writing.” Works like these are calibrated to reset viewers’ perceptions of reality, to conjure experiences that, if only for a minute, make the rest of the world look suddenly suspect.

A piece from the 2015 installation of “A.A.I.,” featuring sculptures built by termite colonies. Courtesy of Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro. Photography by Sebastiano Pellion di Persano

Kurant is fascinated by moments in which new developments — the agricultural revolution, the invention of writing, the advent of electricity — transform humanity, rewiring both individual brains and the collective unconscious. We are, she believes, living in such a moment, and her works give expression to the heady, ominous potential of our current evolution. “She’s actually interested in how technology becomes magical to most of us,” says Mary Ceruti, the executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, who organized Kurant’s breakout exhibition. “She’s interrogating both how seductive the magical part of it is and how potentially sinister the invisible parts are.”

In an era when our digital selves are bought and sold, data mining has extended to our dreams, cellphones have practically become prostheses and algorithms determine whom we date, Kurant probes the uncertainties of the volatile present and unknowable future through projects that verge on scientific experiments. If technology is remaking individuals and society in ways we can barely articulate and certainly cannot predict, her projects examine the mechanisms driving these changes and where they may take us.

To create one of her best-known works, Kurant supplied termite colonies with unusual building materials: crystals, gold and neon sand. Over the course of several months, the insects produced a glittering suite of knobby spires in electric shades of blue, violet, yellow, orange and green. Kurant titled the 2014 piece “A.A.I. (Artificial Artificial Intelligence),” borrowing Jeff Bezos’ dubious term for the humans who perform micro tasks, often for pennies and given little context regarding the projects they are helping to realise, on his online labor platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk.

At its most basic level, the piece spotlighted the condition of workers more alienated from their product than Marx could have imagined, but it also spoke to the extent to which we have all become workers in a global digital factory, inadvertently generating profit for private corporations. The termites had no idea they were producing art for Kurant — they were just doing what termites do. Humans may be slightly less oblivious, but we continue cranking out intangible capital simply by logging on and going about our everyday lives.

“The End of Signature” (2021) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Collaboration with Katie Lewis, Divya Shanmugam, Jose Javier Gonzalez Ortiz and John Guttag. Photography courtesy of the artist.

What distinguishes the piece, and the Polish-born artist’s practice in general, is the lack of dystopian hand-wringing in the face of technological change. Although she is disturbed by digital surveillance, dehumanising forms of labor, environmental ruin and what she calls the assorted “horrors of late capitalism,” Kurant is equally excited by some of the developments she senses are underway — along with an indictment of free enterprise, “A.A.I.” was also something of a celebration of collective creativity, a model of how the art of the future might be created by entire societies, not individuals.

Kurant’s driving passion is collective intelligence: phenomena in which vast numbers of independent agents cooperate to produce unpredictable, novel and complex behaviours. Collective intelligence is present in bacterial colonies, slime molds, human cities, online communities and artificial intelligence systems — picture flocks of starlings wheeling through the air, thousands of male fireflies flashing in perfect unison to attract mates or social movements that coalesce on Twitter and erupt onto the streets. But could collective intelligence also become a form of artistic production? Culture, Kurant points out, was created collectively for thousands of years in the form of authorless myths and epics. The concept of the lone creative genius is a comparatively recent development — and a tenuous one at that.

“I’m trying in my work, in various ways, to talk about the fact that there’s no such thing as individual intelligence, just as there’s no such a thing as an individual self,” says Kurant. Billions of gut bacteria producing dopamine and other neurotransmitters impact our moods and thoughts and ultimately our behavior; computer algorithms shape our decision making, spending, research and love lives.

“So we’re hacked from the inside and from the outside,” she continues. “And basically, what is a human? It’s a multitude of agencies. It’s a polyphony. It’s an assemblage of all these various types of agencies — human, nonhuman, mineral, viral, bacterial and A.I.”

“The End of Signature” (2015) on the facade of the Guggenheim Museum. Photography by Kristopher McKay

Last spring, Kurant unveiled the first part of “The End of Signature” (2021-22), a colossal installation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Looping black lines composed of high-tech lights were designed to simulate the flow of ink scrawl across the facades of two new buildings, as though an invisible hand were repeatedly signing the walls. Kurant worked with computer scientists to create two collective signatures — one for the scientific and academic community at M.I.T. and another for Cambridge residents — by aggregating those of hundreds of individuals using artificial intelligence.

The work is a reminder that although we tend to credit individuals with key discoveries, scientific triumphs typically involve broad communities of collaborators, unseen technicians, rivals, peers, partners and patrons. Edison, for instance, may have patented the light bulb, but he was hardly the only person experimenting with electricity, as Kurant emphasised during our visit to his former laboratory. She is encouraged by the fact that Nobel Prizes are increasingly being awarded to teams, or even to multiple teams, instead of to single recipients.

Textbooks, she believes, should be revised so students understand that discovery doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “I think that basically not only the history of culture but the history of humanity should be rewritten from this perspective,” she says.

A work from the 2011 piece “Maps of Phantom Islands,” which depicts nonexistent territories. Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of the artist.

Fittingly, most of the projects Kurant undertakes are collaborations. She has worked with linguists, sociologists, neuroscientists, epigeneticists, economists, anthropologists and philosophers. This fall, Kurant won a grant from the Artists and Machine Intelligence department of Google to work with its computer scientists on a new project.

She plans to produce a film, in which every detail will be determined by different forms of collective intelligence — among them artificial society simulations used by sociologists to predict riots, ethnic conflicts, the growth of cults and new religions, as well as the spread of memes and viruses. Although Kurant signs her works as an individual, she sees her role as that of an impresario. “I more or less just create a system that can produce something, or a program,” she says. “I create conditions for things to emerge.”

Kurant possesses an encyclopedic mind and a laser focus. When she’s really on a roll, she rarely pauses for breath. Ideas gallop forth as her small, expressive fingers pinch, squeeze and pull the air as though it were taffy. The average sentence unpacks itself like a set of Russian dolls, revealing others nested inside. During another recent excursion with the artist to see the collection of vintage automatons (the ancestors of modern robots) at New Jersey’s Morris Museum, our driver missed the exit and made the bold, if questionable, decision to reverse on I-78 instead of getting off at the next one. Tractor-trailers veered around us, honking wildly. Cars went careening past as we crawled backward against traffic.

Eventually, deep in her discussion of the theories of the French philosopher Catherine Malabou, Kurant asked what was going on. I explained, clenching the leather seat. She cast a glance out the window at the would-be exit and murmured something about this all being “a little dangerous.” And then she picked up right where she had left off.

“Collective Rorschach Test” (2019). Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro.

Kurant’s rhetorical style is arguably an extension of her views on authorship. The verbal deluge of interdisciplinary references, research and ideas serves to disintegrate her own identity within a sea of information and other thinkers.

“She wants to say that there is no she,” says the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “but to say that, she has to become a ghost.” The irony, of course, is that the constellation of wide-ranging figures Kurant brings together could never exist without her.

Kurant’s interest in science and technology were hard-wired at an early age. Her parents were both electrical engineers, and together they founded a company producing a line of heat-resistant markers to label panels of electric, telecommunication, pneumatic and hydraulic cables. An only child, Kurant grew up playing with crayon-colored bits of plastic in their at-home workshop in Lodz, a former manufacturing city in central Poland. Real toys were scarce.

“Poland in the ’80s was an extremely gray country,” says Kurant. Communism was breaking down, and even basic goods were in short supply. “But this was really good for imagination because we would just develop ideas and invent language games,” she says. When Western merchandise trickled in through back channels, children would trade the vibrant candy wrappers and barter the broken nibs of colored pencils. “Kids would turn anything into a currency because there was a shortage of everything,” she says. These ad hoc systems of value and collective fictions have remained for her a constant muse.

“Placebo” (2018). Collaboration with Krzysztof Pyda. Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

When Kurant was a teenager, relatives visiting from Brazil took her to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. It was only there, surrounded by broken headstones defaced with swastikas, that she learned her mother’s family was Jewish. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust hidden as workers in a pots and pans factory. Kurant, who was raised Catholic, discovered that she only knew them by the pseudonyms they had adopted during the war. Her dual heritage has fueled her attraction to hybrid objects and sharpened her radar for the missing parts of history.

Kurant studied philosophy and art history at the University of Lodz and, at the urging of her more practical parents, also studied photography at the Lodz Film School. She had no ambitions to become an artist — she thought she might write essays or criticism; her interest in bringing together multidisciplinary ideas prompted her to apply to the creative curating program at Goldsmiths College in London, where she moved in 2002.

There, she had the opportunity to meet with a number of curators, including perhaps the world’s only celebrity curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist. The artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, he is known for the broad range of people — from Rem Koolhaas to Yoko Ono — who populate his professional and personal lives, and included Kurant’s work in his latest book.

“The thing I remember most from that meeting is that incredible connection to knowledge,” says Obrist, who locates Kurant in an artistic lineage descended from Nam June Paik, a new-media pioneer who believed that art can liberate or activate the poetic dimensions of technology.

“Conversions #2” (2020). Engineering: Nick Wallace. Programming: Agnes Cameron. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photography by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

As a young curator, Kurant dreamed up experimental projects: an exhibition inside a film, an exhibition as parasite that would take over its host museum. Her ideas prompted some discerning onlookers to suggest she might be an artist herself, but Kurant demurred. “I didn’t think I had anything in me original to say that other people would like to see,” she says.

That changed in 2004 when Kurant came to New York for the International Studio & Curatorial Program, a Brooklyn-based residency for artists and curators. One day, when the artists opened their studios to the public, Kurant did the same. Inside, she had created a mercurial exhibition of artworks reproduced in special pigment that would only appear in UV light. The art dealer Yvon Lambert invited her to restage the exhibition in his New York gallery — not as a curatorial gesture but as an artwork in its own right. The installation went up in 2005, melting away and reappearing with the sun.

Eventually, no longer able to support herself, Kurant moved back to Poland. She stayed there for the next five years, trying to figure out who she was as an artist. She had few studio visits and made a living teaching French and English. By the time her mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, the future seemed inexorably bleak. Then, Kurant’s friend the architect Aleksandra Wasilkowska suggested that they submit a proposal for the Polish Pavilion of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. Together, they won the competition and transformed the pavilion into a charged space for physical daring and psychological release. A scaffold composed of bird cages loomed above a sea of fog; visitors were invited to jump off, into the void. There was a mattress just below the swirling mist and the drop was only a few feet down, but it was impossible to know that from above.

The piece offered what Kurant calls a “cathartic, purifying” leap into the unknown — people left the pavilion laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time — but it also testified to a collective need for risk. “Where does elimination of risk lead us? Nowhere good,” says Kurant, who continues to produce wry critiques of risk management in her work. To err is not only human but essential to innovation, she argues, pointing out that we owe aspirin, X-rays and Viagra to accidents. Without the aberrations of mutant genes, evolution could not occur and our species would not even exist.

A 2011 residency at Location One, a now-defunct New York arts nonprofit, brought Kurant back to the United States and into contact with some of her first major supporters: the arts patron Thea Westreich Wagner, Guggenheim curators who eventually invited Kurant to install an early version of “The End of Signature” on the white spiral facade of the museum and, later, Ceruti, who curated her first solo show at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, in 2013.

For that show’s focal point, the film “Cutaways,” Kurant imagined encounters between characters who had been cut from the final versions of famous films, persuading Charlotte Rampling, Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller to reprise characters that were cut from “Vanishing Point” (1971), “The Conversation” (1974) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994), respectively. The short script, which Kurant co-wrote with her husband, the artist and writer John Menick, has the three meet through a series of coincidences and converse in an auto parts junkyard. (Walter Murch, the film editor for “The Conversation,” was a close collaborator on the project.) Ceruti remembers being stunned by the intellect, charisma and “outright determination” with which Kurant persuaded these cinema heavyweights to participate in the film (which was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year), as well as by the artist’s grander objectives. “She has ambitions to make major contributions to the way we understand ourselves, and to how we categorise and organise knowledge,” says Ceruti.

An image from “Emergency Exit” (2010), Kurant’s installation, made with Aleksandra Wasilkowska, for the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw. Photography by Maciej Landsberg.

Kurant’s practice is an ode to instability. Materials shift; categories bleed together; hybrid objects metamorphose in alchemical limbo. The artist’s medium changes with nearly every project, but the one constant uniting her most recent creations is their fugitive nature.

Crowd Crystal,” the artist’s current solo exhibition at the Italian museum Castello di Rivoli in Turin, includes new examples of Kurant’s “Conversions” paintings, begun in 2019, which have no fixed state or appearance. Clouds of blue pulse within seas of acid green, only to be cannibalized by swells of burnt orange. To create the paintings, the artist worked with various scientists to develop pigment made of liquid crystals — substances that morph and realign themselves in response to thermal and electrical signals — and to design an algorithm that mines emotional data from members of protest movements on Twitter.

The program translates expressions of rage, joy, sadness and grief into heat signals, and the paintings transform in direct response to the ebbs and tides of social movements. The works are therefore effectively authorless, and their hallucinatory swirls of colour impossible to predict.

Although the “Conversions” sometimes resemble holograms or digital screens in reproduction, their physical reality is far more complex — they have granular, textured surfaces and seem to defy everything one knows about how matter behaves. What’s it like to stand in front of one? In a word, “weird,” says Christov-Bakargiev, who compared the experience to being in a dream rife with contradictions. The indeterminacy of the paintings extends to Kurant’s practice as a whole.

“I think the essence of her work is that there is no essence,” says Christov-Bakargiev, who notes that Kurant’s solo exhibitions often resemble group shows with multiple artists. “There’s no stability in her oeuvre so that you can say, ‘This is what she does, this is who she is.’” Some artists define their legacies through sustained inquiry into a single medium or subject, but the strength of Kurant’s practice may be her lack of focus.

Charlotte Rampling in Kurant’s 2013 film, “Cutaways,” in which the actress appears as her character that was cut from the theatrical version of Richard C. Sarafian’s 1971 film “Vanishing Point. Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro

Another new piece in the exhibition, “Adjacent Possible,” consists of pseudoprehistoric rock paintings inspired by two recent paleontological revelations. Scientists studying extraordinarily vivid examples of ancient cave art in Australia discovered that the original pigments used by early humans contained bacteria and fungi that have been preserving them ever since, keeping the paintings fresh for thousands of years by consuming the pigments and replacing them.

“I really love this idea of pigments that are perpetually evolving and [that] we kind of needed these nonhumans, the bacteria and the fungi, to understand something about humanity,” says Kurant.

The project also takes the geometric symbols found on cavern walls across Europe — painted zigzags, spirals and clusters of dots — as a point of departure. For decades, paleontologists have examined the images of wild beasts, such as the bulls that parade across the famous Chauvet Cave in France, ignoring the abstract markings that often outnumber the animals.

Working with Genevieve von Petzinger, the first paleontologist to focus on these symbols, which also include ladders, hatches and curves, and the computational social scientists F. LeRon Shults and Justin E. Lane, Kurant has used A.I. to create a suite of similar symbols and painted them on stone using bacterial prehistoric pigment. Kurant is fascinated by the way in which these geometric elements have been overlooked, their dismissal a case study encapsulating the biases of all sorts of scientific disciplines. It’s important, she says, to remember how much evidence is “just ignored.”

History, Kurant often observes in her work, is as mutable as the pictures created by liquid crystals and fraught with blind spots. To write is to edit, and any account represents a slender facet of the staggering, unwieldy whole. Writing about anyone else, I might not have mentioned the following for the sake of a tidy narrative, but I make this confession in light of Kurant’s love of cutaway pieces: Our successful visit to Edison’s former laboratory in West Orange was a second attempt. The first time we tried to go, Kurant and I punched Edison’s name into a smartphone and allowed ourselves to be squired to the first appropriate-sounding place the ride-hailing app suggested.

We ended up at the Thomas Edison Center in Menlo Park. Edison did once have a laboratory there, but it had burned down over 100 years ago. And so we found ourselves stranded at a bizarre memorial on a sweltering summer day, staring up at an absurdly tall, inescapably phallic tower capped with a giant light bulb.

“Well, we can look at the plaques,” Kurant said brightly. We read a few brass panels extolling Edison’s singular genius in purple prose. Edison, though, described himself and his work in terms that may sound familiar: “I am not an individual — I am an aggregate of cells, as, for instance, New York City is an aggregate of individuals,” he once said.

Kurant is not a fan of Edison; she stresses that her interest in him has more to do with the social transformation he helped bring about than the man himself. Still, I can’t help but think they would have gotten along.