The Belgian fashion designer turned artist and A Magazine N°1 curator posits the discipline of self-portraiture to be as open-ended as the man, the myth and the legend himself, in the series Self-Portraits on display at Eenwerk Gallery, Amsterdam.
Jackie Nickerson’s ‘Field Test’ (2020)
A conversation with Dan Thawley
A Magazine Curated By presents an exclusive first look at Field Test, a new photographic study by the American-born British artist Jackie Nickerson. Published by Kerber Verlag, the 100-page tome contains an essay by Aidan Dunne. The below is an excerpt from the book’s introduction, a Q&A with A Magazine Curated By Editor in Chief Dan Thawley.
Dan Thawley: The concept of a ‘Field Test’ has roots in medical science and particularly the testing for loss of vision. It could also relate to products being used for the first time in the environments they are destined for. With this in mind, what does the title Field Test mean to you?
Jackie Nickerson: For me, it’s a medical reference — the eye test that involves looking into a large white dome where there are random flashing lights of various intensity and size. It’s a test to check how much peripheral vision a person may have or have lost. The loss of vision is usually imperceptible on a-day to-day basis, so a field test is a scientific way of measuring how much we actually see as opposed to how much we think we see.
DT: This work sees a more active intervention in the spaces and the bodies of your subjects than in most of your work. With that comes a general feeling of disconnect and isolation. What is your personal relationship with isolation? Do these images reflect this, or are they a statement on the experience of others?
JN: Yes, it’s personal — but it’s also a universal theme: a creeping sense of isolation. It addresses new kinds of stress and commodification, the environment, speciesism, the waste, the pressure, the mandatory compliance, the lack of privacy. I guess you could say it has a universal identity, like a collective smothering. It’s a kind of psychological snapshot or chronicle of a whole generation of our consciousness.
DT: Does the identity of your subjects hold any consequence in these images, seeing as their defining features are predominantly concealed? Were they chosen as blank canvases, or with diversity in mind?
JN: They are very specific blank canvases. The sitters were chosen because of their proportions, scale, and height. It was a rather brutal casting process: How long can someone stand still? Can they shut down and not project or perform? Are they claustrophobic? Can they relate to what I am creating? Do they have patience? Tolerance? I asked people who I knew.
DT: Whilst your work has often incorporated a curiosity in synthetic and natural materiality, Field Test sees a more implicit conversation with the human form and materials as barriers, masks, insulation and protection. How did you arrive at this conceit?
JN: I wanted to control the content, so I researched and chose all the components before putting them together. That meant stepping out of the actual world and into a ‘made’ world. I think part of that decision was about the photographic process — awareness of control, both of the sitter and the artist. But it also becomes a question of how much control we relinquish on a day-to-day basis, about how technology and commerce trains us to think in a certain way. Like a cause and effect of what we choose to have around us. Materiality plays a part here — it speaks of how what we use on a daily basis will have an effect on our psyche and even on our physical lives. So in a way, it’s a natural progression from my book Terrain. I like to question how we choose to live, and what long-term effects those choices may have on us. It seems like nature works in an incremental way, so if you’re not paying attention, things will have changed irrevocably and there will be nothing you can do about it. The choice of materials is very important.
DT: The materials implicated in your images span a wide variety of agricultural, medical, and industrial usages — they evoke the codes of safety equipment and uniforms, transport and waste disposal, food packaging and even the studio tools of photography itself. What was the process involved with selecting these intermediary materials – functional mediums that serve mostly as protective and insulating barriers — and applying them to the human body as decoration and artifice?
JN: I am obsessed by certain materials. Plastic is one of them. I like to take mundane, everyday domestic items and put them in a different context. It’s not for decoration — I’m asking questions. I’ve always been obsessed by supermarkets. The cheaper the better. I remember when I was about 14 years old and taking the labels off all the food tins in the house and putting them on my bedroom wall. I’ve no idea why. I just thought they were interesting.I began thinking about this series in 2014 when Time magazine sent me to Liberia to cover the Ebola care workers. The trip made me think about a lot of things. For this, specifically, it made me think about distancing, the duality of plastics and about human interaction. Functionality in a crisis. I saw how valuable plastics were, how the barrier PPE created was lifesaving and enabled doctors, nurses and carers to work. I will always remember one of the doctors disrobing after leaving the Ebola ward. It was a careful ritual. A meticulous choreography of purpose and safety. First this comes off, then we roll this piece over this piece, then we pull from the top down etc. Each person did their own clean up. It reduced the risk. And I looked at the PPE, that fragile yet essential thin layer of plastic that enabled health care workers to do their job. I witnessed how communal effort can unite but disease can isolate. The lack of facial recognition, the inability of family members to visit, the isolation wards, the loneliness in death. Learning to live in another man-made, made for purpose world. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, this has become more universal than ever.
DT: Less portraiture and more sculpture, the human body becomes a canvas for these other objects and layers that cover and distort the people. For you, what is the importance of revealing human features as opposed to suggesting them, exposing them or distorting them?
JN: I suppose there’s a difference between identity and character. Do we need to see the features of a person in order to identify them? Or is a suggestion enough? I think on a very basic level our brains are programmed to try to work out if we are looking at a person or an inanimate object. Do retailers, online shops, insurance companies, politicians, corporations and social media companies think of us as individuals — as their fellow citizens? Or do they think of us as consumers? As commodities? That’s a question. Capitalism works because the bottom line is about profit and loss and individuals are irrelevant. Data research attempts to use all of us to target how we all spend our money. So, how are we dealing with the new reality of being invisible? Now we are beginning to understand how things work and how we are being commodified through systems of big data and the invisible consumer.
Discover more of Nickerson’s work inside:
The Flemish artist and A Magazine N°3 Curated By Haider Ackermann contributor muses on the seminal body of work featured in a new monographic exhibition, currently on show at MO.CO. Montpellier Contemporain.
An exclusive portfolio of behind-the-scenes images from the SS2023 menswear collections in Paris, photographed by Adam Katz Sinding.