Nina Laaf

What You See Is Not Always What It Seems To Be

by Didem Yazıcı

Opening their own space, Nina Laaf’s sculptures and installations are often a series of interventions of space. If you walk by and look at Laaf’s sculptural works from only one perspective, you will probably miss all the fun and conceptual backgrounds that may lead to different directions and thoughts. Walking around the piece, getting closer or further and looking at them from different perspectives are crucial to experience her art to the fullest. Whether describing space or structuring the space, her works are mostly site-specific. Nina Laaf’s artistic methodologies are closely tied to architectural thinking and considerations. However, while being interventions in the space, they have their individual autonomies at the same time. Their artistic logic can be adapted to different situations and spaces. First and foremost, she is observing or thinking with the exhibition space, and asking what the space speaks to her. Undoubtedly, no sculpture or installation can exist without its breath touching the space, and Laaf’s artworks are studying this relationship very carefully. As if they are living a double life, most of Nina Laaf’s works seem to have dual sides to them. This approach can be seen in die wilde Fleurie (2022) (the wild Fleurie), which was shown as part of the exhibition Retour de Paris at the Botanical Gardens in Karlsruhe following an artist residency in Paris. The inner and outer perspectives are meticulously studied and presented in two different dimensions: the floor part that roots the piece and the main body part that shapes the work. Playfully, the steel material is curled like paper. Through various holes that appear accidental and come in different shapes and sizes, the audience is invited to look at the world in fragments. Similarly, the grass can grow through these shapes. At the end, don’t we all look at the world and experience life and see realities from the perspectives that are tailored individually?

die wilde FleurieAusstellungsansicht Retour de Paris, Botanischer Garten Karlsruhe

In her artist statement Laaf writes: “I am interested in systems, their functions, connections and orders within – both human and industrial. By exploring different materials, I playfully engage with the material properties, staging and questioning their nature and partly reversing them. I take up craft references and techniques and place them in a new context. This creates space for juxtapositions and irritations, so what you see is not always what it seems to be – a kind of role reversal between volume, lightness, stability and surface.” Although it is hard to translate a visual and spatial experience into words, this formulation clearly expresses the core of her work. What caught my attention and inspired me for the title of my text was: “what you see is not always what it seems to be.” Calling for a sceptical approach, this expression makes you doubt the reality which you believe. This is exactly what her works are doing, they remind us that we live in a plural world with multi dimensions, stories and perspectives and that being sceptical might open up new worlds. It reminds us of the impossibility of one single truth and perspective.

I had a chance to visit Laaf’s studio in Karlsruhe while she was preparing her solo exhibition vom Flüstern und Formen (from whispering and shapes) for the Kunstverein Wilhelmshöhe in Ettlingen. The first thing that struck me the most about her artworks is that they do not seem to say the final word about themselves. Their visual language may communicate a defined space, but they don’t claim to be the only truth. In other words, they don’t face the audience and say: “Here is what I think, that’s exactly what I am made of and this is where I begin and end”. They neither pretend nor claim to know everything about themselves and their surroundings. On the contrary, there is a poetic openness, space for interpretation, transparency and perhaps some little hints. Not necessarily conflicting rather embodying opposite characteristics and possess sharp and soft edges. They exist through small gestures and details, and by this, in fact, they challenge ‘static structures’ and create fluid forms.

nicht mein letztes Hemd, aber mein LiebstesDetailansicht Bronze

nicht mein letztes Hemd, aber mein Liebstes (2022) (not my last shirt, but my dearest) also has a dual side: a seriousness and a lightness at the same time. The serious static steel sculpture creates a corner, seems to embrace, cover, or protect a shirt. Yet, this is not just any shirt. The title of the piece shows full respect and love for the shirt, by honouring it as the favourite shirt. However, it is unclear if it is lost, forgotten or got old. As the piece was installed in a public park, it could be read as if it is from homeless people or left over from a dramatic scene or it could tell a tragic story as well. It is left open.

nicht mein letztes Hemd, aber mein LiebstesAusstellungsansicht scultura 22, Altes Dampfbad Baden-Baden

When faced with the works of Laaf, you are asked to pay attention to little things and what you will see will be based on where you are standing. When you look at the upward facing edge of the sculpture Paravent (2023) you will notice a small detail, which resembles airplane wings or bird wings, that almost lifts the entire sculpture. Through fine-tuning and small gestures, her practice is able to create aesthetically stunning pieces. Therefore, in order to experience Nina Laaf’s exhibitions, I suggest everyone spending quality time and enjoy such details, as paying attention (to such small details) will allow you to appreciate her visual language even more.

Alongside such details, perspective plays an important role in Laaf’s work as well. Depending on perspective, you may see what has been told, and not yet told. In this sense, the one could argue that the concepts of the presence and absence appear to be a crucial aspect of this exhibition. The cut-out shapes of the sculptures nacre (2021) and Paravent (2023) have both references, inner and outer shape, what is


there and not there, presence and absence. This duality of contrasts join, breaking the element of certainty. In this sense, the exhibition is almost like a tender dance of formal contrasts. The chain installation, gravity – Vermessung des Raums (2023) (gravity – measuring the space), which connects the ceiling and the floor, is also made up of contrasts.

The round and soft form is connected with the sharp edge, and that’s how they can exist and find togetherness. The shapes could be a drop or a tear. Although each connected chain is different, they exist closely together. The exhibition is full of playful acts. These acts are not necessarily child-like, but rather self-confident experiments, which find their own spaces, forms and materials in a way that shines in the artistic cosmos of Nina Laaf.

nacreAusstellungsansicht nacre, Cité des Arts Paris
nacreAusstellungsansicht nacre, Cité des Arts Paris

The curtain installation Wie durchlässig kann eine Form sein? (2023) (How permeable can a shape be?) for example, may at first sight seem to be a blurry and unnoticeable element in the entire exhibition, but it contains a lot of insight into the artistic methodologies of Nina Laaf. This beautiful curtain installation surrounds the room partially, its round form softening the edges of the space. Its transparency refers to the absence and presence aspect, and it also offers two different filters, from inside and outside, allowing different perspectives to view the nacre sculptures. Although it is an installation that exists perfectly on its own without the other works in the show, the conversation between the works is remarkable. It is almost as if the installation is embracing, framing or accompanying the sculptures.

Wie durchlässig kann eine Form sein?

As a site-specific exhibition, her recent solo-show at the Kunstverein Wilhelmshöhe functioned as a singular work of art. Last but not least, the exhibition’s characteristic was set by the room installation ohne Titel – blauer Raum (2023) (untitled – blue room). As a statement in the space, the installation has two directions, upwards and downwards. It is no coincidence that the material is woven rug, inviting the audience to step on it and be part of it. If you don’t dare to step on it, or even sit on it, you may miss the chance to experience it fully – as it is not only meant to be viewed, but touched.

ohne Titel – blauer Raumblauer Teppich, Edelstahl, 2023

Through tension, movement and transparency, Laaf creates shapes, layers, inner and outer spaces and confronts the audience with their comfort-zone, suggesting the unthinkable. I am curious to follow her artistic practice to see more proposals for multiples realities and perspectives for looking at the world. Inspired by her artistic approach, I would like to end my text with a quote by Masashi Kishimoto: “People live their lives bound by what they accept as correct and true. That’s how they define reality. But what does it mean to be ‘correct’ or ‘true’? Merely vague concepts … Their reality may all be a mirage. Can we consider them to simply be living in their own world, shaped by their beliefs?”

By Didem Yazıcı
Director, Yapı Kredi Galerie, Istanbul
Curator, Karlsruhe