Nöle Giulini

sculpture / objekte

Since the late 1980s, Nöle Giulini’s intensely material practice has focused on the discarded. In some ways this is a reflection on survival, or, more accurately understood — on surviving —of an enduring and at times willfully fraught effort to keep things alive. The word, ‘survival,’ is in itself unsatisfactory, conjuring up a form of forceful holding, its etymology literally meaning “to outlive”. Yet, in the context of Giulini’s work, it’s important to consider the term and to insist on the possibility of a protective ethos, of conserving in a spirit antithetical to the conservative—a practice of attending to the discarded beyond its assigned function or designation. Understood in the context of Giulini’s practice, survival can be perceived as a grappling with the difficulty of inhabiting the world in an ambivalent mode, of bringing into existence a counter-weight of assertion and doubt that questions such a desensitized paradigm. To consider protection beyond the sphere of self-care and the safeguarding of the tangible involves risk, one which I think—from a number of remarkable conversations with Giulini—she is acutely aware of and cannot quite leave alone.

Felt and lint, kombucha, cotton, trash – the materials that Giulini uses tend to be organic, changeable. They are often re-used as a part of her work, invited to take on a new form that is in dialogue with their own inwardness. The process of channeling the conditions and spirit of a material, opens up to the possibility of a third mind, of a collaborative space if you may, one situated between intention and material. The approach is reminiscent of the German word Haltung which on one hand speaks of an attitude, but also how you hold yourself. It implies a position which actively shapes and produces perception. In the words of Giulini, “simply manipulating material seems to be a very dualistic way of being in the world—the paradigm that got us into trouble to begin with…just to take and use stuff for our own satisfaction and then throw it away.“ In the practice there is an attuned sensibility of not reproducing the structures it critiques. The Haltung itself permeates and generates decisions, from the choice of materials to how they are treated—a continuation of effort and consideration that extends to the afterlife of the work.

In her home and studio in Port Townsend, Giulini has large-scale, holding structures that are futuristic in form (remarkable sculptures in their own right). In these incubators sheets of Kombucha grow and are formed. This fungi has an undeniable similarity to human bodies; however, it is unclear, puzzling, how they live. There is no up or down, no point of entrance or exit, or central proposition of a consciousness. Although they are undeniably alive, it’s hard to tell where or how. After attending to these forms, at times for years, Giulini works with the sheets as a membrane or skin. It is sown in its wet state, and then when drying it contracts and settles into a new form. In some cases, such as the Boschlings, Giulini’s sculptures are intimate in scale—archaic beings, miniature monsters full of spirit—while others are large, human-scale or slightly towering. In their dry state, the forms are held together with delicate stitches, but there remains a dormant, if not anticipatory quality. If soaked or fed with sweetened black tea, they would transform and shift again. These beings are in a sense her collaborators. She tends to them, feeds and keeps them, in a perpetual state of care and obligation. In return, they also participate inand shape themselves. There is a dependency and stake between the artist and material that is based in communion.

In other cases, Giulini is more preoccupied with the absence in material. This is the case in a series of works where she reflects on the hole as a material negative. This negative space contains a generative and communicative will. In the series Holy Socks, Giulini collected old socks, placing ads in newspapers, sending requests, telling family and friends, and installing collection baskets in various locations. The socks are shaped by having been in contact with skin, between the foot and shoe, allowing a certain embodied and immaterial presence to be absorbed or rubbed off. Reflecting on her sculpture Pieta, a remarkable trio where two socks appear to be holding and helping a third, Giulini observed “that the holey will be helping the holey.” What this gestural triangle, which moves me to wonder, appears to do, is to propose a model of care where its fragility is acted out. In this notion, the pained and incomplete will themselves to become the helper, adding a level of dignity and knowledge to this space of suffering. The hole becomes a quality, a space of depth. The title, “Holy Socks” loops from one meaning to another: it is “holey,” as in having holes; “holy, ” as in sacred; and ” wholly,” in the sense of being complete. Reflecting on the work, Giulini remarks that the holes in these socks symbolize the idea of individual openness, the willingness to merge into the negative space: “As we incline towards the hole we lean into nothing, which—defined by something—allows a glimpse of mystery backlit by spirit.” I’m intrigued by how a word like ‘spirit’ enters here as a belief in art as having the potential to carve out a space, existing somewhere at the intersection between the desire to communicate, and the need to hide. That double-bind. Many of the questions of this investigation are rooted in empathy, understood as a process that by necessity requires imagination. What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?

To attempt to move beyond a logic of adaptation on one side and domination on the other has a price. Radical indeterminacy is dangerous because of its ability to fundamentally question the priorities of systems that render themselves inevitable. Giulini’s attitude reminds me of another conversation partner who has been intellectually rearranging, the poet Fanny Howe. There is a shared interest in the submerged one, human or non-human. In her work, Howe loops back to “a kind of person who is at the mercy of the world, who can’t quite figure out how to manage,” saying:

“This world is made for might and ownership. I think you recognise in childhood the strategies that are necessary for being alone or adapting to surroundings, whatever they are. One example being how you go through school, from elementary, to middle, to high, to college, to a job, and you have to be somehow able to figure all that out, the timing and what you have to do to get to the next step. All this takes an understanding of the world based on ancient customs of domination and territory. There are people wandering around who don’t get it, and that includes many who are very intelligent”. (1)

In practices that so carefully consider intention and ethics in a life-work, it has also been necessary to withdraw. The show at 15 Orient is Giulini’s first exhibition in New York in 28 years, her last being Marcia Trucker’s large-scale group exhibition, A Labor of Love, at the New Museum in 1996. For Giulini, pulling away is not merely a reflection on integrity as it also speaks to something more troubling. It speaks to the forms of neglect that have perpetually forced these artists into an involuntary act of non-participation. It speaks to the institutions that have forced these artists into a retreat as a means of survival and necessity to keep their practices alive. It is important to note that due to these historical conditions, Howe and Giulini’s practices, like generations of women before and among them, have been forced into such circumstances.

I like the strangeness of Giulini’s work. Her sculptures made from the spine of a chestnut tree leaf—the works referred to as Reise nach Kastanien (Travels to the Land of Chestnut)—appear as drawings in space. These spatial drawings—meticulous in their folding and curving, as expansions of a system—become a proposition that is interconnected, one that is both exuberant and pained in the rhizomatic. Reminiscent in their form of the Rorschach test, they are also a reminder of a certain tendency and history of pathologizing the imaginary. For me these works are a reminder that the work of Giulini exists as a cosmos. I use this word rather reluctantly and yet, the notion of a world that also needs to establish and maintain its own interiority and logic to exist, appears central to the concentration, uniqueness and energy of her work. I also think the notion of cosmos is appropriate because it suggests a certain willful creation and insistence on the conditions needed to keep it open, yet protected. The fact that this show is happening feels important. It feels important, because the work is remarkable. Moreover, it also gives me hope, because I think we are in a moment that is ready to receive Giulini’s practice. There is something in the way the sculptures come into being and inhabit the world. They appear to be acutely aware of the dangers of extinction, of a logic of being discarded and unwanted when not delivering, but there is also a sense, one might understand as wonder. In the opening lines of Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, a key sentence to the book is given to the reader,“keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” (2) There are many hells that we could keep our minds in: of the uncertainty of the future, of the sense that structures attempting to hold us cannot be allowed to continue, that a logic is out of joint. All these things are there in the work of Giulini. But there is also a certain sense of welcoming, of sitting in the problem, knowing that the complexity of being at once part of the world and being unable to accept its terms, is a state that can be inhabited. In the words of Fanny Howe, “We were wrecks but out relationship was complete / Sufficient”. (3) There is a great level of beauty in that limping logic between precision and contagion, of the off-pointness.

(1) “Interview with Fanny Howe,” White Review by Fiona Alison Duncan, Issue No. 29 October 2020
(2) Gillian Rose, Love’s Works, (Vintage, 1997)
(3) Fanny Howe, Saving History from Radical Love, (Nightboat Books, 2006)