Episode 10: Nabilah Nordin


What does a sculpture that pulses, oozes, gushes, and melts look like? Needless to say, what a work is made of influences the sort of impression we have of it. A material-driven process is often a labyrinthian maze — a rabbit hole to burrow down into. Nabilah Nordin’s works can be described as a smorgasbord for the senses. Her sculptures are luscious landscapes, gloopy messes, and spacious caverns all at once.

We wrap up the first season of Mushroomed with a conversation with Nabilah Nordin. We speak to Nabilah about her approach to experimentation and failure, and the place of language within her practice.
Originally Aired: 4 October 2021




Transcript

Object Lessons Space
What does a sculpture that pulses, oozes, gushes, and melts look like? It might be made of something as malleable as resin, or incorporate elements of raw spontaneity, such as papier-mâché. Needless to say, what a work is made of influences the sort of impression we have of it.

A material-driven process is often a labyrinthian maze — a rabbit hole to burrow down into. Artists often speak about materials having a life of their own. A sheet of canvas could sing to be stretched out, mud might resist the hand, and metal may perhaps whisper to be curved or looped around. Leaning into all of these murmurings, one arrives at a cacophonous riot of texture, colour, sound, composition, and weight.

Nabilah Nordin’s works can be described as a smorgasbord for the senses. Her sculptures are luscious landscapes, gloopy messes, and spacious caverns all at once.
Nabilah Nordin
It always feels like an experimental lab where things are constantly failing me, but they're also working in some really weird or strange kind of way. I'm always trying to figure out how to use materials in a new way, even when it's your store-bought materials like glue, or fillers, or certain types of wood adhesive glues. How can I paint with them, or sculpt with them, and create a type of function that is not what it's designed for?
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to the last episode of Mushroomed in this season. Mushroomed is a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast.

When I look at Nabilah's sculptures, I see the visual embodiment of words such as “ooze” and “pulse”. A series of works she presented recently at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne is titled Birdbrush and Other Essentials. Nabilah's sculptres completely take over the gallery space, leaving no corner empty. Cloths and rags are strewn on the floor. Bulging, life-sized, tubular forms lean against the wall, are propped up against one another, or stand in the midst of everything. Although the presentation is primarily floor bound, the walls and ceilings have not escaped the artist's attention. Smaller pieces extend from the wall, including a slender, lime green pipe. The work is extravagant but full of contradictions. It resists the containment of the white cube gallery space. At the same time, it sits within it with cool assuredness and confidence.

This experimentation and embracing, almost, of mess and clutter is something that has become somewhat a signature of Nabilah’s. Having said that, Nabilah isn’t settling into a rhythm that’s too comfortable. She constantly pushes the boundaries of what sculpture can or should be. A series of works presented at Missing Persons in Melbourne exemplifies this. Cheekily titled Please Do Not Eat The Sculptures, audiences were invited to ignore the work’s plea. Audiences were encouraged to literally eat off the sculptures as meringues, breadsticks and cheeses were dangled precariously and balanced on receptacles incorporated into the sculptures.

We wrap up the first season of Mushroomed with a conversation with Nabilah Nordin. We speak to Nabilah about her approach to experimentation and failure, and the place of language within her practice.
♪ Transition music ♪
Object Lessons Space
In some way, it's really nice to be having this conversation because, as you know, this is the last episode of Mushroomed in the first season of the podcast. It's going to be a really nice way to wrap up the first season of the podcast. Something that I've always done with all of our conversations is to ask our interviewees to spend some time thinking about the networks that they find themselves embedded within. I want to open up our conversation with a question around what you would say your earliest, or most formative, experience with art was?
Nabilah Nordin
With art? It's a tricky question, isn't it? I feel like with art, for me, it's representative of looking at the world, and responding to it in some way, and interpreting it, or expressing it—whether it be through language, or through cooking, or drawing. It’s a response. I find it really hard to track back to when I first encountered art, and I think maybe it might be because I have such bad memory. I've always enjoyed drawing and colours. Ever since I was a kid, I've always been attracted to objects or things that pop out in the world. Even through school, I would always spend a lot of time decorating my books, and wrapping, and tearing up little pieces of paper, and creating titles with them, and always being more interested in representing things visually, rather than the writing component, or like the content of something.
Object Lessons Space
A lot of us can relate to that, because the most exciting things as a child always are the brightest or most vibrant things in the colour box. I think things catch your eye as kids as well, and it's something that all of us carry around, I suppose, in one way or another, up to where we are today. We started this conversation kind of looking at the earliest point, but something that I wanted to then bring us to is your most recent solo presentation as well, Birdbrush and other Essentials. I'm also encountering the show really by way of images on the internet as well, which is the best proxy that we have in these times—but still a proxy, nonetheless. I was struck by the cacophony of textures, and how you're playing with different display heights—some pieces are on the floor, some others are high up on the wall. The real contrast for me was how all of this was set against how pristine, or how white, some of these gallery walls were. I was wondering if you could walk us through your approach towards preparing for and putting these sculptures together? In particular, because that contrast was so stark and clear to me. I also wanted to get a sense of whether there were particular elements of the museum’s or the gallery's architecture that you wanted the sculptures to respond to, push back against, stand in contrast to, or even be evocative of as well.
Nabilah Nordin
It's an interesting question. When I'm setting up an exhibition, I'm always thinking about the space, and I'm always responding to how the space feels, and how the works will connect and talk to each other in this space. With the exhibition, Birdbrush and other Essentials, I wanted to create a sense of clutter and this world where things felt very large, but there were also very, very small details, and there was always more to discover as you walk through the space. I like this technique of clutter, and this kind of this feeling where you forget where you are because there's just a lot of information, and a lot of textures, and things that disrupt your normal view of the world. I wanted to fill out the space as much as I could with sculptures, or with installation components, as a way to tie the works together. For that show, I used a lot of rags that were scattered on the floor, but it crawled up onto the ceilings, and all over the walls. That worked as a formal composition for the space and for the works to link up to each other. I didn't want each sculpture to stand as their own kind of thing, necessarily. I wanted them to be connected to other parts of the installation. Clutter is always the kind of technique that I go for when I present sculptural installations like that. I feel like it's the best way that I can draw people in into another world.
Object Lessons Space
Clutter is such an evocative word as well, because when you said clutter, the whole entire presentation just buoyed up to mind again—I just saw all the images that I was looking at when I was preparing for the interview—it was so reminiscent. I think it really encapsulates the ways in which someone might be searching for word, or searching for a term, to really encapsulate that experience, and “clutter” really does that quite well.
Nabilah Nordin
I also think that maybe it's just the kind of person that I am. Maybe I'm afraid of space or emptiness. Even the way that I live, I like to fill out space with lots of objects—things that I find, or things that I've been collecting over time, or things that intrigue me—I like to fill in space with objects. I don't know why, but it just fascinates me to be in clutter, than to be in a space where there's not much. It feels kind of lonely or empty to me.
Object Lessons Space
Would you then think of an empty space, or like space devoid of clutter or objects within it, as a blank canvas of sorts, or a blank slate for you to begin working on, or thinking about how to add to?
Nabilah Nordin
I think the blank canvas and the white cube, to me—it's nothing. It's just an empty space. It's so untouched, and anything can really happen. I find that I'm more attracted to home spaces, or gallery spaces, or just anywhere in the world that feels like it's been lived in—where it feels like someone has really—a home is a good example, where a person’s residue of life, and the way that they are, and how they kind of navigate around the world—all of that access is around them. That's just part of living. Part of life. With the gallery spaces, sometimes it can be very cold, and the very opposite of a home, or somewhere comfortable where life has happened.
Object Lessons Space
On that note about words and terms as well. I wanted to come on to something else I noticed, which was the way in which you use language, and in particular descriptive language, as an extension of your practice. This really came to mind as I was reading through some of the ways in which you describe your works as well. Words leave these indentations and impressions, and it's much like the process of sculpting or molding as well. There's a real intentionality around words such as ooze, gloopy, pulse, and melt. They're really effective because they sound like what the sculptures look like as well. I wanted to get a sense of what you would say the role, or the place, of such descriptive language is—both in the formation of your work, and maybe also even in the eventual experience of it as well.
Nabilah Nordin
I find words really difficult sometimes, especially when it comes to describing sculpture, describing art, or describing anything that's visual. I find that words are never quite right. I've recently been using more descriptive words that feel a bit more textural, or feel a bit more like action—words like gloop, or goopy, or descriptive words like chunky. For me, those words are stronger in my mind, and I can kind of visualise what thickness might look like. It's clear enough, but it's open-ended enough for it to be lots of many things. I've stuck to those types of descriptive words recently because they stick more for me—but it's always difficult to kind of describe an artwork, I find.
Object Lessons Space
Sometimes I make up words to describe what something feels like, or the experience of things. I wonder whether that's been something that you’ve found yourself tending towards as well, because sometimes things sound like a word that's made up, something that completely does not rest in any dictionary, but you feel like maybe that encapsulates what you're hoping to achieve a little bit more?
Nabilah Nordin
I think that's interesting, this idea of nonsensical kind of language that might sound like a texture, but doesn't necessarily make any sense.
Object Lessons Space
When we last spoke, we also briefly touched on the fact that you do enjoy the process of concocting up your own kind of materials as well. This might take the form of you combining bits and bobs that you feel yourself drawn to, blending that into a paste, and using that to form your works. I wanted to spend a little bit more time on that as well. In blending materials together, what would you say you're trying to achieve through that process? This could range from a likeness to something, an amalgamation of things, an essence, or maybe even something else altogether?
Nabilah Nordin
I think it represents an experimentation that never ends, when things that don't necessarily go together blend, in some way. With sculpture, it's a very material kind of visceral practice. It’s similar to cooking. You have all of your different ingredients when you cook, and the ingredients list can go on, and how those different ingredients interact with one another is always going to be unique to that moment in time. With sculpture, it's similar where it's always hard to replicate a certain consistency, or a certain type of texture, or the same kind of drying time. Things are always big. Materials are alive. They're responding to so many factors—even in the environment. Every time I'm trying new mixtures, I'm always surprised by the results. With these pastes, I've been integrating lots of different types of materials together to create a painterly, textural quality—to really paint objects or three-dimensional forms with. I've used a lot of plaster, and paper pulp, and I also use a lot of cement and sand. Recently, I've been trying to extend that construction, or that bodily kind of materiality, into something else. I don't want to just keep regurgitating the same kind of textures. I've recently been introducing things like feathers, or different types of sands, or resins, and sometimes even food materials—I've been using macaroni as well—in my sculptures, and hardening things with resins, and encasing things. It always feels like an experimental lab where things are constantly failing me, but they're also working in some really weird or strange kind of way. I'm always trying to figure out how to use materials in a new way, even when it's your store-bought materials like glue, or fillers, or certain types of wood adhesive glues. How can I paint with them, or sculpt with them, and create a type of function that is not what it's designed for?
Object Lessons Space
Because experimentation necessarily means quite a bit of failure as well, I wonder whether or not you could give us a little bit of an anecdote, or example, of how you know when an experiment works—when putting two things together, or three, or four, or five things together, really creates this whole entire new perspective, or new encounter, that maybe was something that you completely did not envision, or did not expect, but somehow it just came together, and it works?
Nabilah Nordin
For me, something is finished when it looks like it speaks of process. If it doesn't show process, it is unfinished, because I want to embrace the experimentation that happens, and make sure that that is visible and in the work. Then I can talk about the process of making as a kind of endpoint, because for me, it's a constant evolution with sculpture. Things are constantly—even with old works—things are constantly being remade into new works. The process is never ending. Also, I don't really like so much for things to be too polished, or too contained, or too solid, or too aware of what it is. I find that when there's elements and traces of the unknown, or of things that didn't work, or clearly broke, or didn't look quite right, or if there may be might be visible materials like cardboard residues that are still left over on the surface—to me, they feel like clues. It’s the residue of something being made still there. I think that relates back to that idea of a space that's been lived in, where you can see the residue of someone's life, or you can see the residue of a moment, rather than it being completely cleaned out, and invisible, and presented as another thing that doesn't show the real essence of what it is.
Object Lessons Space
Like a trail of breadcrumbs, almost.
Nabilah Nordin
Yeah, exactly. Because I cover a lot of the objects, there's a lot of hidden things inside that people don't know—people don't know what's inside the objects because it's been encased in these pastes and these textures. I like to show process in the full body of the sculpture. It's like being a detective, sometimes, in the studio, trying to regurgitate the insides of works, and somehow bring it back out in the outer layer. You might just clean it all off in this flat, shiny surface, but bring back the crumbly nature, or the haphazard, or hectic things that are happening actually in the core of it.
Object Lessons Space
The reason why I also thought of a trail of breadcrumbs was because I had some of your recent works and projects in mind as well, including Please Do Not Eat the Sculptures. Playing with our food is something that, when I was young, I was always told not to do. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what inspired you to play with, in a literal sense, your food, and also what you would say the project represents for you—particularly because it was so incredibly evocative. It's really fun, and it's something that I think people would enjoy encountering as much as eating from as well. What sparked that whole entire experimentation or journey off for you?
Nabilah Nordin
I was asking this question of what sculpture can do, and how it can perform. With, for example, arches inside the sculpture, they support everything that's external from it. It acts as a kind of device, and there's a system involved in that. I was interested in it being more than just that, and whether it could act as a kind of support, or a structure for people to come together—whether it can become a type of entry point for humans to interact and have special moments with. I started to experiment with food as a materiality. Always, in my mind, it would turn into a bigger project that involved artists and people interacting with sculpture, so they could eat from it, and so sculpture acted as a support, or as an entry point, for that to happen. This was at the start of COVID, and it was beginning of 2020. I was living in a very small house with my studio there as well, and everything intermingled in one space. I was making art, but I was also cooking, and I was exploring these food sculptures, and I was making costumes at the time. I was also working at my desk, and everything was happening in one small space. I just started with a few simple recipes, and then I kept going. Every week, I would learn how to cook a new meal, and I would always, in my mind, think of how that particular food would, or could, integrate with a type of sculptural support. That was a new way of working where sometimes I would be inspired to draw something because I had to actually, for the first time, think about how sculpture can support something. I had to think about having enough flat surface area so there would be enough space for certain breads to sit on. It would have to have lots of flat areas. I had to think about how the armatures of the sculptures would be for the food, but it was always morphing and changing as I was making it. Food was a really interesting discovery. It really brought a lot of memories up for me as well. I started to think a lot about childhood foods that I liked, and I was always really excited to see how these ingredients would be able to look like as completely different things to what it is. I used nuts in a certain way, and chocolate in a certain way where you couldn't quite tell whether it was chocolate or plaster, so there was a lot of ambiguity within the different materials.
Object Lessons Space
Food is something that a lot of us associate with particular or strong memories. It’s just something that we all enjoy gathering around as well. It's such a nice culmination to have that at the center of something like a sculptural piece, because in a way, it kind of brings all of these things together to the fore for so many people as well.
Nabilah Nordin
After that experimentation happened, I then went into a new phase where I was hosting these dinners at home, and inviting some guests, some artists to come and try out the food, but it would always be a casual setting, and we wouldn't really necessarily know the artists who we were going to invite, and they didn't necessarily know each other. Sculpture, in that instance, became a kind of community building exercise, and it—especially also because the year that 2020 was, and these dinners happened at the end of 2020 with people who've been basically isolated, and locked down, and in their own kind of little bubbles—became a way for people to come together again, and just remember what socialising was.
Object Lessons Space
In many ways food helps, or really provides a reason for people to get together again. Eating together is one of those communal activities that I'm sure a lot of us miss right now as well, but I wanted to also spend some time on, perhaps—I mean, this is something that maybe the answer would seem a little bit too obvious for—but I also wanted to dig a little deeper into the reason why food has become the backdrop of choice for yourself for these intimate dinners and these small occasions as well, because we each have such a personal relationship to food, and it always brings up really intimate memories for all of us. Why food at the center of something quite as important as this for yourself?
Nabilah Nordin
Well, I think food is just so accessible. Everyone understands food, and in every culture, there is food. It is a very welcoming thing, and my interest is with food was to—actually, well, the first thing that I wanted to explore with food was its materiality, because that's the thing that I'm always trying to discover, but then that naturally evolved into all these other things, like the social gatherings, and it's taken lots of different forms. The accessibility of food, and people can always connect with it in some way. It’s a very personal thing, like you say, but everyone can share it, in some way. They can share their experience with foods they like, or foods they don't like. These dinners—I think it was a way to bring the public into a personal space—because it was about me inviting people that I didn't know, or people just outside and in the world into my own home, and I would cook for them. That in itself is a very intimate, and a personal, moment for me. It was actually quite amazing to feel that my personal world, or my personal space at home, can be shared with others out there.
Object Lessons Space
I suppose for some people, there always this idea around the home being a space for hosting, for bringing people you love together, for bringing guests together as well, but a lot of these dinners also featured guests that perhaps you might not be quite as familiar with—people that you were meeting maybe for the first time, or just for the second, or third time as well. There's such a strong sense of community driving all of these efforts as well, but I also wanted to ask about what you would say, drove the sort of smaller scale initiatives—because they're incredibly small, incredibly personal, but also things that would leave a very strong impression on people as well? People would probably think back on these encounters as being incredibly authentic, and things that really helped people to get to know one another better as well. These activities are so different to the usual gallery opening where there hundreds of people—maybe not now with COVID—but there are a couple of people within a space, and small talk might abound. I was wondering how you would describe these gatherings in relation to your own experiences. Were they coming from a particular sort of set of encounters with people, or did you really see a need for these deeper connections between artists between like-minded practitioners, and wanted to do something about that as well?
Nabilah Nordin
Yeah, I think I really felt—especially after the lockdown—I really felt a huge desire to connect with others again. As an artist, it can be, you know, you do your own thing, and it's a quite an individual journey. Sometimes it can be very public, because you have shows, and you have openings, and things like that, but all of those moments, to me, feel very quick, and sometimes can be transactional, and a bit repetitive, and you end up seeing the same faces. You don't really go beyond that, unless you really make an effort to. I was talking with my partner, Nick, who's also an artist, and we both just had this desire to bring more people into our life, and just grow the art community in some way where people could get to know each other in a more meaningful way that was beyond just the gallery openings. Of course, everyone is so incredibly busy with life, and it's really hard to commit to something. With these dinners, it was always a month in advance—we had it planned. We sent out the invites really early on, just to make sure that people could be there, and really commit to being there. It’s hard. Everyone has such busy lives. To actually meet new people, and to connect, especially with other artists—I'm so inspired by artists, and I want to know more about them, and how they think, and what they do, and I want to know more about their life—but it is hard to make and build these connections. I find if I don't put in effort and make it happen, it's never going to happen. That was the kind of drive, the start, to do something where people could come, and we could share something together. That was always the goal.
Object Lessons Space
And that's such important work as well, because I think meaningful conversations and really authentic connections are things that do require a certain level of intentionality around them.
Nabilah Nordin
I guess we live such structured lives that even to have moments where we can play, or where we can connect in some other way, it has to also be structured within the structure. It's hard for spontaneous things to just happen.
Object Lessons Space
But sometimes they do, and when they do, they're great.
Nabilah Nordin
Exactly.
Object Lessons Space
It's always amazing when it does. I just had one final question, and hopefully it wraps up the conversation in a way that brings the focus back to your own art making processes as well. We've been skirting around it, but in a way, the pandemic and COVID has really made a lot of what we do, or what all of us are interested in doing, really hazy and loopy and very dreamlike as well. Given this context, I'd be interested to know what sort of materials, colours, textures, or even feelings you’ve found yourself being drawn to or excited by these days.
Nabilah Nordin
Recently, I've been attracted to more colours. I’ve been a bit more pared back in the last year with colour where I was a bit more restrained, I think, because I always wanted to create an image of something where it was tied together—it wasn't just all the colours at once. It was considered, and things could pop out, and things could stand back—kind of like a painting. The way that I think about making these sculptural installations is a lot like a painting. But recently, I've been looking and thinking a lot more about bolder colours, and I think—I don't know why—this kind of vibrant greens, and purples, and rich colours. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'm seeing it a lot as well.
Object Lessons Space
Like neon bright colors as well?
Nabilah Nordin
Not so much neon, like bright fluoro, but just richer colours. Not brighter, but maybe more pigments. Not pastel, but vibrant. I don't know why, but I feel like maybe—it's probably not the mood that everyone is in right now, and it feels like maybe it's joyous, or it's optimistic about something in the future, or maybe hopeful for the future. As a person, I don't ever really think so much about the present. I'm always very future-focused. Even with thinking about making art, I'm never really thinking about what's currently happening now, but where something can be. It’s a very, very difficult time at the moment, and I don't like to think about the moment right now so much. I'm thinking more about the future and being future-focused—like I always am.
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Object Lessons Space
Nabilah Nordin is an artist interested in how sculpture acts as an entry point for material experimentation, social gatherings and ways of embedding art and life.

If you’d like to learn more about Nabilah’s work, you can visit her website www.nabilahnordin.com.

This episode is the last within our first podcast season. We’ve really enjoyed the entire process of making these episodes, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the conversations on Mushroomed as well. You can find more articles and transcripts from these podcast episodes on our website, www.objectlessons.space.

Mushroomed is a podcast series hosted by Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with the wonderful people at Singapore Community Radio. Thankyou so much for spending time with us today.



 
Mushroomed is a series of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. Sit in on conversations with artists and cultural practitioners. This podcast is hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with Singapore Community Radio.


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