An epiphany on a Berlin side street

Nina Backman’s art isn’t based on any one way of producing art, or one style, nor is it confined to one medium or scale. That is why mere limits of expression will not prevent the artist in realizing any subject that is of interest to her. Until now, her work has consisted of photographs, photo painting, sculpture, performance and film. A visit to her latest exhibition shows that the list keeps growing.

Viewed from a Modernist perspective, this could be taken to mean the identity of the artist is fragmented or unstable. However, the canon doesn’t bind Backman in any way. In the exhibition one notices that, above all else, the radical avant-garde tradition inspires her, when ever it seems necessary, to decisive and finally also productive exceptions.

The change is not the purpose itself. Instead, it follows certain active goals set for art. For subjects dealing with life and reality, it is important to find the most specific and purposeful form of expression. This does not, however, mean a lack of conceptual depth. Even very different works of art are united, not only by a certain inner plot, but also by the poetic sensibility that is characteristic of Nina Backman’s art. It shows in the visualization of the subject, level of craftsmanship as well as the atmosphere created through the careful placement of the work.

The exhibition is dominated by the installation “Help me, I’m God!”. According to the artist, a group of panelists on BBC World initially inspired this piece. Their discussion about the rights of female Muslims to marry outside of the Muslim faith provoked thoughts about religious laws that discriminate against women; the absurdity of these laws being an absolute obstacle to the natural development of multiculturalism.

These thoughts led into the next important observation, or rather, prepared Backman´s exact reaction upon it. As she walked down a Berlin side street later that same day, she noticed a broken old chair in the middle of the street. A text was written on the back of the chair, “Help me, I’m God.”. The object with its text, found by accident, seemed like a revelation, especially because it seemed to function as a visual link, or rather, as a conceptualization of her thoughts.

The artist acknowledged and accepted the work, inspired and made by reality. “I sat down on the chair for a moment and let my thoughts come and go freely. I have, so to speak, frozen that moment together with all the thoughts out of which the other works in my exhibition have resulted.” Visitors to the gallery are invited to sit down on the chair, too. The chair serves as a magnet, drawing together the content and the visual elements of all the pieces in the exhibition.

The reason for the artist’s epiphany in the Berlin side street could have links to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Duchamp chose familiar and common objects that he would combine with a text. The difference in Nina Backman’s piece “Help me, I’m God!” is that not only the object, but also the text on it already existed. Duchamp tested the limits of the art world; Nina Backman’s piece was not only created by reality, but has also been tested in the real world.
For Nina Backman it does not, however, seem to be of relevance that her found object already represents a particular context in art history; the readymade effect. More important than this, is that the effect it created coincided directly with her own thoughts and her developing identity as an artist. The text of her piece expresses the chaos in the world, in a tragic and ambiguously mysterious way. It is reminiscent of a global scream or of a cry for help.
The combination of the name and object in the piece causes a change in the spectator’s perspective, which produces different levels of meaning. According to Duchamp’s principal, the spectator had to seek and find these himself. There is a decidedly different approach in Nina Backman’s exhibition. One could say that “Help me, I´m God!” contains all levels of meaning that are being displayed in the other works as well. Although the exhibition consists of various subjects and several series of works with many different levels of meaning, it is recommended to approach the exhibition as a single work.

Hannu Castrén