A Conversation in the Gym.
You recently said that your artistic practice always “consumes” you a little bit … which maybe explains why you take so long to get started. It got me thinking — I’m also a pretty slow starter and when I write, stories in particular, I completely immerse myself in them. I eat or drink what the main characters eat and drink, or I go through the same experiences as them … and I treat myself a lot because I think: I have to write now and I deserve everything I need to do that. I listen to music that for me becomes inseparable from the process — I get fully absorbed, living half in this unreal world. It’s the most thrilling moment!
Do you also experience this moment? And where do you encounter it in your work process?
Funny you should mention the thing about treating yourself, because I feel like whenever I enter this really intense phase and put a lot of pressure on myself, I know it’s now or never or you’re gonna get kicked out … it’s a kind of feeling, a kind of fear, like at school when you didn’t do your homework and you know you’ll get a bad grade — and then you start cramming three days before, maybe skimming through a few textbooks to get a B instead of a C and you tell yourself: that was a close call.
Now, on a professional, artistic level, this is of course the old me, the child, the lazy kid that got home from school and switched on the TV … I watched a lot of RTL II and Sailor Moon, consumed all of it and when it came to doing homework, I had to have the TV running in the background.
Even now, as an adult, I work in a similar way. I leave the TV on and I go to the supermarket and tell myself I’m going to work artistically now, so I am allowed to buy myself sweets, which is why I always gain weight when I work. It’s kind of ridiculous, if you think about it.
I think I do too because I order dessert, which is usually something that doesn’t even exist in my universe. But when I write, I’m allowed to order dessert!
Yeah, and I find that when I work, once I’m in the studio, I feel less guilty about buying food outside because it actually serves as a form of reward. But if I had a fixed structure and worked intensively every day, I’d never do it like this, because then I’d have to reward myself all the time, which defeats the point of a reward — it can only be one if it has a time limit, if it’s constricted, compressed in time.
But once we do get started, we work much more in a short period of time than someone who works on a consistent basis. It’s much more demanding, so I get our need for a reward. I just wonder sometimes if I’m even capable of doing it differently or if I would still approach things the same way if I were to ever start “properly” … have you ever asked yourself that? “What if I went to work every day?”
Yeahhh, I think about that a lot. Whenever I start feeling guilty about not having gone to the studio yet or not having been as productive as I’d like, I imagine having that classic 9-5 job, sitting in an office or school from Monday to Friday and slipping into a kind of dissatisfaction. And then I envisage myself in this scenario, all displeased and unhappy, when really I’m sitting in my flat, in my kitchen, sipping a coffee and pondering — which is actually quite beautiful. So why do I feel so guilty about it? I often feel a sense of guilt for not working.
Me too, I always feel like I don’t do enough, and then when I go through phases of sitting around in fast-food chains in a state of indulgent neglect and write three chapters in one evening, I realise it’s only because I spent all that time before thinking about this story, getting so caught up in it, that I can finally write it down. I devoted so much time and concentration to something that I mistook for procrastination, when really I was just thinking the entire time. If I hadn’t allowed myself to dawdle around like that, I probably wouldn’t be so quick at writing now. And at some point I thought, maybe the two just go together.
Yeah, there is no other way.
Before writing, I often go swimming or just lie around without reading, and then a voice always crops up, telling me: you want to write, so you should also read! But I need to pursue wordless activities (or non-activities) for the right words to come to me.
My writing practice is very different. It’s like piecing together different building blocks: I collect phrases and fragments — which is also how I work on my photos — and combine them into texts or forms. The text I’m using for the NRW Forum, for example, uses a quote from Hatshepsut that she engraved onto an obelisk in hieroglyphics.
She did it herself?
She didn’t engrave it herself, but the message was hers. I took the translation and studied the text, putting myself in her shoes and considering her statement. I essentially translated her core message, which is very feminist, as a body of text into our language and incorporated her quote. I find this to be quite an interesting approach to writing. Or even when I’m talking to people, I often note down or memorise certain phrases and then proceed from there.
So I need to be given something in order to respond to it.
I do it like that too sometimes when I write texts for people or about their work, shorter texts —though “short” for me means five or six pages, because I can’t keep it brief when I write, just like when I’m rambling —, then the perfect sentence comes to me, often a sentence for the beginning or the end, and I have to write it down immediately, because I know that this particular word constellation won’t come to me again with such precision. I can’t achieve that level of clarity twice.
I often know the ending of a text right from the beginning — so I can start writing and only have to figure out what lies in-between. Longer stories are a bit different, because a lot of the time even I don’t know how the story continues and I have to find out: what are the characters going to do next?
I have written texts twice so far where my starting point was two photographs — that is, I would select one photo at a time and describe it. Or, essentially, give the photo a sense of movement and an entire backstory. So you have a still image, you see a situation, and something from memory — which is partly biographical — and all that is then pieced together, incorporating details from the described photos.
Like for my graduation piece: I took an image — a wedding scene of my uncle with his wife — and described this image in a sound piece. Starting from that description, I delved deeper, incorporating these details into the content: he was wearing a pinstripe suit, which was very in at the time, and then I focused on these long lines that trailed the length of the suit from top to bottom, looking a bit illusionistic, but also kind of ugly. In the end, this motif runs symbolically, like the lines, through the text.
I think the way I write is similar to how I take photographs. Piecing together, backgrounds and foregrounds, combining symbols, socially connoted images …
You make collages too, right?
Yeah. With multiple layers and coats, which sometimes makes them difficult to grasp immediately. This is also something I find a bit daunting … I mean, sitting here like this, I can’t just get straight down to writing. I always need this kind of research material, or material I can always fall back to.
For you it’s also important to convey something specific in your work with text, something that is perhaps best represented through words — because you always, or almost always, work in multiple media. And that’s a completely different goal to mine: I want to discover something when I’m writing, I’m curious. That’s an essential part of it, the act of searching, which is why I fully delve into it.
These are just certain implicit goals: you have to make something visible in the text, whereas I don’t even know what I will find there yet. For me, words are a material I can use lavishly. And for you they are set with intention. You often position them at very specific places in your work.
A bit like a subtitle or a supplement.
Exactly. You create whole worlds that one can access at different points, that’s what I love about your work. I love it in general when you can dive head-first into a work and fully submerge yourself in it.
Thank you. I also like works that are sensory.
That also explains why I love food.
Hm, food is tricky. But scents are good! I mean, I also like food, but I definitely don’t want to prepare it — and preferably not touch it either. And sometimes I don’t like it altogether.
I find preparing food very meditative, a bit like doing yoga. Every structure, every surface … like peeling a vegetable, for example –
That drives me insane.
– it’s kind of nice. You get to feel the material, too.
No, then I’d rather be cleaning.
Really? What’s so interesting about cleaning?
It’s not really that interesting, but if the only alternative is cooking, I love it! At least then I can curate different scents.
Also, it just occurred to me that we all have different personas for everything. Your works often deal with personal stories, or the stories have personal elements to them. And then at the opening, you stand there as your exhibition persona and watch how other people perceive these works … isn’t that strange?
It’s actually kind of funny … I mean, you could think I’ve given something away, something personal or biographical. But I’ve somehow become quite resilient to that, because for me it’s like a separate, autonomous body; it’s not really me.
I’d find it way more intimate to share something directly with someone. But this way I can keep myself out of it; I’m no longer present in the work. It’s a different language that gives away all this information, but at the same time it’s so convoluted and cryptic that you might not even understand it right away. I don’t tell the story directly, even though it’s there in content and theme.
It’s interesting: I don’t feel uncomfortable when someone looks at my work and thinks “ah, this is a text about an intimate situation or fear, and it’s paired with an image” — rather, I feel more … technical about it.
True, you get something out of it. I often think, well, at least then it was worth the pain. I could channel it. When I experienced my first true heartbreak, I told myself: at least it’s a good story.
Donja’s fav pick 'n' mix top 10
Donja Nasseri combines photography, objects, video and language into a “collaged unit”. Nasseri, born in Germany, is a daughter of an Afghan father and an Egyptian-German mother. She experienced both gender- and identity dilemmas in her life and felt torn between her Western and non-Western identity. Changes in tradition, culture and (gender)identity form the conceptual core of Nasseri’s oeuvre, which is primarily based on photography as “carrier of memories”. She lives and works in Dusseldorf.
photos by Donja Nasseri
text & concept by Thea Mantwill
translation into English by Rebecca Grundmann