Sophie Nys


The 9th edition of MANIERA consists of seven familiar objects designed by Sophie Nys, whose artistic practice is based on elaborate research on (art) history, with a focus on the use of power, domination and sociology. Nys explores these themes from a critical stance towards the paternalistic patterns still present in our contemporary society. However, her approach does not derive necessarily from a feminist viewpoint and is always carried out with a touch of humour. She works in different media, ranging from photography to video, drawing and sculpture. She often appropriates daily objects and situations to defamiliarise them in the new context of her artistic creations. Yet with the extensive historical research as a basis, Nys avoids being linked only to conceptualism. Her practice covers a broader area of cultural production and exposes various layers of a theme, enhancing her critical position towards the social structures she investigates.

When invited by MANIERA, Nys’ approach remained true to her artistic practice. She created seven pieces, thus making a family of objects, which are based on photographs or discoveries of existing objects she was intrigued by. Nys calls the series Onkelhaft (Avuncular). This choice is very conscious of the ambiguity it implies: the closeness of the uncle, which sometimes also indicates the threat of abuse by the trusted figure. Nys also gives a name to this imaginary uncle and firmly adds it to almost all the objects’ titles. The name refers to the location of her studio in Wollishofen, which derived from Wolo; the name of an Alemann who belonged to the tribe that crossed Rhine to settle amidst Roman ruins in the 5th century AD. Nys’ studio is where all pieces for MANIERA 09 were conceived and made. By giving almost all of them the second name, or perhaps their surname, of Wolo, Nys brings the objects together and also makes the space of her production part of the edition.

The series comprises different pieces for various uses. Although it is the least defined in function, the most practical piece is perhaps Alexa, which is a simple, low piece made in untreated yellow pine. Three wooden plates are connected to make an H-shaped object. It has no pre-defined direction, can be turned round and used from all sides. Nys had made this piece prior to the Onkelhaft family, simply by using remnants she found in her workshop, without having a specific function in mind. Later, she became intrigued to see how often and differently this object could be used: to store books, as a seat, a side table, a footrest, a puppet bed, a tiny theatre, a pedestal… The piece effortlessly acquired its character as a piece of furniture and eventually became part of MANIERA 09, to be produced as an unlimited edition.

Two other pieces combined in one object are Tafel / Stoel (Wolo), which shares its materiality with Alexa. The piece derives from the hutch table, which dates back to the 18th century and was in frequent use in colonial USA. By pivoting the table-top vertically on two of the four trestles that support it, the table becomes a chair with a high back rest (or the chair becomes a table with storage underneath). The straightforward nature of the piece is striking, both in form and usage. Though visually reminiscent of the pragmatic and minimal Shaker furniture, the piece is quite complex. As a chair it is a very conspicuous piece of furniture and is reminiscent of a throne, while as a table it is archetypal in its appearance. Nys tried to read the proportions from the photographs of hutch tables and defined her version by means of these images. The artist determined the proportions of the piece by its use and they differ from the historical references, hence Tafel / Stoel (Wolo) becomes a contemporary piece on its own right.

Nys used the same method to design the Bank (Wolo), a narrow settle she had seen in a digital image and which was described as ‘primitive 18th-century bench’. The difference between the digital image and the final object lies not only in the interpretation of the proportions, but also in the detailing. The seat and arms of Bank (Wolo) have softly rounded end surfaces; these derived from the first prototype, which Nys made by deconstructing the sort of bench typically used in German beer-gardens. The formal simplicity of this furniture is in the same line as the hutch table. We again see associations with Shaker furniture and colonial interiors in the USA. Made in yellow pine, hand-painted opaquely with brown woodstain and provided with a thick, but narrow leather strap as a back rest along its whole length, in its form Bank (Wolo) resembles church and farmyard settles. The choice of colour for the wood-stain refers to the traditional interiors found in the Swiss mountains where the artist has often spent time since she settled in Zurich some years ago. Mainly because of this colour, and despite its elegant proportions, the overall appearance of Bank (Wolo) also has a certain heaviness. Here the opaqueness of the paint plays an important role; it is a method of finishing that Nys also repeatedly uses in her artworks. As part of her 2010 installation The Drunkard’s Cloak, she painted all the objects alluding to the pillories she documented across Belgium in an opaque bright yellow; a colour that is historically seen as the colour of shame and betrayal. By doing this, she not only defamiliarised the artefacts and gave them an ironically cheerful appearance, but the pieces were also sealed in their own history, captured inside their coating. Yet while the thick layers of yellow paint gave the artefacts an almost elastic appearance, in Bank (Wolo) the grain of the yellow pine can still be seen through three layers of stain. The importance of painting reappears in another work Nys made for The Drunkard’s Cloak, by using the facsimile of an anti-Semitic newspaper from the WWII period as floor protection while painting the furniture for Onkelhaft. The artist deliberately stains this method of public humiliation found in recent European history.

The fifth piece in the series is called Hoekkastje (Wolo), which is a small, triangular cabinet to be mounted in a corner. The design is an interpretation of a similar object the artist encountered in Lebanon. It is made out of yellow pine and painted the same way as the Bank (Wolo). Due to its triangular shape, Hoekkastje (Wolo) visually loses its physical depth once mounted in the corner. Instead, it has a front with a small door kept shut by a typical Swiss window handle. As in Bank (Wolo), the three coats of brown woodstain give weight to the small piece. The proportions of the object also suggest some secretive behaviour, perhaps as an intimate space to hide personal belongings. As a container for small objects its presence is unobtrusive yet specific. The modest scale of Hoekkastje (Wolo) is repeated in another member of the Onkelhaft family, namely the Kniebank (Wolo). This piece, however, is less clear in its use. It derives from an object Nys saw documented by the product designer Jasper Morrison at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. The item was possibly made to protect the knees while cleaning the floor, but it is hard to define precisely how it could be used. Nys also builds this object with her own measurements and materials. The material is European oak, a very common wood sort used in vast amounts after WWII to provide European households with decent, modest furniture. Nys stretches a thick piece of leather over the small oak structure. This object, extremely comfortable for the knees, might invite one to kneel for prayer as much as to clean a floor. The artist plays with this ambiguity and leaves the function of Kniebank (Wolo) open to the interpretation of the user, thereby showing her interest in exploring the boundaries between sculpture and furniture.

Onkelhaft is completed by Spiegel (Wolo), an ordinary mirror held in two slats of brown-painted yellow pine on its horizontal sides. This piece is a version of the mirror Nys has in her Wollishofen studio. The mirror has been the constant witness to the pieces in the making and thus also joins the series. Even though Nys named the pieces in Dutch, her native language, the German language plays also a very significant role in understanding the work. The artist often uses German words to describe her main interests in making this group of simple objects, which are ‘verwandt’ (related) to each other and describe the ‘Verwandte’ (relatives) of the family. All the pieces are hand-made and straightforward, for the simple Alemannic – all men’s – way of living. Nys enjoys reflecting on objects and furniture, and her goal is to perfect ‘… the art of being happy among ‘small things’, within the space of one’s own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot…’(From The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt, 1958).

Text by Asli Ciçek – Images by Maxime Prananto