March 2010, Interview with Nicolas Baier

Nicolas Baier, Vanitas 01, 2007-08
Ink jet prints laminated to acrylic, mounted on metal, 345 x 900 cm
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography


“We are all stars with consciousness.”

Pre-historic artists exploited random bumps on cave walls to emphasize bison flanks. Leonardo da Vinci claimed to draw inspiration by identifying shapes in flowing water and cloud formations. In our own time, some see Christ’s face in the discolourations of a burnt omelette. The psychological phenomenon of pareidolia occurs when a vague and random image, sound, or other stimulus is perceived as more significant than it actually (or apparently) is. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or (among certain stoners) hearing the croon of the Devil’s Grandmother in Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” played backwards at 78rpm.

Montreal artist Nicolas Baier (born 1967) has evolved from the enfant voyant of Canadian art into a mature and confident seer who, some say, all but exhausts the potential of his chosen medium of digital photography. Since the early 1990s, he has constructed digital imagery that subverts commonplace notions of what photographic art is and what it can do. His work has helped destroy, once and for all, the foolish notion of hierarchy in art (sculpture is superior to painting, painting is superior to photography).  

Sitting before the artist’s bank of computer screens at his Montreal apartment studio, I spoke to Nicolas Baier about the unity of body and soul, the cultural significance of rocks and mirrors, and the notion that “we are all stars with consciousness.”

Robert Kilborn: Are you creating mystery in your art?

Nicolas Baier: Mystery? No! I’m working for clarity. I think that artists who “create” mystery in their work don’t understand what they are doing. The cult of mystery, I find it pretentious and ridiculous.

You’ll notice that I never photograph humans in my work. I prefer talking about other things, stars, the sun, “nature,” the cosmos. I find the human scale very boring. Novels, for example, bore me. I prefer other realities.

RK: Your work appears to have evolved into a vision expressive of an idea present in some Western and in much Eastern philosophy and religion, as well as in modern physics: “All is One.” 

NB: We have a tendency to separate everything. For a long time, from the ancient Greeks on, we’ve separated the body from the soul. But the soul and the body are one. So when you die, the soul dies, as the soul is the body living. 

RK: Unless you’re a fundamentalist Christian, or...

NB: Whoa! I’m far from being that! [Laughs.] I think that the job of being an artist is to observe. The most important part of the job is to observe. You have to reserve a lot of time just to do that.

There’s a sense of wonder in your current work, a contemplative distance and even serenity...

NB: I hope so. I try very hard to be as… not objective, but… I try not to let my personality get too involved in the work. You have to be at a certain distance from your work. That said, however, every artist has their own magnifying glass, because you cannot talk about everything, but you can look at, explore and enjoy some things. More and more my work explores the mundane. I am essentially “photographing my environment.” But, what else can I do? First, that’s the question: “What else can I do?” Because everything is my environment, and even my own body, inside my own body, it’s all one with the exterior world. [On his computer screen, he shows me photos he recently took of underground caves in France celebrated for their prehistoric paintings.] These are not photos of the first paintings themselves. They are photos taken near the paintings. I wanted to have photos of the “first canvas.” I found my experience of visiting these caves very moving, a lot more moving than any museum or art gallery I’ve ever visited.  

I’m very interested in rocks, and the way they can embody the environment and the art history of their origins. [Shows me a palm-sized slice of a green and orange rock from Tuscany (Paesina 01, from the Pareidolias show), which strikingly resembles the Tuscan environment and Tuscan painting; shows Chinese marble, which has an astonishing resemblance to Chinese ink landscape drawings; shows Australian and African rocks, which also parallel their environments and art histories in their abstract patterns and bold colours.]

Nicolas Baier, Paesina 01, 2008
Inkjet print, laminated to acrylic, mounted on aluminum, 76 x 112 cm
Courtesy of Galerie René Blouin, Montreal, and Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto

Here is the little meteorite from the Pareidolias show. [Shows me a postage stamp-sized slice of meteorite.] I photographed this with a microscope, over 4000 photos. I then stitched these photos together to make this. [Shows the finished 183 x 254 cm artwork on the computer screen.]

Nicolas Baier, Meteorite 01, 2008
Chromogenic print, laminated to acrylic, 183 x 254 cm
Courtesy of Galerie René Blouin Montreal, and Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto

RK: This is an uncanny image. It’s a slice of a meteorite millions of years old, yet it looks like a contemporary magazine illustration, and not “nature” at all...

NB: I don’t like to call this nature, because that’s like calling it God. You have to say "Things Are" and not "Nature Is". It is, and that’s all. But, yes. I completely agree. Millions of years of getting cold. Yet it speaks to us. We are at one with it. We share our being with it. We are all stars, stars with consciousness...

[Shows more screen images of artworks from Pareidolias show.] I like to think of this new work as a new path. I want to make a very clear distinction between my new work and the work that went before. The work before was more… I’m not saying I see clearly now, but… before it was as if I were seeing with a blindfold… and now I can see a little… a little …

This new work came to me from my interaction with people, and my feeling that they rarely or never caught the purpose of my work. We all are, ultimately, talking about ourselves, “We see what we know.” So I decided to use the old idea of art as a mirror, to take this idea literally. My intention was to create “machines that make people talk.” And these machines are very efficient and well-oiled. They’re working perfectly.  

[Shows Vanitas 01, a monumental work made of digital scans of 40 old, damaged, and discoloured mirrors.] In this one mirror, everyone sees Monet’s Water Lilies. Of course, it’s not Monet. It’s just an old mirror. But that’s what everyone sees. [The pattern of damage and discolouration in the mirror does indeed bear a very striking resemblance to Monet’s famous sequence of paintings.] In this other mirror you can see a Van Gogh, and in this mirror a face, and so on. It’s very efficient, this machine. People are coming to the shows, and they’re saying, “I’ve got it. That’s Monet’s Water Lilies.” So, of course I’m always saying, “You’ve got it. You’re good. Bravo.” [Laughs.] The answer is always yes, never no.  

Nicolas Baier, Vanitas 01 (detail), 2007-08
Ink jet print laminated to acrylic, mounted on metal, 127 x 90 cm
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography

I was working one day and my computer failed. This red image appeared on the screen. It looked like a landscape, with a horizon and water. So I put it in a light box. I framed it as the computer screen framed it. And I call this image Failed. [Laughs.]

Nicolas Baier, Failed, 2008
Chromogenic transparency in LED light box, 122 x 244 cm
Courtesy of Galerie René Blouin, Montreal, and Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto

I believe that we are all nature, and all made to die. Of course the earth and the sun and the solar system will die. When I was younger, I was very afraid of my own death. Then I was afraid of the death of human consciousness. I am now at peace with these things . . .

You don’t have to go to an art gallery or museum to have visual poetry in your life. It’s your own responsibility. The purpose of my art? Seeing. There’s no message beyond that. My job is to see, choose, capture. If such a possibility existed, I would just pass my observations on to people mentally, rather than create objects. But the fact is that I have to create objects, and those objects have to be made well and exhibited well, so that they can communicate well.

RK: Yet your work seems to sometimes delve into speculation about our ability to know ultimate realities, and that—again, as in the deepest religious and philosophical traditions, both East and West, as well as in contemporary scientific thought—these ultimate realities are unavailable as knowledge to us, but we keep on... looking.  

NB: Yes, maybe… [laughs.] So, I continue on this path.

Nicolas Baier’s Pareidolias @ the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Nicolas Baier subjectively objectifies “what is”: the given, the possible and, perhaps, the impossible. But his subject is neither man, nor nature, nor art: it is the cosmos itself, seen from both macro- and micro-perspectives. However, his work engages with the various languages of nature and art in surprising, often deeply moving, and sometimes astonishing ways.
In Vanitas 01, Baier creates a flattened cosmos of 40 unreflecting, damaged mirrors, scanned and reproduced at life size. The artist's Vanity Fair is as simple or as complex as our ability and desire to see: “We see only what we know.” We may see Monet’s Water Lilies in one mirror, the head of Christ in another, dying stars in a third. If we choose to engage further, we may think we experience possibly revelatory insights concerning what might be the case beyond the phenomenal world—the world that cannot be directly experienced, but only considered in the abstract. But we must stay on guard against the all-too-human vanity exhibited when we embrace assurance about answers to life’s deepest questions; we are, after all, standing before 40 unreflecting mirrors that both engage and represent the subjectivity of our knowledge.

The artist’s computer fails. With the resultant red monochrome screen image he creates Failed. Looking at Failed, some will simply appreciate a pure field of exquisite colour. Others will see an unnerving Martian landscape, or the interior of an artery, or a seascape of blood. In Meteorite 01, the artist photographs a tiny slice of non-life, a meteorite fragment millions of years old, 4000 times. With these photographs he creates a 183 x 254 cm image that resembles a page in an architecture magazine showing a contemporary skyscraper’s complex endoskeleton. In this context, the repetitive, intricate patterns of this meteoric image appear to be inherent in the very “stuff” of the cosmos. 

It may indeed be the case that the human propensity to see pareidolias contains a deep truth that we do not expect it to contain. On the one hand, the things of this world often resemble each other and seem, to some, deeply connected to each other; on the other hand—and on this the sages of the ancient Hindu Upanishads and contemporary physicists agree—everything is quite literally everything else. But the very structure of our minds divides the One into the Many, and presents the visible, tangible world of experience to our senses. And some art reminds us that things are not what they seem.

Nicolas Baier’s Pareidolias continues at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa until 25 April 2010. It will reappear at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec City, 17 June to 23 August 2010.

Thanks to Nicolas Baier, René Blouin, Galerie René Blouin, and Marie Lugli, National Gallery of Canada

Robert Kilborn

Robert Kilborn is a Montreal writer.

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