Tracing the Past
Much of Nicola Ginzel’s two- and three-dimensional work is small in scale. The series—for which she received a US Fulbright Scholar Grant—How Do You Restructure Form? evolves in both scale and in the way she previously engaged frottage. These frottage–based works are site specific and map the entire footprint of the prestigious Palais Equitable in the center of Vienna.
Had it not been for the onset of the pandemic as Nicola began the Q21 Artist in Residency Program at the Museumsquartier in Vienna, How Do You Restructure Form? would not have become a reality. The original, proposed project was a collaboration with a light collective group, called Lumine, to transform the building’s facade through projected light. Yet, both projects seek to awaken Vienna’s Mythical Center by using the Palais’ protected Nail-Tree Talisman as a catalyst.
Nicola shares, ‘I find myself continuing to pry at its edges by taking some of the remaining frottages as if to relentlessly scratch and poke through their surface, hoping that they can yield another result. Hoping that there could be a new life that emerges from their past.’
(questions by Jonathan Goodman) May 2, 2022
Your father came from Austria and your mother, German and Jewish, survived the Second World War by passing as Christian. How did their wartime experience affect the origins of your series of frottages, titled “How Do You Reconstruct Form”?
That’s an extraordinarily complex question that does not directly affect the origin of this series. As a first-generation American, growing up with two parents affected by PTSD—my father, almost 18 when Austria was annexed to Germany, who exchanged citizenships a total of four times, and my mother surviving as a child in the Ruhr Region of Germany, bombed to pieces—I was forced to confront their identity and trauma. It’s not surprising that my work deals with the transformation of something given, which I choose to make either more ephemeral or more permanent. More often than not, I take on the role of artist as shaman.
Much of my two- and three-dimensional work is small in scale. ‘How Do You Restructure Form?’ evolves in size and in the way I previously worked with frottage. These frottage–based works are site specific to a famous building in Vienna. The building’s footprint represents different cultures, eras and ideologies, as do I.
The essence of the project is the imaginative reconstruction of the Palais Equitable, a major insurance building in Vienna, constructed late in the 19th century by an American company. Why did you choose to re-create that building through frottage? Does the building have personal meaning for you?
The building was originally built for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America. It is a display of wealth and status, embodying the spirit of the second wave of the industrialized revolution and the New World. Curiously, it houses Vienna’s oldest landmark from the Middle Ages, a nail-tree Talisman, called, ‘Der Stock im Eisen,’ which directly translated means ‘Staff of Iron.’
I chose it as my subject for several reasons. The essence of the building is an expression of global expansion, promising hope, and protection through monetary wealth. The essence of the Nail-Tree Talisman is a marker for Vienna’s local expansion according to a legend suggesting that it was one of last trees standing from the ancient forest. As hundreds of nails were pounded into it over the centuries beginning in the mid-1400’s, the Nail-Tree Talisman promised healing and identity through belief and tradition. The Austrian Folklorist, Leopold Schmidt, suggested that it was a symbol for Vienna’s Mythical Center.
The Palais Equitable was on my radar because I visited my grandfather there as a child and part of his office space within it was to become my inheritance. Choosing to transform it has personal significance to me. However, this dynamic between the building and the talisman serves a larger purpose on so many levels. Through my action of doing rubbings of the building’s footprint and transforming them then as raw material, I attempt to bring back balance or ‘natural order’ as if to exorcise greed and monetary status.
Please describe the physical terms of the project. How did you go about making the rubbings? What materials did you use? How many rubbings exist?
The series consists of 65 works on paper, which are made up of 192 frottages. By using huge sheets of 40” x 30” red carbon paper, each sheet was placed horizontally to record half of the exterior wall and its corresponding ground through the process of frottage. This means that there was an intersection of the ground and building at the paper’s midline. Within the first week, I realized that layering the frottages achieved the very thing I was trying to bring about. Layering broke up the defined lines that originated from each textured section, creating new intersections, shapes, and possibilities.
Two types of paper make up most of the work: Shoji Rice Paper (36”x 24”) and Silberberg B. Handmade paper (38”x 25”). There are smaller pieces, which use Kitakata (20”x16”), Masa (30”x 20”), and various sizes of Hahnemühle Paper spanning from (~24” x 18”) to (~40” x 30”). I was still in an experimental phase when the art store went under lockdown in March 2020. This is also a reason I bought all these types of paper.
The base structure, which I followed throughout the series, uses a red carbon paper and (almost always) an abstract, uniform, subtle yellow-green acrylic/ gouache shape, which was painted onto the frottaged paper before printing. Its presence began an instantaneous atmospheric dialogue with the frottaged lines. Red was chosen because it is the symbolic color for the first chakra, which represents the physical/ existential world. Yellow is symbolic of the third chakra, which represents to manifest or change something physically. With its fluorescent-like quality, the yellow–green verges on the alchemical and artificial. Espresso was used to give an aged look to the paper, hinting at old Tantric Indian Drawings.
The whole process of recording the footprint in its entirety through these rubbings took four months. The transformation of a quarter of the works is still in progress.
One corner of the building, inside a glass vitrine, is a relic dating back hundreds of years: the Nail-Tree Talisman. It consists of nails driven into an ancient piece of wood. One of its metaphysical functions was to have the nail transfer the energy of a person’s wound into the tree and thereby lessen suffering. How did this practice affect your project?
The centuries of history represented by all the nails that were driven into the Nail-Tree Talisman represent different beliefs, ages and customs. Prior to the 16th century, the tree trunk was believed to heal wounds through energetic transference via a nail. By the 18th Century, travelling smiths and apprentices would hammer a nail into the tree before leaving town for good luck. Many legends surround the nail-tree talisman, including one that the Devil guarded it at some point.
The metaphysical implications of the Nail-Tree Talisman–the transference of energy–are least commented upon by the Viennese today even though nail-trees were common throughout different parts of the Middle East and Europe. This includes Germany and countries belonging to former Austria-Hungary during the Middle–Ages. Here is an interesting excerpt from ‘Rituals, Ceremonies and Customs Related to Sacred Trees with a Special Reference to the Middle East,’ published online in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine on Jul 9, 2007:
Hammering nails as well as hanging clothes are "tying" rituals, whereby the person seeks healing or a solution to problems by transferring his or her illness or problems to the tree, or to whatever object the clothes are hung on or nails hammered into. Such "tying" is one of the best known and commonest beliefs practiced throughout the world among Christians, as well as among Muslims and their predecessors in the Middle East [:213; :262; ]. In several countries nails are hammered to a sacred tree to transfer the pain or illness into the tree [England and Germany :493; Kurdistan, :216; Europe, :58; and Turkey : 176,262; :128].
You ask, one of its (the nail-tree’s) metaphysical functions were to have the nail transfer the energy of a person’s wound into the tree and thereby lessen suffering. How did this practice affect your project? The nail-tree reminds me that this building’s history goes deeper than just a display of power pioneered by an American Company. I understood the nail–tree’s symbolism intellectually but did not send it suffering during my process of frottage. Maybe I should have. Perhaps then I would not have undergone major surgery after the four–month long frottage process.
The frottaged marks are gathered for the purpose of an ‘energetic transference.’ As a consequence, these marks substitute the metaphysical role of the nail-tree talisman being the container for suffering and a possible catalyst for change. As I was moving around the footprint of the building, my intention was steadfast as if to send healing into a body (the building) as I physically made the rubbings with my hands on site. It reminded me of ‘body work,’ in the sense of alternative healing practices. If my attention was drawn away from the process of frottage, I would say and repeat a mantra to bring focus back from my external surroundings.
The frottaged marks are gathered for the purpose of an ‘energetic transference.’
By re-creating, in a group of paper rubbings, something so solid and immutable as the Palais Equitable, you are investing your project not only with the private experience and performance of your own actions, but you are also making a public record. Yet your art is not only about public form, outside your imagination and experience. What are the relations between the private and public in your art?
The process of frottage is solely executed on site and visible to the public present at that moment in time. I chose to do this work at dawn because it was the quietest time of day in regard to foot traffic. This ‘public performance’ was something that had to occur for the recording of frottages to take place. The collective nature of these frottages becomes more individualized and anonymous to their original history as they are transformed (behind doors) in the studio using a specific methodology of surface manipulations and materials.
Within the context of a public record, there are three different things coming together here with the implication of visual and physical space linking it all together. There’s the body (the building’s footprint), there’s space (the area where the blank paper becomes activated), and there is the finished drawing/ image (frottage). This space serves as both void and evidence for the visual image of the rubbing, the building, and the physical space; blurring different senses together.
I’m hoping to understand your question about the relationship of public and private. Ritual binds the ‘visual and physical space,’ which is public, together with my undertakings to shape shift the original record of the frottage privately in the studio. Intention, process, and experimentation also address the relationship of both public and private in this body of work. The history of the building as the subject matter possesses both public and private meaning for me as the artist.
As someone who holds citizenship in both Austria and the United States, do you feel the project will be received differently in the two places? If you think this will happen, how will the separate responses differ from each other? Is the project an attempt on your part to bridge separate components of yourself and your imagination?
The project cannot not be received differently by two separate cultures, cities, or individuals. As an artist, I am adept at creating an image or a thing that is a departure from where it originates. I like to think that for its transformation to be so successful, it shows fewer roots of its origins than to what it may become. The becoming, or its transformed state, should be more open–ended. That’s the place I am interested in. To extract the footprint and transform it in a direction that creates the most ambiguity is freedom from its original dogma. It also creates the most vulnerable position. The becoming should put the viewer into a place of not only needing to question but also to be courageous enough to come up with his/her/their own answer. Most people don’t like that place.
Artists’ responses to the frottages suggest the building to be equated with a body in some way. Frottages recall garment making as if layering the different pieces completes the ‘body of the building.’ They’ve also recalled maps and even scars on the paper. The analogy to graffiti has been mentioned. This takes the definitive site–specific body and moves its original record further in the direction of something anonymous and eventually re-defined. I understand why you mentioned the German artist, Georg Wols, who was a contemporary of Max Ernst, when seeing some of the finished works. Wols rejected both figuration and abstraction in favor of a projection into the metaphysical plane.
It’s clear that I am trying to join two separate worlds—one of loss and one of creation; one of definition and one of re-evaluation; one of linearity and one of spirit; and one of history and one of new possibility. I ask myself where do these opposite poles find common ground? What do graphic, frottage marks that appear as scars from 19th century architectural details have to do with the palimpsest manuscript-like surfaces manipulated to accept bleeds of organic and manufactured pigments?
In an exhibition setting of the frottages, the Palais Equitable and Nail-Tree Talisman are also briefly presented in written form with a few photographic images.
Please speak about the rubbings themselves. Are they closely linked to each other as a group, almost as if they were a narrative sequence? Although the origins of the imagery are very specific, being based on the building itself and your relations to it, the works on paper tend to look highly abstract. How do you reconcile the non-objective quality of your art with the highly determined conditions of its making?
The works on paper create a dialogue with one another so it is necessary to see them together. They do not need to be seen in the order in which I made them. I am not interested in this. Part of my process was to register the date on the lower right corner of the paper’s backside as a way of record keeping. Each time I made another frottage, its number would be written before the date.
The organization of this series is determined by the type and size of paper used. In this way the various papers’ serve as chapters or subseries to the overall project, informing the viewer. They convey the expanse of transformation as well as the overwhelming size of the footprint. The white Shoji paper pieces with direct red carbon marks upon the abstract lime yellow color shape reveal the most about the original architecture. They give clues how to understand the works following them.
I was not interested in recording the length of the footprint’s perimeter on single sheets of paper but rather, in ‘gathering’ the perimeter as if to collect the memory of all the red lines and marks to further use them as a medium for transformation. This is really key. The purpose of the rubbing is to generate raw material so that I might change history, heal history, cleanse history, and perhaps even let it go. The frottages take on the role of the nail-tree talisman as I mentioned before.
image(left): frottage process using red carbon paper
Image (right): process image from the long ritual at dawn making frottages of the building's footprint, or rather, Vienna's Mythical Center.
The purpose of the rubbing is to generate raw material so that I might change history, heal history, cleanse history, and perhaps even let it go.
Can you place this project within an art historical context? Is it too privately conceived an undertaking to be considered a part of a public visual continuum? At least part of the project can be considered a performance—the act of frottage in public—please comment on that aspect of your undertaking.
The pieces have their birth through action, requiring my body to be down on the ground with them. The weight of my body pushes into the paper so that the carbon rubs off opposite my touch. Various papers respond in such a way that they become sculpture–like through sheer pressure of the relief as well as the 90-degree angle that exists between the vertical exterior wall and horizontal ground. The Silberburg B. Handmade paper's response to being rubbed is like a hide. I can’t help but think of a similarity to Heidi Bucher’s works where she would use latex and remnants of old clothes to capture the impression of architectural details. She reflected on concepts such as ephemerality, transformation, and metamorphosis.
There are subtle strains of this series reminiscent of Robert Overby’s work. For Overby, also working with architectural facades, material and style were less important than the current pushing of everything toward disappearance. This gathering of frottaged lines for me began with the desire to neutralize the frottaged marks by covering them back up. Using the same color paint as the fluorescent yellow-lime like abstract shape in the background creates a palimpsest feel on the surface. The Shoji paper translates this best because of its affinity towards transparency. However, halfway through the four–month long process, I found that I could not just neutralize, erase, and cover the red marks. I began allowing them to stay to create new forms and abstractions.
There are parallels to Do Hu Suh ‘loving/ rubbing’ of his former apartment in NYC to this series as he stresses that the act of rubbing is also a loving action. In Korean the two words are almost the same. In the case of my body of work, rubbing is ‘healing’ as my hands work the front of the paper. I wanted the works to feel nurtured and healed, but I could not accomplish that. On the other side of the paper the red frottaged lines appear like scars from the carbon paper, and eventually I stopped being afraid of the red. I stopped trying to control them. Suh is bringing attention to the memory by actively using pencil on paper, while my process uses my hands and a rounded wooden tool that is made for deep tissue massage.
Memory is the thing I have to access in order to make something better. Memory is the aspect of my work that is concrete. It becomes the physical material with which I work. Memory is sometimes recorded on both sides of the paper making the paper an object. After its excavation—though my intention may be to cleanse and release it through the use of layers of both organic and manufactured materials onto its surface—the memory of marks becomes what it needs to be for that moment. This excavation of memory is more like Bucher’s work. What’s interesting is that her chosen spaces were also personal to her, presumably with an overshadowing of the bourgeoisie.
One way of dealing with my complex background is solving it through a more Eastern Philosophical approach. Like in Yves Klein’s work, he used ritual as a means not to attain belief but rather as venue to reach abstraction.
At one point, four Viennese policemen came up to you while you were making the rubbings. You showed them the papers allowing you to work, and they left you to making your rubbings. How difficult was it to establish a legal basis for the project? Do you feel that doing so is in fact a part of the project itself?
Being present through the act of rubbing was difficult even though I chose a quiet time of day to do the work. I would typically be at the building between 5:45- 6:30 am. The tension of knowing that the police might confront me was nerve wracking. It was a quiet battle to bring my attention to the process of frottaging. The police would sometimes slow down and I’d feel them at my back until finally one day two cars quickly stopped like cats pouncing—four policeman walked towards me in unison.
Another experience was as I reached the entrance of the building when I was frottaging the wooden doors. Out jumped a woman who seemed threatened by me and what I was doing. She was upset and repeatedly said that I was taking something from the building,
and who had given me the right to do such an act?
Apparently, Vienna is known for its building superintendents. It is part of its history and reminds me of Fiefs during the Middle Ages. Each super/couple has a certain status depending upon the building they inhabit. My run in with the police was easy compared to the repercussions of meeting this woman. I was almost certain that this was the end of the project for me. It was suggested that I introduce myself to the law firm representing all the owners of the building. I was to present the project and ask permission to continue. This was by far the hardest part, especially when I was asked if there was any relation to an owner bearing the name, ‘Ginzel.’ I never considered my various legal tribulations as being a part of the project but they clearly were.
The ironies of recreating an American-funded building in Vienna, as a first-generation Viennese/German American, are rich. Please comment on how this project functions as a bridge between the dual elements of your background.
Using the Nail-Tree Talisman was a perfect catalyst for both narratives: a public one, that can be seen from various angles as I have mentioned, and a private one.
Part of my own family’s narrative from the Viennese side entertained esoteric practices. My father (b. 1921) grew up with a family psychic, and my grandfather would read my palms when I was little. It is not surprising as Vienna was a cultural melting pot with a strong Balkan influence, as well as an intellectual and radical hotbed at the turn of the 20th century. Klimt, Schiele, Schoenberg, and Freud were all revolutionaries who shaped the modern world by scandalizing it. And those who were part of the aristocracy, as my family was, had the leisure to dabble in what was then considered Avant–Garde.
This esoteric face of Vienna has always fascinated me. My version of their influence is more Zen Buddhist or that of Natural Law which is spoken of in Native American Cultures. If I were to distill myself as a factor in all this, then I am the Nail-Tree Talisman. If I were to take that beyond my story, then the nail–tree is also a symbol of humanity and even the environment. It is static, caught, and only looked upon under glass by our self-made Anthropocene Age perpetuated by a voracious thirst for consumerism and status.
‘How Do You Restructure Form?’ is a type of cleansing ritual exorcising a metaphorical patriarchal pathology, whose arcane dogma—regardless of nation, culture, belief, or Age—dissolves into many possibilities.
‘How Do You Restructure Form?’ is a type of cleansing ritual exorcising a metaphorical patriarchal pathology, whose arcane dogma—regardless of nation, culture, belief, or Age—dissolves into many possibilities.
Image captions in order of appearance:
Studio Documentation: work in progress in the ‘Q21 Artist in Residency' Studio
Vienna, Austria, 2020 (image courtesy of the artist)
(detail) How Do You Restructure Form? Nos. 107, 108
Shoji Japanese Rice Paper, red carbon paper frottage, gouache and gum Arabic, espresso, and ink
36” x 24,” photo by Alan Wiener
Photograph of 'Der Stock im Eisen' (The Nail-Tree Talisman)
ca. 1900, Albumen print, Gift of David Cooper
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Angled photographic view of the Palais Equitable with Nail–Tree Talisman protected in the building's exterior corner
2020, Vienna, Austria
How Do You Restructure Form? Selection of Espresso Stained Shoji Paper Frottages
Installation view, photo by Alan Wiener
How Do You Restructure Form? Nos. 38, 39
Shoji Japanese Ricepaper, red carbon paper frottage, gouache, and gum Arabic, espresso, graphite, pastel, ink, watercolor
36” x 24”
photo by Alan Wiener
How Do You Restructure Form? No. 13
Silberberg B. Handmade paper, red carbon paper frottage, acrylic, ink, and gum arabic
38” x 25”
36” x 24,”
photo by Leonhard Hilzensauer
How Do You Restructure Form? No's. 64, 73, 117
Red carbon frottage on espresso stained Shoji Paper, graphite ink, gouache, gum Arabic, ink, watercolor marker, colored pencil, hand-stitched with wool.
36” x 24,”
photo by Alan Wiener