Disruptor & 3D printing – an interview with Nick Ervinck
Etienne Verbist on behalf of Artdependence Magazine: Who are you and what do you do?
Nick Ervinck: Fostering a cross-pollination between the digital and the physical, I explore the boundaries between various media. Studio Nick Ervinck applies tools and techniques from new media, in order to explore the aesthetic potential of sculpture, 3D printing, installation, architecture, and design.
For several years, I participated in many individual projects and group shows. Recently, I showed work at Ars Electronica Linz, CBK Emmen, Beelden aan Zee Den Haag, Bozar Brussels, LABoral Gijon, and SMIT Moscow. My work has been exhibited at MOCA – Shanghai, MARTA – Herford, Kunstverein – Ahlen, Koraalberg – Antwerp, Zebrastraat – Ghent, HISK – Ghent, Odette – Ostend, Superstories – Hasselt, Brakke Grond – Amsterdam, MAMA – Rotterdam, and Telic Art Exchange – Los Angeles/Berlin. In 2005, I received the Godecharle prize for Sculpture, which was then followed by the Mais prize of the City of Brussels and the Prize for Visual Art of West-Flanders, in 2006. In 2008, I was a laureate of the Rodenbach Fonds Award, and I won the audience award for new media at Foundation Liedts-Meesen.
What’s your goal?
NE: My aim is to let architecture and sculpture meet, and to explore the realm of the impossible by constantly pushing the limits of what we call ‘realistic’. Take, for example, the work EGNOABER – made for the new central square “Raadhuisplein” in the city Emmen, located in the north of the Netherlands: With this piece, the sculpture is placed on top of a parking entrance building. By this, the sculpture and the building add value to each other. The building becomes the pedestal of the sculpture while the sculptures makes the parking entrance more attractive.
I have always been fascinated by the way art has developed due to new materials and techniques. In search of contemporary sculpture and it’s lack of renewal in response, I look for the interaction between virtual constructions and handmade sculptures. You could describe it as a kind of cross-pollination between the virtual and physical world.
The studio takes a vanguard position in the field of digital technology (such as 3D technology and computational design methods). 3D printing has the incredible advantage to produce almost any type of intricate geometry or ornament. Developing techniques and machines of my own, I realise my virtual designs in the physical world. The digital images are constantly contaminating the three-dimensional shapes and vice versa. I love the contrast between the clean, smooth, almost industrial shapes and the more organic, brutish matter – like dabs of paint, soil crusts, or concrete-like matter. My work becomes just that bit more interesting when I succeed in positing those worlds against each other.
Forms from nature are also an important element in my work, so that the work seems to be the result of a spontaneous, natural erosion process. The sculpture in Emmen, EGNOABER, looks like a runaway tree, an odd skeleton, or a dead and abstract body, which has been recovered by the organic, fluid and vivid yellow texture. It makes us think of the kienstobbe (a typical tree root for this region). It refers to the natural erosion processes and to the visual language of an artefact (the shiny and colourful varnish). For this sculpture, I was Inspired by both Eastern (Chinese rocks) and Western (blob architecture) shapes.
What is your dream project?
NE: I am an artist who dreams day and night. If you want to be an artist but you don’t keep on dreaming, then you simply can’t work anymore. A good example is Panamarenko, he’s been dreaming of flying since he was a kid.
I would love to go to the next step of visual art. I have several dream projects, such as designing my own game. It’s probably not an impossible dream but you need the right people and the right budget to realise such a dream. A second dream project is making an interactive installation. Same thing like before: you need the right people to make it spectacular. An interactive installation is a very complex thing to do.
Why do you do what you do?
NE: My works are the result of an active search for the means to depict my personal world. While the reality we know is not ignored, there is still the dream of another one. For that I want give body to my own universe while simultaneously referencing both classical sculpture and contemporary pop culture. It is a transboundary world that deploys forgotten disciplines and innovative tools.
My body of work represents a futuristic, innovative vision that is at once seductive and capricious. This cross-pollination process effectively pulls up by its roots the various media and fields so that they pool together and become indistinguishable; architecture becomes painting, virtuality becomes sculpture, and stasis becomes movement. I realise that each world has to be allowed to retain its individuality. I play with their constraints and potentials and try to make the most of these.
When creating, I question what I see, hear, read, and of course I also question my own interpretation. I strip a space of its original function, its nature, to allow it to create its own reality. There an incessant flow of visuals into a mythological language of my own, a parallel universe. The main incentive for creating is the need to know, to understand the world. And what better way to understand it than to create one’s own complex world that in turn can open up worlds to others.
What role does the artist have in society?
NE: I have consciously chosen not to engage with the emotional, the political, or the social aspect of art. Initially, I felt very at home with the purely sculptural discourse, but that didn’t turn out to be very rewarding. That is why I started looking for more of a symbiosis between sculpture and architecture. From the moment you start working with architecture you are of course in some way again engaging on a social level – albeit in a more national or urban context.
The works I create do reflect on the growing integration of technology in our society – and in our bodies. But this evolution offers me endless possibilities and solutions for the future. Revolutionary technologies and artificial intelligence could potentially solve important problems in our society, such as climate change, poverty or even mortality. There is a clear correlation: the artist’s determination to depict an unknowable notion of the future. We encounter strange, armoured forms, unfamiliar weirdness, a cyborg style reminiscent of science fiction films. Monsters from our nightmares threaten to break into our waking lives. For his cross-boundary and futuristic vision, I plunder numerous sources for both the substantive and physical aspects. At the same time, this search for a modified ‘super human’ cannot remain without consequences. By choosing that perfect finish and hardwearing materials, I also want to take a certain position and partially dissociate myself from throw-away society. I see this mentality developing within society at large and amongst many young artists too. The more I engage with the virtual world, the stronger is the desire to re-implement this virtual world within reality and experience it physically. Once I start designing with these materials virtually, I am also aware of their possibilities and limitations. That way, I also want to familiarise myself with the characteristics of specific materials like wood, polyester or plaster. What I do as an artist, I do 24/7. It’s my passion, it’s the reason I get up in the morning. But if I should stop getting pleasure from it, I probably wouldn’t be able to create successful pieces any more.
What themes do you pursue?
NE: My images balance on the edge of functionality, spatial interventions, digital aesthetics and object-oriented eclecticism. For me, it is not enough to sketch and develop concepts. I feel the need to lift sculpture to a new level by employing the processes I invented myself. Using copy paste techniques in a 3D software environment, I derive images, shapes and textures from different sources: basilicas, corals, dinosaurs, cottages, Rorschach inkblots, Chinese rocks and trees, manga, twelfth-century floral wallpaper, fauna and flora, anatomical parts – I take elements from a huge visual arsenal and blend them together to concoct new forms. My work moves seamlessly between “high” and “low” art. It demonstrates that the different art forms no longer need be compartmentalised. My entire oeuvre is the result of a synergy between disparate materials and media.
I often take roughly handmade sketches or a physical object in my studio as a point of departure. I don’t always first virtually design the sculptures in full. Most of the times there is an interaction between both worlds. For instance, an object is first created in my studio. I elaborate on that on the computer, which is then further elaborated on in the studio. In this way, you deal with constructing and/or designing in a different manner. Certain shapes could not have acquired their exact form without the intermediation of the computer. The way in which you virtually combine, cut or paste a sphere with a cube, I take with me to my studio and vice versa.
I manipulate and isolate elements in order to create my own visual language, and I filter information from the work of predecessors to then develop my own principles. For example, the work SNIBURTAD is inspired by the voluptuousness of the so-called ‘Rubens woman’. This work tries to create a dialogue between old and new. It shows us how new technologies can be used to renew or reinvent the art historical tradition. In this piece, there is an apparent tension between the round forms and the fragile structure surrounding it. Instead of being the internal support structure (endoskeleton), the skeleton is situated outside of the body’s tissue (exoskeleton). This only amplifies the effect of a bulging formlessness that seems to extend itself in space.
Connections abound between seemingly different approaches in my work. Important is art historical connectivity: I’m a sculptor who makes the most of new and contemporary technologies. The computer is thus a crucial new tool in the contemporary sculptor’s toolbox, although it is one which places the sculptor in a more distant, less ‘hands-on’ relation to the work – one removed from its creation. Past, present and future collide in a complexity of materiality that drives a battle between the virtual and the physical. For example, the work LAPIRSUB combines fragmentary elements from the past with a futuristic imagery, a fascinating cyborg-sculpture came into being at the same time, the work can be placed in an ancient sculptural tradition because of the similarities with the classical portrait bust. The surreal image entails a certain mythical power by referring to knights, science fiction and manga figures. While designing the sculpture, I was inspired by robots, aliens, monsters and mysterious creatures that were created by artists like H. R. Giger, creatures that play the leading role in many science fiction movies in the struggle for dominion over the earth. On the other hand, the geometric yet monumental visual language refers to the traditional helmets, jewellery and images from ancient cultures, such as the masks and sculptures from the Inca and Mayan cultures. The visual language catches the eye of the visitors, as if their gaze seems to get lost in the structures and shapes.
Another inspiration is where mutation in our society is viewed as an unnatural element. I worked with the shape of a strawberry in the work AELBWARTS – it’s the modern version of the traditional still life with fruit. In the seventeenth century, strawberries stood for humbleness because they grow low at the ground. This sculpture questions the status of the organic in the 21th century. Fruit and plants are being manipulated to better meet our standards or just to experiment. At universities people are investigating full time on the strawberry. Thanks to the 3D printer we are even able to print our own designed food. It intrigues me as an artist that we can manipulate and personalize food as if it were our little personal artworks. I am fascinated by the future and the possibility that children might create their toys out of a mix of artificial, biological and robotic elements while their parents prepare their meal with yellow strawberries. I tried to capture a moment of flux.
What’s your favourite art work?
NE: Simultaneously, my work holds numerous references to the tradition of sculpture, (such as the work of Hans Arp, Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth) and to architecture (think of Greg Lynn, who introduced the blob as an architectural constructive principle). Consequently, I am particularly interested in how the computer can be used in the realisation of new, organic and experimental (negative) spaces and sculptures within sculptures and how the tension between blobs and boxes is articulated during the digital designing process. Henry Moore’s discovery of the hole in sculpture is for me one of the most significant turning points in the history of sculpture. This created a new code of conduct that entailed a new visual idiom.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
NE: A good collector of mine once called me that he didn’t go to work that day because he spent his time studying the shadow that reflected my work. I have to say that I really enjoy the feeling of people being inspired by my work.
What do you dislike about the art world?
NE: Sometimes I long for a more professional world but whatever I answer to this question, I might think differently about in 10 years.
What role does art funding have?
NE: For me it plays a really important role. Art funding is very important for the careers of many artists. Art funding has helped me before and will help me in the future, to realise my ideas. When you have to do an artwork for a public place like a hospital, they have a limited budget, which is understandable. It’s a good thing to find someone who is interested in helping you to realise you project. But in these times it is hard to only rely on art funding.
What research do you do?
NE: I am searching for the interaction between virtual constructions and handmade sculptures. The digital images are constantly contaminating the three-dimensional shapes and vice versa. The latest developments in the technical world are not a source of inspiration, they’re merely a tool to help me manifest my world. I deliberately choose not to programme my designs using code. I draw sculptures in the classic manner by hand, although this is done straight on to the computer.
The major advantage in this method is that I’m able to design instantly in three dimensions. By doing so I manage time and again to transcend the digital roots of my creations, whether they are small figures or monumental sculptures. The final forms – organic, geometric, liquid, solid – demonstrate a continual flux. The 3D design process creates a different perspective on the evolution of a sculpture than is provided by the classic process of sculpting. I repeatedly push the boundaries of both sculpture and digital media. Where Michelangelo created space for his sculptures by cutting, chiselling and carving away the excess material – the digital sculptor does the opposite. Since my designs are drawn directly in 3D, I build my sculptures in virtual building blocks. The form is not “liberated” from the material but created in a digital drawing process. I advance my designs, sketching and re-sketching them until I arrive at forms that I no longer feels capable of perfecting. This visionary distillation process can mean over a thousand hours of drawing for one sculpture. But it is precisely this search for the essence and simplicity of an object that drives me to new heights.
Sometimes I design, together with my assistants, two to three hundred versions of a sculpture to then choose two of them, amalgamate them and once again draw out something new. There can be armies of variants, complete with all sorts of options and potential roads to take, in the realisation of an idea. In a sense, I’m searching for the ultimate form – at least, a form that can’t be improved at that stage in the evolution of my work. I can then make something else but the point is that there’s nothing better in that specific form. IKRAUSIM is a perfect example of this personal design quest. For this piece, we made at least eight hundred preliminary studies before I found a design good enough to take further. So I’m not the type of artist who wakes up in the night with a brilliant concept that keeps me awake until I’ve put everything down in my notebook. The creative process isn’t that romantic, at least not in my case. Design is always a process of trial and error. That’s a matter of gut feeling, but at the same time of thinking outside the box and having the nerve to not make obvious choices. There are a few rules that I’ve made for myself. I try to avoid 90 degree angles and cruciforms, as these seem to represent the rational and mathematical. For example, a flower never has right angles or cruciforms. I’m not a naturalist, but nature is still a great source of inspiration for me. I’m inspired by classic elements such as the wind and tree stumps and, just like the old masters, I look for the dynamics of the human form within them.
I know exactly where I am headed, but that ‘exactly’ can of course be taken broadly. There are still quite a few steps awaiting me that I would like to develop further. Each time I create or do something I try to look for a new challenge or experiment with something new. This way you can also evolve with your work instead of being stuck in the same place; otherwise I’d rather give it all up. When I first started exhibiting my work, I was often irritated by the colour of the walls or the ceiling, by the lighting or a particular floor, or a wall that seemed wrong. In short, I didn’t have complete control over the whole space. That’s how I developed the idea and the desire to build a completely controllable environment for which I could determine the ceiling, floor – in short, the whole interior.
The use of computer technology can give my work an immaculate, ‘just arrived’ look. At times my sculptural language conjures up specific natural specimens, particularly the tree-like petrified forms of coral. In the past, coral’s interest to collectors and scholars lay in its ambiguous status: variously classified as mineral, plant and animal, it defied attempts to categorise and contain it.
I paint many of my sculptures yellow, a colour that has little relationship to either natural forms or the human body. Symbolically, yellow is linked with the sun and with the solar realm, emphasising the immaterial, weightless qualities of my work. As such, my sculptures often refer to the human body with a kind of uneasy viscerality, defying gravity at the same time as they dazzle with an excess of bodily growth and form.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
NE: I had a dynamic teacher, Danny Matthys, from whom I learned a lot. If a work was in progress, he would secretly move a piece of it so that he could see whether the student noticed that something had changed. Was the student really focused and did he or she see an improvement or had the work suffered? That was our slightly playful method of discussing form, boundaries and possibilities. Another important factor in this course was the interaction with the other students. Every Monday morning, we had a round table discussion in which the students evaluated each other’s work and provided feedback. This greatly helped me to mature and taught me how to formulate my vision and how to defend it. The best piece of advice he gave me was to always believe in myself.
What would you have done differently?
NE: For me, it is impossible to think about what I would have done differently. Every choice you make influences your whole career or even your whole live. I would like to think that if 20 years ago I had the knowledge I have, I would have done it quite differently. But I am not sure if that would have been better than what I have now. Maybe I would never have had an atelier. If I didn’t do half of my work what would it be like now? It’s all questions without answers and maybe it is better not to know at all.
Which technology do you practise and or do you combine different technologies in your work?
NE: I don’t programme anything. I usually use the Autodesk 3ds Max software for designing but all my designs to date have been drawn manually, without programming anything or using algorithms. So, for me, poetry is not in opposition to digital design. In fact, the computer makes this associative thinking possible. It does require a different attitude to digital design. A traditional sculptor or architect starts with a sketch, makes a scale model and then turns this into the finished sculpture or building. The computer allows for a different way of designing and, furthermore, is much faster. I don’t just sit around thinking up ideas that I then set down meticulously. If I had to only work that way, then there would be little challenge in it for me. I’m also fascinated by the way that the computer influences my designs. There’s something human about it because of the unpredictability of the way the software metamorphoses my input and my humanity into forms. This input is not an order but more of an interaction. And this enables the work to grow and evolve, sometimes in a different direction from the one I originally planned.
In fact, this duality between the virtual and the physical permeates my whole life. I played with LEGO until the age of fourteen, until it wasn’t really becoming for a boy of that age. After that I got seriously addicted to computer games. Especially the intelligent games, or so-called god games, like SimCity, Tycoon Traffic, SimTower, Warcraft, Caesar, Red Alert, etc. When I started studying visual arts, I found an excuse to take up ‘handicrafts’ again. I also noticed that computers offered more options in terms of graphics than computer games only. During this time, I produced an enormous amount of sculptural elements and also gained a foundation for thinking spatially. When I studied at the 3D department, I came across sculpture again and got attracted to all kinds of digital effects. The computer pulled my leg, as it were. Meanwhile I learned how to use the computer for my own needs. At the Mixed Media course I was able to make spatial works again. As you see, this duality has been present in my whole life.
My digital prints offer a window into a digital word and also into a different reality. These vistas show possibilities taken from my research in which sculptural elements can re-position themselves within ever new compositions and meanings. Within those real-looking rooms, racks and platforms, there are polymorphous, synthetic forms that are brought to life as mutated molecules by an artistic computer animation. Walls are no longer walls, and gravity no longer exists. I play with sculptural shapes at the blink of an eye, I lift monumental ‘buildings’ and put new life into them. A home changes into a sculpture and unfolds into nothingness. It is a dynamic game with images, materials and space, and a balancing act between conscientious calculation and inspired improvisation.
At a certain moment the prints were no longer suitable to represent certain ideas and I started to develop design sketches and modules to show my sculptures and archive, and to show how they could manifest themselves within the physical realm. That way you can better anticipate what a sculpture is going to look like, what the dimensions are, what the materials are and how it might be inserted in our concrete reality than with a print. This allowed me to create designs for a much larger scale, or preliminary sketches for public space. Even if those are not yet within my reach, I can already document and clarify my idea. Ultimately, I am creating a dialogue between the sculptures and the sketches, between the sculptures and the animations, between the prints and the modules. This way the audience will have no problem translating the physical sculptures into the digital world and imagining the animated images within our reality. Also, you can visualise how the sculpture will ‘behave’ when animated.
AD: What is the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
NE: It is not necessary to attribute a unique meaning to my work. What I do is I break down the barriers of reality with the characteristic structures and colours I use. By doing so, I challenge the viewer to question and to reinterpret his or her own perceptions.
The poetic designs transport the viewer to another dimension, where the imagination is given free rein. The actuality and the implausibility of my fantasy world – with its links to computer games and futuristic tropes – merge together. Viewers become sunk in thought; feel alienated from themselves and their surroundings. The experience is an emotional one, dominated by a sense of wonder. With regard to interdisciplinary, I unite art and science in my work. The importance I place on this crossover results in innovative practices and spectacular designs. For example, I worked in partnership with scientists to develop two series of human mutations and plant mutations, in order to add an extra dimension to both content and form. Although the role of the artist may seem to be diametrically opposed to that of the scientist, the two disciplines can challenge each other. When such a confrontation occurs, reality is hit by the dazzling power of possibility.
How can the people participate in your projects?
NE: Through my divergent practice, a strong fascination with the construction of space is noticeable. I try to create an openness that will attract the viewer to consider my work from different angles. The sculptural contradictions, such as inside/outside and rough/smooth, make these works purely poetic. The clever use of colour enhances the idea of transformation and evolution, and results in an intriguing visual language that has a surprising impact. Ultimately, in an exhibition and even more so in a virtual environment, you are like a kind of director arranging the set and props. I really like powerful, aesthetic, theatrical staging.
How are you connected with the people or the crowd?
NE: The sculptures possess aesthetic values within their own dynamic and freedom. They offer an amusing look at who we are. By not only focusing on the autonomous sculptural object, I also question its spatial positioning and I point to the phenomenological experience and embodiment of space. The works play a sort of trick on the eye. The viewer feels the need to approach the sculptures, disappear into the cavities and to touch them in order to “see” them. Making art signifies integrating oneself into the world of concrete action, of doing what others cannot. Starting points for the sculptures mostly are specific, visible phenomena and forms. Today, with 3D print technology, which builds by means of layers, you can go further than you could before when all you had as tools were your hands and a chisel. This is very exciting to me. With the help of a computer, you can realise new, organic, experimental and negative spaces, so that sculptures are created within sculptures. I don’t just use the technology of 3D printing but also look at how I can flirt with it, how I can transcend its limitations. To this end, I focus on the tension between “blobs” and “boxes”, which manifests in the course of the digital design process. To put it simply, blobs are round shapes and boxes are angular shapes. This is primarily about the contrast between the virtual and the physical, the feminine and the masculine. If I force the tension between these two poles, I perceive that as a fight and a hug simultaneously. Organic, geometric, liquid and solid: the completed forms demonstrate sculpture as a cross-over, as a visual hybrid.
The crowd economy creates meaningful experiences and shared values – how does it apply or connect to your work?
NE: I have never worked with crowdfunding before but I think it’s a fantastic idea. We live in a unique world, where it is possible to realise your great ideas. The crowd economy makes people enthusiastic to work on their new ideas, because there is a possibility to realise them.
How do you handle feedback?
NE: The main thing for me is that a work affects people. I don’t expect everyone to like the story behind a piece. After Jan Hoet spent an hour presenting my work in a rest and care home in Diksmuide, a spirited lady of 92 years old approached me: “I don’t understand the sculpture at all”, she said, “but it does make me feel happy”. If an artwork says everything upfront, then it’s boring because viewers can’t project anything of themselves into the work. All good art has to have a touch of the inexplicable.