All Dressed

Always Another Medium: in conversation with Nelson Henricks

Undeniably, there is something thrilling about hardware stores. Artists love them. Maybe it’s the sheer volume and variety of objects on display, a microcosm of possible worlds: hammers, hinges, ladders, lightbulbs — everything including the kitchen sink. Maybe it’s the unmistakable hardware store smell, that combination of turpentine and sawdust that awakens the senses.

Whatever it is, the Montreal-based artist and academic Nelson Henricks, whose two multimedia installations, Don’t You Like The Green of A and Heads Will Roll, are currently featured at the Musée d’art contemporain’s auxiliary Place Ville Marie space, finds inspiration there, too.

“There are certain places that I go,” Henricks tells me about locating his creative muse. “There’s also this really great prop shop in the east end of Montreal called Gascon & Krukowski and I just love going there and looking through all their stuff. I think there can be these places, like hardware stores, that really inspire us, and materials that really inspire us.”

Nelson Henricks is one of Montreal’s most interesting contemporary artists. In 2002, he won the coveted Bell Canada Prize in Video Art. He has curated programmes at the Montreal Festival of Cinema and New Media and the Saidye Bronfman Centre. Henricks’s works reside in the permanent collections of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his writing has been collected in numerous edited volumes and magazines. He teaches supercool courses at Concordia on subjects like “Video History and Theory” and “Art Culture(s) and Technology,” and he will soon begin a collaboration with Ubisoft, the video game company.

Henricks’s works have a prop shop material quality to them. It is not immediately clear to which tradition they belong. Are they video art, or sculpture; are they paintings, or fashion, or wallpaper? Among them, there are key elements of all of these things operating in accord. “It’s really like a series of components that mutually reinforce each other,” Henricks explains of the two shows. “You have the spotlights, you have the video, you have the paintings and the costumes, and they’re working like a network. There’s a series of parts that come together.”

The tongue-in-cheek piece entitled Heads Will Roll prominently features a figure wearing a drum as a helmet, along with other noisemaking elements loosely related to civil disobedience and social protest. For the installation, Henricks collaborated closely with Stuart Jackson, the classically trained percussionist.

“I was really interested in working with [Jackson] because he could play a lot more accurately than I could,” Henricks says, self-deprecatingly.

“My timing was really off, when you get down to the millisecond level. Whereas Stuart had a lot more accuracy because he’s a professional musician. He can play with a metronome and almost match it to the millisecond — which was great. In our conversations, he was telling me about all these different things we could do, and all of these different things he was playing: pieces of metal, glass bottles, or using Styrofoam on drums and getting drums to resonate in different ways. Then the idea became, why not get Stuart to play pots and pans? So, it will kind of be about the Maple Spring.”

But for Henricks, there was also a deeply personal connection: “These are pots and pans that belonged to my grandmother and my mom. So there’s this idea of a call, in a way, like banging on a pot or a pan to call people in from the field at the end of a work day. So they’re about this relationship to family, too, like my grandmother’s voice, and finding a way to put that in the work.”

On an altogether different note, Don’t You Like The Green of A poses synesthesia, the fusion of two or more senses, as its central theme. “It’s been with me for as long as I can remember,” Henricks says of his own grapheme-color variety, the most common synesthetic instance in which subjects associate colours and alphabetical letters, and which Henricks shares with the late American abstract painter Joan Mitchell.

Henricks tells me that his synesthesia even extends to days of the week and months of the year, “like, Thursday begins with ‘T,’” he says, “so it has the same colour as ‘T.’ Or Monday begins with ‘M,’ so it has the same colour as ‘M.’ Part of my doctoral research was really around this question of synesthesia,” Henricks explains, “and the thing that I noticed in my art practice was other artists, and people, had synesthesia. And one of them was Joan Mitchell.”

Researching Mitchell sent Henricks down the proverbial rabbit hole: “The machine driving Don’t You Like The Green of A is this colour chart that Joan Mitchell drew up where she was documenting her colour-letter associations really precisely. I really tried to track down what her colour-letter associations were. This involved contacting the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York and having a back-and-forth with them about that. I think sometimes things that inspire me are just encountering interesting little historical incidents or factoids that intrigue me.”

Henricks, however, is reticent to spell out the meaning or draw any quick conclusions. “As an artist, your words have a lot of weight,” Henricks suggests. “And they can really quickly shut down any sort of productive ambiguity about the work, and really anchor it in a certain type of context. So I try to be careful about talking about the work in those ways. I find that talking about the two pieces at the museum has been really challenging. On one hand, Don’t You Like The Green Of A is a really research-based piece, and it was coming out of a lot of facts. And Heads Will Roll was really more of a musical, compositional problem. There was this woman over at our house and she’d seen the show and she was saying, one piece really works on your mind, and one piece really works on your body. I found that a really interesting thing to say. Like, Heads Will Roll kind of works more on your body. It works more on the level of sensation.”

It was that sensorial attraction that spurred Henricks to incorporate programmes of Andy Warhol’s films along with his exhibition: a series of six Warhol works, including Kiss and Haircut, were screened on 16mm in January at the Cinémathèque Québécois, and a selection of Screen Tests — Warhol’s renowned single-reel facial studies — are projected in a loop in the MAC’s peripheral screening room. Warhol’s works are a fitting accompaniment to Henricks’s immense mixed media installation — big chunks of colour, big chunks of video, and definitively, big chunks of human experience.

“There were certain other parallels I was seeing between the Screen Tests and the work I was making for the show,” Henricks recalls: “a kind of monumental presentation of the face, and a really sculptural way of presenting time. These big blocks of time are just on display.”

“During the lockdown, I read this catalogue of the Screen Tests,” says Henricks, “And I found it really fascinating reading and I was like, I wish I could see them. And then another catalogue came out last year — this really minute documentation of all the Warhol films from ’63 to ’65 — and I knew some of these works because I had seen them in different contexts over the years. But again, I was kind of like polling people I knew and asking if anybody would be interested in seeing Warhol films in Montreal. Like, am I the only person who would want to see these things? Apparently not.”

The double feature showing of the dual-screen gem Outer and Inner Space paired with a Velvet Underground concert was sold out, and a number of eager cineastes attended all three evenings.

“When I went to the Museum with a proposition of doing a Warhol programme, they were really enthusiastic about it, which was a pleasant surprise,” says Henricks. “I was just thinking about that space at the museum, that kind of black box, and presenting something in there that wasn’t so demanding. They are demanding in a way, but it’s a really modular programme. You could watch one, or two, or three — as many as you want. They’re silent, so they’re contemplative. They’re not really narrating at you.”

On the final night at the Cinémathèque, the post-film discussion, moderated by the McGill professor Ara Osterweil, turned to notions of film’s material significance. Warhol’s works are notoriously difficult to see. Save for some YouTube bootlegs, few digital copies exist. “They’re not expensive,” Henricks says. “You just phone the Warhol Museum and rent them and screen them. But I subscribe to Criterion Channel and why aren’t these on Criterion?”

“I believe in that idea of medium specificity,” Henricks declares, “and I do say to my students, when you get a chance to see a 16mm film version of Warhol, or Stan Brakhage, or Michael Snow, go out and see these works. But then another part of me wonders how much of that doesn’t become a form of censorship, how much it doesn’t become a form of gatekeeping. There’s kind of a snobbery around the work, and I think that, ultimately, these things were meant to be shown. I think that the quality of projection at the MAC — these are digital copies, and they look great. They look amazing! Were there flaws in the Cinémathèque projection that could have been avoided had we been using digital copies? Yes, absolutely.”

The question of analogue or digital, software or hardware, medium or message, elicits genuine ambivalence.

“I wish I could give a rubber stamp of the guy holding his chin. I’m really divided and I feel like, ultimately, the work at the MAC, especially Don’t You Like The Green of A, is a piece that’s completely about refuting the importance of materiality. I’m saying, this work could be wallpaper, or it could be paintings, or it could be projection, or it could be a video — and it doesn’t really matter.”◼︎

Nelson Henricks New Works continues at the Musée d’art contemporain until 10 April 2023.