DISINI Discovers – Nabilah Nordin
Nabilah's sculptures might not look like the prettiest of things. Some of them slouch and slump; some are roughly hewn, others bulbous and swollen. But come closer—touch and feel—and you’ll find familiar shapes. A cushion, folded in half; a reclining man, perhaps? To appreciate her work is to imagine the extremely textural, hands-on, and impulsive nature of the process—taking found objects or skeletal frames and giving them new lives and stories. Nabilah shares that her sculptures are about movement and change, something that the Singaporean-born and Melbourne-based artist can fully understand. We speak to her about her creative process, coconut trees, and ayam masak lemak.
1/ What was your first memory of art?
That’s so hard! I think it would have to be during primary school. We’d have to create books and I would just copy and paste the information, but spend hours on the cover, title, and pictures. I remember this project on the Universe that I did. I tore up crepe paper and rolled it into balls, and stuck the bits on, individually, for the title. My mum helped because it took so long. I think the actual project was rubbish but it looked very nice!
4/ We’ve read that you lived in 21 different homes across Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and America during the time you were practicing art. How do you think that has influenced your work?
It’s definitely informed my thinking and the way I make. I’m always curious about the ideas of home and place, and what it means to be a Malay female in the 21st century, moving around, making the works that I do, and where all that fits in today’s world. I think about my sculptures as constantly moving and changing as well; they have quite a temporal quality.
2/ How did you get started with art?
I started painting when I was very young, but I focused more on art when I was 18. I’m 27 this year; I did my undergrad studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and then I went on to do my Masters at the Victoria College of the Arts.
3/ Why the shift from painting to sculpting?
I still paint as well, but I now focus more on sculpture. While I was in art school, I always wanted my paintings to be three-dimensional, in some way. It was almost like a sign to me that I wanted to escape the canvas, and do things in the real space.
5/ What do you hope people will feel or think about when they look at your art?
I hope people can feel a sense of the material, and a closeness with the imperfections, textures, and layers, the sort of mistakes in the work. I want people to connect in a visceral way, so a lot of my sculptures are very thick, and very bodily, and I hope people are very intrigued by those qualities.
6/ You’ve mentioned that your artwork is also about overproduction—why?
It’s just an overwhelming feeling that we get in the material world: how everything is so manufactured and fast, big and in bulk. I celebrate that indulgence in material, of things being ‘maximal’. In the production sense as well—for DISINI I had two weeks to make 10 sculptures and I like that intensity. It's the labour, like the body becoming a machine. It’s impulsive and quick work; I don't like to spend too long pondering over a lot of things.
7/ So is the work mostly organic as it comes along?
Most of it is improvised, but I think over time I’ve developed a language. I know what works or doesn’t; it’s not completely random.
9/ We’re curious about the found objects that you use in your work—how or why do you pick them?
Usually with found objects, I’m thinking about how to make the sculpture stable. It’s about finding the heavy, sculptural things, and also the lighter ones like styrofoam and stuffing, which can go on the top. Also things that I can plaster over; plaster just cracks off metal, for example, so if I use metal then I have to wrap it with fabric or something. It’s about what’s workable, and what can easily break as well, so that I can reuse it. My sculptures for DISINI are very different because they don’t have that quality—where you can just smash them and use them again. That’s always exciting: to see how far materials can go. You can still use them even at the point where they’re just pieces.
10/ Can you tell us a bit about the 10 sculptures you’ve made for DISINI?
These aren’t made out of found objects; they’re welded frames with cement. In my installations, I usually do lots and lots of sculptures so this is quite a small amount compared to what I would normally put in. The sculptures are all going to be installed as a cluster, so they’re going to be like a tribe. The purpose of them being very close together is so that people can be immersed in it, and see it more as a spatial thing because it’s large and overwhelming. This is like a development of a previous installation that I did in Melbourne called Endgame. It was about practicing that same language, which comes from everywhere—sometimes narratives that I made up, or things and moments in art history that have all been blended together and regurgitated in some way.
14/ Do you have any favourite artists?
My artist heroes are Phyllida Barlow and Sarah Lucas. And then there are other artists like Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. I love the size of their work, and the theatrical elements. It just speaks to me.
15/ You went on to do another Masters in Business Management because you felt that your art education didn’t give enough depth as to how to run a business.
I wanted to learn something more concrete that can fit into any industry. I didn't want to limit myself because you never know what might interest you in the future. For me that’s something I’m always constantly thinking about, but I think it’s really important to have some security as an artist and to be able to wear different hats, because that’s what the world asks for.
17/ Do you have a favourite comfort food?
Ayam Masak Lemak (Chicken with Turmeric Coconut Curry). It’s my mum’s cooking. Because I’m not with my parents and I miss her cooking, when I come back to Singapore I eat a lot of her food to last me for the months that I won’t be with them. I need to make sure that when I leave I’m sick of the food here, so that I’ll recover and miss it then get that dose again when I come back.
18/ What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t doing art?
I’m also really interested in the digital design space and design thinking, and how people merge space with technology, like augmented reality and things like that. I think that could be something that could support my art practice.
20/ Is there something else that you’re working on now, or a dream project you’d love to work on?
Ayam Masak Lemak I think they’re all dream projects! This was a dream project and so is the next one, which is gonna be collaborative with Nick for OH! Open House in Singapore as well. I think my dream would be to have a massive space, with very high ceilings and good lighting (and air-conditioning), and an enormous production budget to make a thousand sculptures.
8/ Do you think your style of art has changed over the years?
It’s definitely changed, but I think some things have stayed the same. The quickness has always been there. I’ve never been detailed or enjoyed painting realistically. In this work I painted a rectangle, and, for the first time, even used tape to paint it. But I think that the moment when I felt like something was starting to develop was during my Masters studies. I also have a collaborative practice with my partner Nick Modrzewski, who’s a painter and sculptor, and makes videos and sounds as well. Together we have a shared language so it’s like balancing that out and having my own thing as well, but it keeps changing all the time. It keeps things fresh.
11/ There’s a lot of greenery in Gillman Barracks. How did that affect the way you thought about your sculptures? Has the environment had an impact on what you created?
I’ve never put my sculptures in a natural, outdoor setting before, and for nine months as well. I had to start thinking about how to make them durable, something I don’t normally think about. But I was so inspired by the clash of things happening in that space—you get the coconut trees and the lush green space but then there’s this carpark with all these BMWs and Mercedes, and high-rise buildings across the road. It’s such a mishmash of different things and I think that that reflects in my work.
12/ What do you think about when you create your work?
There’s the thing about trying to make it stable, and also how I can make all these found objects into one singular thing. They’re all parts with different histories, and I think they all have a certain type of character, like a person. I’m always thinking about what sort of qualities I want this one thing to have. Each of them has a different personality. But when they’re all together, that’s when I feel overwhelmed and excited, because it’s like bringing all these different stories together in one place.
13/ How does your home look like, with all these found objects?
I have one room that is set up with different stations of things that I've categorised, like soft materials, metal, and wood. When I work in the studio, I’m in the middle of all these stations and I can easily access things from around the ring. I have another room where I keep all my pieces that I don't wanna break; sometimes I just feel to attached to them or sometimes my partner’s like, “Don't break this one, I love it!” In another room I keep sculptures from past shows that I don’t really like, and break to reuse. There’s a whole cycle that goes on there.
16/ There was an exhibition that you did called Chicken Shop, where you set up small sculptures on tables in a hawker centre in Singapore. What was it about and how did people react to it?
That was really great. It was the first time we showed in Singapore; it was a collaboration with my partner Nick, and it was really interesting to bring art out of the white cube and connect people who don’t usually look at art. My uncle has a chicken shop in that hawker centre, and it was nice that my family came. The sculptures were placed in the middle of tables and people looked at the work and even chose to sit where the sculptures were. There were lots of laughs for that one night. We just brought the art there, had dinner, and took it all back home. It was fun.
19/ Is there any advice that you’d give to aspiring artists?
Something that’s really stuck with me is from my younger brother—he said to me that passion is something that you have to earn. I can have a whole conversation about that but I think the basis is that it’s not a privilege or something that lands on your lap; it’s something that you have to sustain and work for, and that’s why I’ve decided to study again.
21/ As an artist, how would you measure success?
It’s not a money or hierarchical thing. I think it’s very personal. I’m sure there are artists who have been practicing for 20–30 years that start to feel a sense that they’ve made it. It doesn’t have to mean that they’ve shown in the best museums or galleries; maybe it’s more about their practice and personal journey. Maybe they’ve connected with a lot of people who have responded to their work the way they’ve wanted, and that’s a sense of success as well. It really depends.