Nick Atkins Interview by Maya Kotomori
As someone who conducts interviews in their free time, occasionally for money, there are rare instances when I go into a conversation unprepared. On this rather Mercurially-weathered Tuesday, I found myself profoundly struck by multimedia artist Nick Atkin's disinterest in my questions. Don’t worry, this isn’t any writerly fodder: I’m not the plucky journalist who speaks to the brilliant artist who hates interviews; that simply is not how the story goes. No, instead I write this introduction to share the feeling of being on the precipice I felt when speaking to Nick in his studio, where structure didn’t matter for both our conversation and any writing that was to come from it, where we tipped into the personal, unafraid and unstandardized by a list of sample questions, or talking points. That’s what interviewing is, when you really think about it - please, do as Nick and I did, which was take our shoes off and speak about things that we felt that mattered beyond work, or anything quantifiable.
Maya Kotomori: What's your favorite thing you've ever made? I know that's like picking your favorite kid, but if you had to pick….
Nick Atkins: The one (artwork) that I got the most reaction from, both from audiences and for myself was this wishing well that I did, which was a sculpture that with this huge fountain was pumping, and all this religious iconography and all these different fruits and foods incorporated. It was very universal, and I wanted it to be very universal - people were invited to wish into the well, and I think they needed that - they needed to wish on something. That project was really satisfying to me - it's not the easiest thing to get a lot of people involved in something, but this one really [accomplished that]. I want to focus on that, like the invitation to a universal viewer to interact. Those [installations] aren't commercially successful because there's nothing to buy, but who knows, maybe people will buy the whole thing.
MK: That's the thing too, what you’re talking about with the universal viewer and the well is an incredibly relaxing experience. So many people want to call installations experiences, but there's something very daunting about that word - experience. It makes you feel like you have to experience, like “I'm looking at this artwork and I must get something very productive from it.” When you just have something that exists as an invitation, that's an incredibly relaxing feeling, because there's no expectation for you to feel any type of way - you can throw whatever you want into the wishing well. You could lose an eyelash and make a wish into the fountain.
NA: Absolutely, people threw all types of stuff in there, which was great. People threw figurines, they carved things into pennies; notes and stuff like that. Some people threw paper money in there. The interaction is an important part too. As a kid, they (museum attendants) would kick me and my friend out of every museum because we wanted to interact with the work. When you grow up, you realize that you actually can't touch the sculpture, even though you want to run your hands over it so badly. That’s the interesting thing about ownership of a very valuable piece - that that person can touch it whenever they want. Not every person you could find off the street gets to do that. That’s why I'm like, okay, you're invited to throw something into the well, you can change this work that I put here - I want you to do that. And maybe that's a little bit of mischief too, you know.
MK: I personally support most trolling, there is a level in which it becomes dangerous, but that's very much the world we live in.
NA: I'm a big fan of light trolling - I try to do it through misinformation or mischief. It makes me smile as long as nobody's getting hurt. I especially troll on Instagram, people will see how big a square is and believe [the scale] instantly. So I try to troll with the simplest dumbest Photoshop, make the square big, make it look like there's a big sign of mine outside of a museum or insert my artwork into high falutin' showswhose curators don’t even know who I am - and people believe it. They’re like “Congratulations!” And that - that it in itself is the troll. You know, if people see it, they'll believe it. A little kid could Photoshop themselves into a museum and people would believe it.
MK: You watch enough tutorials on YouTube, and you can troll infinitely.
NA: Yeah. Not even - you can do it on your phone now! You can make a fake whatever. There are so many scammers in the world generally, but I think it's interesting, like art fraud. I mean, if people see something and believe it, what's to say that that artwork shouldn't be in that show, or it shouldn't be in that museum. People like it. They want to see it there. They believe that it is there.
MK: Oh for sure, if you hold a level of believability to something, like if you really believe Mao Tze Dong is reincarnated in Donald Trump, for example, then to you that's real. That’s your reality because you willed it.
NA: Yeah, I mean we’ve seen that [idea] shape history in the past two or three years. I like the lighter hearted [trolling], to be honest. I like mischief. I like the old, simple type of troll. The dark stuff I think is a little too much of an exposé into the bad side of humanity. I prefer to skim the surface, but when it comes to the art, I feel like I try to go more into an emotional level, like basic things: sex, death, loss, relationships - just the stuff that I'm dealing with on a regular basis and the stuff that I'm interested in, and then just try to find a way to encapsulate that visually. I like to find an image that reminds me of these types of human emotions. And then reuse, reuse, reuse until I've explored my idea on that emotion at that time. And usually if I do it correctly, people will understand what I'm talking about.
MK: I'm not a fan of the superlative, so this is a very loose question, but what would you identify as the most mischievous thing you've made or done in the past week?
NA: What day is it?
MK: *Swashbucklingly* Today is Tuesday.
NA: Alright - trying to track back. I don't know if this is mischief or just how people do it, but I go to work and I do what I think [it is] that people are supposed to do. I'm grateful for my job and it's on the cooler, more artistic side of things, but it's a job which is its own life. Then I come home, and I get up to some antics, or I sit here thinking about images that I want to use to express myself for my own art and wellbeing. I feel like I’m almost getting away with something, which is the core of any kind of mischief. It does feel like there's a world, and then there's my world - and I'm in control of my world. I have to be in the regular world most of the day, but when I'm in my world, I'm in control.
MK: There is something mischievous about that double life. Even if your “home” is taking your shoes off and watching South Park for 11 hours, that technically is a completely different world than the real one, and it is mischievous that you're able to get away with having a work personality and then having a private one.
NA: I don't know if I'd necessarily agree that consuming television necessarily fits. I think that [in the case of] the mischief maker, or the person getting [away with something] would be the creators of South Park, because their job is to make this insane show that people consume for hours, which gets them paid. Now, if someone’s coming home from work and watching South Park, and they have their partner in a cage with some sexual craze, that’s mischief. There has to be one more level for me to feel like it's actual mischief - I'm not talking [specifically] about sexual deviance, I'm talking about something that's not what they want us to do.
NA: They're legendary. In my opinion, they are the epitome of doing exactly what they want to do to the point where they’ve [been able to] make a lot of money from it. They're truly geniuses. They love mischief, they love chaos and they're great at it. They're actually the antithesis of the person I'm talking about - there's society, and then there's the people that are creators within society. If you’re successful enough, your creation becomes a part of society where it can get people to laugh. That’s huge to me, that's like one of the biggest accomplishments. When people look at my work and get a kick out of it – that’s one of the most important things that could come from a visual image; laughter.
MK: Oh, for sure.
NA: When I was a little kid, the big South Park thing was some Jesus and Santa Claus troll and people stood on their heads like “this cannot happen.” But everyone laughed at it – everyone loved it.
MK: You know? Well, that's the thing – people were so mad about that. They thought it was gonna cause chaos, but it didn't cause chaos, it caused laughter. That laughter was chaos. One of the most rebellious acts is to laugh in the face of something crazy, and not to laugh in a way to ignore it, but to laugh at the absurdity of real circumstances.
NA: What I subscribe to is: if you have the ability, or eventually have the ability to laugh, then that's healing - like, there's nothing I can do. I think about that in my art too, sometimes you just need that laugh to start healing.
MK: Deep question. What are you (as an artist) trying to heal from?
NA: I think for a long time as a kid, I thought life was a game. I'm talking a lot about life being funny, but I don't think life is a game and I don't think emotion is a game, but I thought [it was], and I thought it would be okay to die - I didn't think it was that big of a deal. A lot of my idols in art and music were dead and they died young, and I thought that was okay. I chased it, I think, for a while. This isn't like a main thing that I'm healing from, but I think this is a lot of what I'm reacting to (artistically), like understanding that I'm comfortable with death and that I don't want to die now, but in this time of my life I didn't mind either way, and I lived that way. Now when I look at relationships or conversations like this one, I'm just so grateful that I'm not trying to heal from [that time in my youth], I'm trying to basically recoup ideas, and if these ideas can help somebody else heal from something or just get that simple relief of a laugh, I think that's what I'm looking after. I was actively interested in chasing death and now I'm actively interested in chasing life.
MK: That's like the Trainspotting “choose life” bit.
NA: I think they nailed that. [The movie] comes down to a person negating their life and then realizing that they actually want to live their life. Yeah. And he's (Renton) trying to tell people to choose to be a regular person. Unfortunately people end up looking at these sexy people doing drugs and partying and think like “I could do drugs and I can party and I can negate life.” I don't think people are that dumb. rom a younger perspective, it is like that, but now I'm looking at it as a little more grown. [Choosing life] is the desired outcome of the movie, not the cosmetic outcome of that movie, which was people shooting smack ‘cus it looked so fun.
MK: People look at that movie like “this is a game,” for sure. It looked brilliant.
NA: When they package it all up in a Hollywood thing, especially a movie [like Trainspotting] that's directed and shot so well…
MK: That was me too. When I first saw Skins (UK), I wanted to be Effy Stonem so bad – I wanted to be manic-depressive just like her because she looked so gorgeous while fucking her whole world up. I still think Skins (UK) is one of the most brilliant television shows to air, but that show was a game to me. I thought if I had the stones to (somehow) make myself as mentally ill as Effy then I could have that gorgeous life, and that was the game. I grew up and realized that wanting is the game.
NA: Absolutely. It’s the opposite for me – my brain is firing at all times, so if I do watch or consume [media], it has to turn my brain off. I’m a Kung Fu Panda fan, I like a Pixar film. I like the shit that shuts my brain off.
MK: What’s your favorite Pixar movie?
NA: I don't know if Kung Fu Panda's Pixar, but I also like The Incredibles.
MK: What do you have to say about your childhood? Not on like any Freudian weird shit – I guess I’ll ask what’s something you would tell a stranger in your house right now about your childhood?
NA: I loved my childhood, man. For me,that wonder, excitement,intrigue and curiosity of being a child is something I'm trying to maintain in my life and in my artwork.
MK: I see that joy and wonder in your jewelry. Why jewelry? Where did that come from?
NA: Well, some of the simple things that I'm looking for in my art don't require a rectangular canvas. In fact, it's harder for me to achieve those things in a rectangular canvas. From a jewelry point of view, all the same principles apply – it’s wonder, intrigue, slight trolling and humor. Jewelry has also been really satisfying these days because you get a lot out of it - it's shiny, neat, beautiful. People want it. And that want is also slightly mischievous in a way. Jewelry is also timeless – it has longevity which is important to me. People have family heirlooms that have lasted so many lives, it’s intriguing to me that a piece of metal and a stone from the earth can be handed down through generations and mean a lot more than just that piece of metal and that piece of stone.
Maya Kotomori is a 23 year old arts and entertainment journalist and pre-modern enthusiast from Riverside, California. Her work is really fun and rated E for Everyone Read It.