Ever since graduating from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy (Amsterdam), young Dutch artist Milena Naef and her Fleeting Parts have been drawing an increasing amount of attention. But her work isn’t just original, there is a whole world behind her impressive technique. We sat down for a chat with her to discuss sculpture, performing arts, the difficulties of coming from an impressive family and the importance of occasionally giving yourself a break.
You come from a family of sculptors. How did this influence your work?
Well, the work that I did with marble is very much about that. I grew up in this context: from my father’s side going down four generations, everyone was a sculptor. This environment – my father being a sculptor as well – surrounded me. Then I started art school and, of course, I never wanted to work with stone, it never even crossed my mind. But then, at some point, I got more and more fascinated by it, so eventually I started sculpting.
It was a bit difficult for me. I kept asking myself questions like “So what if I start to work with stone now? What does this mean? Where does this put me in relation to my family? How will I find my own place if I just follow my family’s footsteps?” And everyone around me also had a similar opinion: “Oh, but of course! You come from a family of sculptors so this is in your blood.” It was a bit frustrating for me. I wanted to find my own approach to working with stone; I wanted to develop my own way of doing it, a different way to the very traditional one I had seen in the sculpting school of my dad, for example.
Therefore, you developed your series Fleeting Parts.
I actually made a work before that. There was this big piece of marble, a rock actually. I took out a negative of my leg and drilled a hole through the stone so that I could hang it up with a crane and place it directly on my leg. I called this work Weight of Four Generations. For me, this was quite literally dealing with the context of my family. Putting that weight on my body, making it an extension, and at the same time, creating something that only fits ‘my’ body. The weight didn’t allow me to move, but at the same time, I was the one who chose to put it on me and acted it out myself. It was quite liberating, something I decided to do; I became part of the sculpture, it became an extension of me.
And then I continued with this idea. I saw some marble plates in my school and I started questioning. How much do they weigh? How do they relate to my body? With the big piece of marble, you just know: I cannot handle this by myself. But with marble plates, which are actually cut, you can’t immediately see – can you carry them by yourself or not? And so I started to go through all the material and to see what I could handle and how did it stand in relation to my body. I continued with this idea of combining it with the marble, taking out holes, etc. and it was nice because it didn’t feel like it had so much to do anymore with my family background anymore. It wasn’t any more about doing this symbolic act of placing a big marble stone on myself, it just abstracted parts of my body.
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How do you usually display this work? Do you do a performance every time?
I started with performing it myself, but not always and for a very short time. I wouldn’t announce it as a performance, though, I would just sometimes see how the situation was and then slid myself inside the sculpture basically. I didn’t do it for a long time because I didn’t want it to be a performance but more like an interaction. I displayed it in different ways: I would sometimes have the marble plates together with the mould that I had made with wood and plaster because I wanted to take away the importance of the material. Marble itself is just marble but it easily becomes a very aesthetic material and I didn’t necessarily wanted it to be like that. Then, at some point, I started to exhibit it with photographs of me inside the marble plates together with the plates themselves and this is how I exhibit it now. I don’t really feel like I have to perform it anymore, the pictures are good enough.
So you don’t consider yourself a performer, you feel more close to sculpture and visual arts than to performing arts?
Yeah, well, it’s a bit funny. I have this hate/love relationship with performances. I never want to do them but I often end up doing interactive work or actually performing. I always find myself in a position where I’m interacting with my sculptures.
Most of your work features research on the body and its plasticity. For example, your Morphing series shows a very accurate, almost photographic, study of the pose. Where does this come from?
It’s a very good question. I often ask myself where does this fascination for myself come from? Why am I always using my body and creating physical interactions? I think my work got a lot more physical when, next to my studies, I started doing African dances. I got obsessed with dancing, with using my body, with moving. This actually started in order to give myself a diversion and not think of my art all the time, I wanted to do something which had nothing to do with it.
But my projects automatically became much more physical although I didn’t necessarily intend them to be that way. Besides this, the project related to my family, which was a lot about finding my own place and space. I mean, we all have a body, but at the same time, everyone deals with its own mental obsessions and this translates into different ways of placing oneself into the world. And this was, well, what mainly drove me at that time.
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So your inspiration comes from your body, not from bodies or physical presences in general, it is something that comes from you?
Yes, very much so.
And besides your body and dealing with an impressive family background, what else inspires your work?
I am actually asking this myself a lot at the moment. Right now, I am not working on any project and I also feel that I want to distance myself from my previous ones in order to allow myself to make new steps towards new things that mustn’t necessarily connect to what I have been doing before. So of course, once I took a break and I stepped outside everything that had been going on until now, I also found myself wondering about where did it all come from and how do I proceed from there, what will be the source of inspiration for my future works. In general, though, I take inspiration from very simple things; the simpler the better.
How is it like to be a young artist nowadays? There is always the general idea that it is extremely hard, but you seem to be doing rather well.
I think I was quite lucky. I got a lot of exposure after graduating and many requests to show my work. I was also asked to do new projects, to do a performance, I did a lot of interviews, I got lots of exposure online, etc.; in that way, it has been going extremely way. I also think that in The Netherlands you have a lot of opportunities as an emerging artist, which I guess in a lot of other countries you don’t. For example, if you look at the graduation shows and the amount of galleries which go there… I can’t make a comparison with other countries but I know that in The Netherlands, if you really want to and you push yourself, you can get your chance. Right now, I am applying for funding and I know that if I get it for one more year I will be able to focus just on my art and it will be a great opportunity for me.
Of course, I had to find a job after I graduated and that took a lot of focus away from my processes. There is always a certain amount of luck you have to have but I think this has to do with everything. But actually, I had to kind of pull the break for myself. I got many requests to do new work but mostly based on what people had seen previously, which is great. But as I said before, right now I need time to detach myself completely from what I have done in order to take a step forward. I felt that if I accepted proposals to do new, commissioned work, then I wouldn’t be ready to take that step; I would have had to fit in with what I had done previously because that is what people liked and what they knew. It was a bit confusing for me, but this is a personal thing.
Your latest project took place during Kunst op de koffie in Arnhem (The Netherlands), could you tell us more about it?
It took place in this neighbourhood of Arnhem. Every artist would be assigned to a house and a house owner and produce artwork that would then be exhibited in their space. I took some furniture that could have been from their house and I basically did to it what I had previously done for Fleeting Parts. It was intense. When I was asked to do this, I was working in a hotel in Amsterdam; I only had two weeks of vacation. I went home and just ‘did the thing’; it was purely producing. And that was also when I thought “You know what, I don’t need to be just purely producing now, I need time to do research and create new art”.
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