TAO: Much of your work balances the material forms of language with their capacity to refer to things. These works seem to involve everyday objects and experiences just as often as formal experiments with grammar and linguistic structure. Are you seeking to adjudicate and test the expressive potential of language against everyday experience?
TN: In a number of my artworks I try to distinguish between the material and referential features of language: how the physical form of a word points to a semantic cluster, or how the grammatical arrangement of words describes a temporal perspective. Disrupting the everyday pairing of material and referential features, or putting this pairing in tension, can make language break down into nonsense or give way to new expressiveness—which is which depends as much on the writer/speaker as the listener/reader.
Working between visual art and writing, I’m interested in borrowing these material forms from language and leaving their references hanging. For instance in ‘Doing Words with Things’ I worked with the physical morphology of sign language and paired it with the physical gestures of everyday hand movements. In ‘Musica Practica’ the positions of author and reader are muddled when an orchestra conductor intervenes into everyday situations and the public becomes audience, orchestra, score and composer all at once. In ‘Keeping Time’ the camera tracks the movement of a pen nib as ink emanates from it, forming word-like shapes that the camera is too close to identify.
When they are living outside of language, these material forms are no longer tied to external references in the same way, so they have to manage their own referentiality. They have to be rather than mean. What invariably emerges is that real-world material forms have referentiality too: they also mean, but never quite in the same way as linguistic material. So yes, you might say I’m testing language against everyday experience, but I’m testing its referential structure rather than its expressive potential.
TAO: Your artwork and writing often addresses the movement or passing of time. Does this relate to how you anticipate your work changing over time?
TN: One thing language tries to do is capture things before they go away. Giving things names, describing things, writing things down: these are all attempts to catch stuff that passes. Recently I’ve been thinking of the practice of making art as a practical resolution to do something about this loss. Art offers one way to absorb the passing of time and the passing of stuff—or at least, when that never works, it offers a way to accommodate the loss or mitigate against it. There is a tragic quality to all this but it’s balanced with pragmatism, and the artworks I’m developing at the moment tend to acknowledge this balance quite explicitly. I’m currently working with biography and literary fiction, and representational drawing seems to be getting involved too. The lines are growing hairs.