15 nov 2021

Bernice Nauta, exhibition text, Gisanne Hendriks


Bernice Nauta
A spider named Feather has a lot to say but has no ears
06 November - 11 December 2021
Block C, Groningen


Bernice Nauta (1991) graduated from KABK in The Hague in 2013, and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree ‘F for Fact’ at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. Based in The Hague, she is part of the artist-run gallery Billytown where she previously organized several exhibitions. Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions around The Netherlands, and in such cities as Brussels and New York. Bernice also followed residency programs at NIKI in Hannover (DE), Orbital Residency, Cantabria (ES), and Sundaymorning@ekwc, Oisterwijk (NL).


Exhibitions in Block C do not often have such long titles as A spider named Feather has a lot to say but has no ears. The title was created by the artist and refers to the myth that she wrote for this exhibition. This myth does not refer to a distant past, nor is it a prevailing thought that needs to be debunked. Instead, it is a narrative in and of itself that reveals Bernice’s internal dialogue.1 

The myth was written in response to a struggle of two conflicting perspectives that constantly clash with one another: the fear of making more paintings and the strong will to paint. Looking for a way out of this spiral, Bernice came up with the idea of putting herself in the shoes of the object of one of her fears: the spider. The sculpture titled What kind of spider knows about arachnophobia? (2021) responds to this transformation. 

Near the heater, at the right-hand side of the entrance in the exhibition space, a broom leans against the wall. In between the wall and the broom, a thread of headphone cables has been stretched in the form of a spider web. An excerpt from the song ‘Free Will and Testament’ by Robert Wyatt is playing through the headphones. We can hear the words “what kind of spider knows about arachnophobia?” It is a well-known fact that spiders do not fear their own kind. By imagining herself as being the spider, Bernice tries to outsmart her fear. 

After reading the chapter ‘Playing String Figures with Companion Species’ from the book Staying with the Trouble by American author Donna J. Haraway, Bernice developed the concept of the spider’s web. String figures are images formed by making string on, around, and using one’s fingers. It is about “(...) giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing, but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn't there before (...)”.2 Well-known examples are the ‘Cup and Saucer’ and the ‘Witches Broom’ (or ‘Parachute’). Haraway uses the metaphor of string figuring to conceive of a non-linear form of storytelling. Bernice used the concept to her own advantage in order to further develop the concept of the spider’s web. After the web has been created, the spider carefully collects and sorts what is caught in the web. Bernice translates this working method to painting and calls it “brainless painting” or “non-identity mode of thinking”; a position she takes in her working process which excludes passing premature judgment.

A conversation with Bernice is like reading a book. With great curiosity, she immerses herself in stories about people, animals, habits, patterns, systems, texts, movies, myths, the commonplace, and art history. In fact, everything that takes place around Bernice is a potential source of inspiration for a work of art. Within this curiosity lies the artist’s strong desire to create. Sometimes, she is intrigued by a phrase or a way of looking at things, which she then incorporates into one of her stories or objects. As the self-created world of a new character unfolds, doors continually open to new stories that fit within that world. What led to creating it, or how it was processed, is not always reflected in her artworks. With these stories, Bernice seems to constantly find different ways to relate to the world, and to stretch her adaptability in order to continually be something or someone else. 

‘Feather’ was preceded by ‘Figure T’, ‘Skia’, and ‘Schelm’ and ‘Benny Snouta’, the latter of which sounds like ‘Bernice Nauta’ as it ought to be pronounced. Bernice created these characters by using parts of her own biography and subsequently employing fiction to further shape them. The myths are the storylines which surround the characters. Their personalities might clash or may be extensions of each other. 

Feather’s name is inspired by the French word nom-de-plume, which literally means ‘the name of the writing quill’. It is the pen-name of the writer. Bernice narrated the story of Feather in the sculpture that bears the same name as the exhibition: A spider named Feather has a lot to say but has no ears. You can hear the story softly emerge from the spider’s web – again made of headphones – underneath the bricks. 

Sometimes, artists use parts of their biography to portray themselves in a certain way, which is then repeatedly confirmed by people writing about it, as I myself am about to do. One of the most famous examples in the art world is the myth surrounding the artist Joseph Beuys. The story goes that as a soldier in World War II, Beuys crashed with an airplane into the territory of the Tartars, who were passing through Eastern Europe and Western Asia. They allegedly found Beuys and rubbed him in fat and wrapped him in felt to preserve his body temperature against the cold of the snow. Materials such as fat and felt later recurred regularly in his work, emphasizing his idea of the energy field in the sculptures.3 Regardless whether it be true or false, this story keeps recurring and influences our way of thinking about Joseph Beuys.

Bernice noticed that deploying biographical elements is a commonly used strategy in actively portraying the artist as a person.4 She applied this strategy to escape from the one-sided image of a person. Ambiguity is central to her work. Each character that she creates highlights a different aspect of her biography and is therefore sometimes the opposite of another biographical aspect. All characters have their own world and identity. 

The sculptures are often a combination of collected and found objects, adapted to the space in which they are displayed. The drawings and paintings feature the human figure repeatedly. This applies equally to Feather (2021), the most central work in this exhibition. The drawing is slightly bigger than human size, and rotates around its central axis over the course of an hour. The rotation of the drawing is barely perceptible to the naked eye. As the drawing spins, the figure appears to be scanning the room, while at the same time it could represent the spiral Bernice was trapped in.

At first, the shapes of the figures made me think of ancient Egyptian images. In Bernice's drawings, the face is often seen from the side and the body from the front, with the feet pointing outward. Unlike the drawings of antiquity, Bernice’s drawings have somewhat awkward limbs. The legs, feet, and eyes are often out of proportion. We see figures with long and short rounded arms, and pointed and narrow eyes. The hands are depicted like the sort of hands a child would draw; a simplified form, quite intuitively made. Bernice is often looking for a kind of pace and momentum in her way of drawing and painting in order to shape the characters. It is essential to her that the characters leave a striking impression. Therefore, the style of the characters is defined by their given nature. 

Bernice says that the characters touch upon the self-portrait, while at the same time being their own person. There are several works in the exhibition showing the two characters in different situations. In the painting I and eye (2021), the person on the right holds a hand in front of the eyes of the person on their left. Apart from these two poses, there is no clear distinction between the two. Who is actually taking whom by the hand? It is a continuous play between the characters and Bernice.

The painting Whiffle, shown above the white door, is more abstract than the drawings and paintings like I and Eye. The canvas is filled with a blue color, and a feather is mounted on the top of the canvas, casting a shadow on the blue surface. 

Those who have looked at the list of artworks in this exhibition may have noticed that Whiffle was created in 2019. It is characteristic of Bernice that she takes the liberty of adding new meanings to already existing works and adding these works to new series. This is nothing strange, as works of art are regularly shown in diverse contexts, such as alongside artworks by other artists or in various exhibition spaces. By definition, the meaning of an artwork changes over time, through the environment in which it is presented, and through the viewer’s interpretation. Bernice utilizes the fact of change, and applies it consciously to her own work. She states that the myth is like a glue that gives new meaning to the selection of works. This is the unpredictable nature of her method, which simultaneously makes her work so attractive. 

What I think is an important starting point for weaving together a storyline is the word “trouble”, borrowed from the title of Haraway's book, which I think is appropriate for Bernice's way of working. In the Im Wald series from 2019, she is on the run from her self-created characters. She experienced that it became increasingly difficult to insert her new works into the world of a character. That very feeling of being blocked and the urge to escape is the common thread of the story.5

In this exhibition, the trouble lies in the practice of painting. In one of those hidden spaces, the work Learning to Become Something (stop painting) is on display. The sculpture is part of a series which Bernice has been working on for the past two years. When looking through the bucket, we see two tubes in front of a book titled Stop Painting. The book is written by Peter Fischli (also known as a member of the artist duo Fischli and Weiss) in which he discusses five moments in art history where painting has been declared ‘dead’. The art of painting has been debated, praised, and undermined many times. In a rather light-hearted way, Bernice connects it to this theme. The tubes of paint are learning about the practice of painting, making it seem like she is taking her hands off it. The paint does the work. 

The “trouble” keeps recurring in Bernice’s work, and forms such an important and specific incentive and source of inspiration. With this exhibition she has attempted to embody and capture this feeling by using the concepts of the spider, the web, and the feather as instruments of metaphor.    

Gisanne Hendriks, November 2021

1. The conversations I had with Bernice and exchanged emails were a great source for this text. 
2. Donna J. Haraway. “Playing String Figures with Companion Species”. Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press, 2016, 10.
3. Caroline Tisdall. Joseph Beuys. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1979, 10-12.
4. Jorik Amit Galama. “‘Missing /Vermist: Benny Snouta’ - Studio visit #6: Bernice Nauta.” 24 september 2019. http://www.metropolism.com/nl/features/39309_studio_visit_6_bernice_nauta
5. Idem.

1The conversations I had with Bernice and exchanged emails were a great source for this text.
2Donna J. Haraway. “Playing String Figures with Companion Species”. Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press, 2016, 10. 
3Caroline Tisdall. Joseph Beuys. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1979, 10-12. 
4Jorik Amit Galama. “‘Missing /Vermist: Benny Snouta’ - Studio visit #6: Bernice Nauta.” 24 september 2019. http://www.metropolism.com/nl/features/39309_studio_visit_6_bernice_nauta 
5Jorik Amit Galama. “‘Missing /Vermist: Benny Snouta’ - Studio visit #6: Bernice Nauta.” 24 september 2019. http://www.metropolism.com/nl/features/39309_studio_visit_6_bernice_nauta