Nicola Costantino is an extraordinary artist with one of the most exciting personalities in the Latin-American art community. With the painstaking skill of a surgeon and the loving care of a pathologist for their subject, she slaughters and dissects calves, pigs and other animals; she is at home among farm animals, happily embalming, transplanting, making hybrids and fusions. If he had known her work, the famous Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch would surely have been green with envy.
“Death has a profound and inevitable transformative potential which must be fulfilled. And that causes fear. The kind of art I’m interested in is akin to death, in that transformative potential. It has an anti-economic and politically incorrect thrust that could bother those who believe that an artwork should reflect a certain moral. I usually get mixed up in things that are not likeable. Some people say that my art is provocative; for me it is natural. The ability to cause an affect runs through all my work.” (NC, 2013)
Nicola Costantino works with a childlike innocence and, at once, with cruel elegance. Suspended from a ceiling rail, an apparently happy little pig goes around in circles above our heads. Maybe it is on its way to the abattoir.
She uses tiny silicone chicken heads to create a doily for a conventional small-town home.
She designs flesh-coloured handbags with anus patterns.
Her “Mouth Trilogy” shows a pig’s snout coming out of a human mouth, with a chicken’s head and neck in turn hanging from the snout.
It all causes a very strange and grotesque impression. But, at the end of the day, don’t we all live in a perverse world? With her art, Nicola Costantino offers us a brutal interpretation, though sometimes tongue in cheek.
The artefacts Nicola Costantino creates seem more artificial than other art forms. She presents fantastic mechanical dolls or monster-like creatures in a bizarre game rife with suspense, located somewhere between magic and menace. She also involves herself directly in her works, thus creating a new art figure: in the almost psychopathological, obsessive unfolding of her own doppelgänger—or perhaps even her own phantom—Nicola keeps turning around Nicola.
“Well, actually, I’ve always felt that artificiality in my work. Sometimes I feel that my work is like a sort of role I play, acting and giving life to something.” (Nicola Costantino, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013, p.28)
“The mythological origin of the double is in the still water of a pond: where we see ourselves reflected we recognize ourselves. The mirror enables self-awareness.” “The psychoanalytic concept of identification, as defined by Freud, is grounded in the double: the double is the ominous, in other words, the uncanny familiar, what is so familiar that is seems strange and produces horror. For Jung, the double is the shadow. According to the Swedish playwright Strindberg, if you see your double that means you are going to die. The Nicola artefact exists because of my creation; its alterity reinforces my identity. Two bodies, one single soul. The best encounter is with oneself; my double is an antidote against loneliness.”
Nicola Costantino’s work represents the absolute ambiguity that ultimately permeates all our lives. “To me ambiguity is what makes it all interesting. When there are two opposite forces in tension, they keep each other at bay, making it impossible for either of them to become absolute, and the result is very powerful. I like that very much, and I always try to achieve it: to balance, for instance, what tends to be cadaverous with a dose of noticeable beauty.” (p.30)
With her subtle irony and her elegant mockery, Nicola does not pull up short of herself: for instance, when she fixes her cruel and scathing Bette Davis-like eyes on us, disclosing a profoundly black sense of humour.
With pleasure and success, she plunders the history of art in search of ever new images, to paraphrase them in her recreations, in which she mostly uses herself and her own face or body. That said, she never exposes her objects to ridicule, and definitely not her self-representations, bordering on madness.
She always keeps the necessary distance in her precarious, dazzling play that fluctuates between kitsch, cliché, tastelessness and an insatiable hunger for glamour and beauty, driven by the inexhaustible need to constantly create new objects of desire.
It goes without saying that all this involves a good deal of personal obsessions and a decided inclination toward morbid curiosity and decadence. Of course, Costantino could not ignore the figure of Eva Perón. Rapsodia inconclusa, the artist’s incredible installation—a fantastic panopticon faithful to Costantino’s aesthetic sense—for the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, caused quite a political stir and moralizing debates in her native Argentina.
Nicola Costantino’s aestheticizing presentations are relentless and merciless, of peerless elegance and unprecedented; this is the source of their explosiveness and exceptional charm. One gets the impression that Nicola Costantino’s original intention is contained almost one-hundred percent in her artefacts: something incredibly rare in our art world.
“HMH: Who do you make your work for? Is it for yourself?
NC: Yes. I wouldn’t sacrifice any part of the main idea of a work to satisfy anyone, and I don’t care if the work is interpreted in a reductionist way or even criticized in bad faith (which often occurs). My concern is limited to a situation that is crossed by the ambiguity or ethical contradictions we discussed before […] Art is not meant to please the majority. It’s the only expression that doesn’t have the aim to please anybody, that doesn’t have a business goal. Everything around us is aimed to sell something, or at least to please. Art doesn’t have that obligation.”
HMH: Is your work political, Nicola?
NC: Yes, it’s political. In my work, the political element is very important because it’s always present in relation to any conflictive social behaviour. I don’t pass judgment on the contradictions I’m showing, because I myself usually incarnate the behaviour that’s being questioned: I’m the one who eats meat, I’m the one who goes through cosmetic surgery. So, it is a political work, but not in the traditional sense of Latin American political art, where the artist has a particular moral position from which they denounce immoralities through their work […] You could say that what I do isn’t politically correct. But I don’t believe that what generally passes for correct should drive politics itself. I prefer a political incorrectness that obligates the viewer to analyse my works long enough to discover how they have to look at them. Even their formal beauty has a dash of evil mixed into it.
Just the same, there’s a strange and special commitment between the visual artist and the ethics their works show. In literature or in cinema instead, there’s a distance that allows the writer or the filmmaker to display, for instance, a highly violent setting without becoming personally identified with what their work is showing. I think that this has to do with the fact that plastic art is really visceral and it hasn’t been tamed. Besides, there’s a question of habit; if you think about all the time we spend watching films and television and how much time we spend in a museum, the difference is enormous. Not numbed by the habit of experiencing art, we’re more vulnerable, more sensitive when we come into contact with an artwork. So the viewer’s reaction is also much more direct, much more visceral, and the questions that arise have more to do with instinct than with reason.”
(extracts from interview between HMH and NC, in: Nicola Costantino, 2013, Hatje Cantz Verlag, pp. 26, 27, 32, 33)