The first words I said to Naomi Middelmann, the fabulous, rising art star in Switzerland, about 30 years ago, were: “How long have you been in the CIA?”
She was sitting across from me in my office at SPIN, interviewing for a job as one of my assistants (I, grandly, had two then). Her resume was straight out of a spy novel: fluent in four languages, ultra educated, and her previous job was at an “import/export” company. C’monnnnn….
I was joking (half) but a) she got the job, and b) turned out she wasn’t CIA after all, so much for my normally superior powers of deduction. A few years later she was general manager of my company and ran it with that very rare blend of supreme efficiency and inspired creativity.
Around the turn of the millennium she and her neuroscientist husband, who’s always had a weird obsession with getting my brain when I die (“I want to get inside your brain…” he’d say, not entirely complimentarily I suspected) moved back to Switzerland, where she was born. And she became an artist.
Within 20 years she has become one of Europe’s most interesting visual artists. Mostly she’s a painter, but also does installations and sculptures with found objects. Her latest exhibition, Memory Skins, has just ended at the NoA Gallery in Lucerne.
Her paintings are extraordinary, as you can see here, and so distinctly her own. And her most recent work has been on the subject of memory, particularly memory mapping (which, to put into context, is the sort of work scientists get Nobel Prizes for). Not for her ducks on a pond!
For Memory Skins, she worked in transparent mediums such as plexiglass, silk and gauze, and with cigar boxes, old canvases and other common enough objects.
“What interests me is how the context in which the piece appears will influence how we see the artwork. It becomes changeable depending on the angle or the background on which it is placed, just like when we look at our memories,” she says.
During the pandemic she created a series of maps on paper, which she called Memory Maps. “I drew places I had lived, imagined, visited, etc. I created miniature worlds, if you like, to where I could travel in my mind since real travel was impossible.”
This became a bigger project where she had a week-long “intensive artist residency” at the Jenisch Museum in Switzerland, working on a 25-meter-long piece of gauze, spending nine hours a day on a section of the gauze, “drawing something I remembered and it would flow into associations, things imagined, patterns, sensory experiences, etc. I didn’t look at the entire piece until it was done.
“What I realized in this process is how most of our memories are sensory memories that aren’t necessarily visual. We remember touch, smells, sounds, and yet the visuals we have are often static or semi-static moments, almost like photographs. What interested me is drawing those memories, figuratively but also non-figuratively, letting my mind wander, explore and narrate a story.”
I recently interviewed her about her art, her career and her wonderful imagination.
What is your preoccupation with memory, and how do you translate that to impressionist visual images?
My interest in memory comes from my own history. I have three passports, can stumble through four languages, and have lived on two continents and moved 16 times. I find myself envying people who have a strong sense of belonging to somewhere, or of being connected to an environment and culture.
I imagine this provides them with a strong sense of roots and memories connected to a specific place that persists across generations. I don’t really feel I have that type of connection to a place or a culture, which can be sometimes hard, but also allows a certain amount of freedom to tell new stories or to tell stories differently.
I started working on the notion of memory in 2015 when I was given 214 of my school notebooks and books from my parents’ attic. I guess a more normal reaction might have been to toss them out, but I was struck by the sheer weight of all the studying we do and how little we actually remember all that we learned. I transformed those books into large sculptures in a series called “reclaim.” Reclaim meaning to take back, to return to its original state, or to take over. And I was reading Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, who wrote that the brain is constantly assembling and disassembling our memories. The act of remembering is an act of reconstruction and therefore inexact and imperfect. I found that fascinating and fairly liberating as an idea: If our memories are not steadfast, but fluid and changeable, this means that we can look at our experience from different angles and contexts. It’s like an ever-changing narrative that we can weave together in different ways.
How much influence has a certain brain-shrinking husband had on all this?
Surprisingly enough I fell upon many of my scientific readings about memory on my own. We have spent quite a bit of time discussing and debating what memory is or is not. He’s suggested some readings, but I have suggested readings to him as well. It is a collaborative process driven by a common interest. He admitted to me recently that from a neuroscience standpoint we do not understand a lot of what memory is or how we form memories.
What are “Memory Skins” and what does your line “Memory is a series of failed revelations” actually mean?
Aha… well, “Memory Skins” comes from Gunter Grass’ memoir called Peeling the Onion. His analogy is that memories are like skins of an onion that he peels away bit by bit. The art series is a mixture of “skins” involving drawings on gauze, where I start off by drawing a place I remember, and assembling it with pieces of canvas (which I have disassembled from older canvases).
I like the layering of different textures from gauze to recycled canvases, but also the idea that under the weight of the story that was told on canvas, is a thin layer of memory that changes depending on the background on which it is placed.
“Memory being a series of failed revelations” is inspired by a title in the book Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart, my favorite poet. His words are “History is a series of failed revelations.” If memory is actually a bunch of misremembered and reconstructed experiences, then isn’t it also potentially a bunch of failed revelations? There are also things I remember that are important to me now, but didn’t seem so in the past, or things that seemed really important to me in the past that I now can’t remember.
How can artists contribute to scientific understanding of perception?
As artists, we are trained in perceiving and translating perceptions into our works. Artists are experts — as a neuroscientist confirmed to me recently — through their use of whatever media they use in seeing, listening, harmonizing, sensing through their bodies as well as through their eyes.
Art is a research endeavor using different, but potentially complementary, methodologies to scientific ones. Studies have shown how artists’ brains show proficiencies and specific skill sets in terms of observation, color perception, etc. and practicing the arts has been shown to be immensely beneficial for brain function.
Artists such as Paul Klee were writing about how we see long before science had a clue. Per Kirkeby, one of my favorite artists, was a master of perception, color, and had an incredible understanding of how we perceive and how we look. I also think we have a tendency to think of visual art being mostly about visual perception, but as artists we are working with most of our senses. Art is a sensory experience. It’s not just our eyes or our minds that are activated when working or looking at art, but perception on a bodily level.
As artists we already knew about it. But it’s interesting having it proven scientifically.
How did you become a painter, more or less suddenly in your thirties?
I had hoped to write, but was not very good at it. When I moved back to Switzerland from New York, I thought I would do a bit of art (I had drawn a lot as a child), work with my hands instead of my head until I figured out something better to do. I went to art school and thought I would spend a few months there and drop out, but a few months turned into 4 years. Since going to art school, my work has been shown in over 60 gallery and museum shows in Europe, the USA and Switzerland. I am the president of the local artist association, and have participated in a number of debates and conferences in museums and academic settings in Switzerland and abroad. Not too bad for an accidental artist of sorts.
I’ve never heard of an artist in residence at a neuroscience lab, and I’m guessing no-one else has either. How did that come about and what happens there?
In my interest to get to the bottom of how and what neuroscientists know about memory, I decided to go spend some time in one. I was lucky enough to get an artist grant from the Swiss government. What interested the lab was having someone offer an outside viewpoint of what they are working on. What distinguished my host lab was their emphasis on a multidisciplinary approach to their work. For them, it was perfectly natural and appropriate to include an artist such as me alongside others in the team with backgrounds in diverse fields, such as psychology, biology, engineering, physics, and mathematics. This diversity cultivates creativity in research and in problem solving.
In one of my encounters, I met a young professor who studies how we represent things that we remember. In her study, she showed an image, which people had to draw from memory on a computer — which in my view already influences the style of representation or the output. The question I have is whether it is different to draw a place that you have been shown, when you know that you will have to draw it, than a place that you have to draw without having been told that you will have to remember it.
And if I have to draw using a computer where I can erase, it is not the same experience as drawing it by hand. In art school we were not allowed to use erasers. Not because the teachers were being ornery (which some of them definitely were), but because you learn to draw through seeing those lines that are “incorrect”. It allows your brain to correct itself faster than if you are always starting afresh.
What’s your favorite medium to work in?
I enjoy the range of materials as it’s a way to keep me having to adapt, challenge myself and not get stuck in a rut. I tend to work in cycles, I draw, then I paint, then I deconstruct or use some unusual material I fall upon and wonder what will happen if I use it.
Isn’t art in danger of being subsumed by technology? Does the soporific effect of everything available all the time bleed art of its ability to surprise and excite and be revelatory?
I think the danger — and it is not new — is that art is seen as a luxury item or just there for our entertainment and that we can live without it as a culture. That is why these collaborative art residencies are important. The role of the artist is not just about the production of artwork, but also about how he/she can contribute to the bigger picture and larger questions.
I work with kids in a hospital setting, and to me that is just as much being an artist as when I am in the studio or selling my work in a gallery.
These days there is an image overload and there is a lot of “pretty” art out there that is both inoffensive and soporific. And I guess you could argue that technology subsumes art or at least creates such a “cool experience” that it loses any real substance. I think my biggest disappointment as an artist is realizing how little the art world has to do with the actual art but about who you know and who knows you. The contemporary art world is not as inclusive as it should be and could do far more to promote diverse artists and take risks. Out of all the sectors out there, you would think that the art world should be about risk taking.
But fortunately there are plenty of people who still want to connect to art on a human to human level.
Who collects your work?
My work is in a variety of public and private collections, ranging from museums to small collectors in Europe, Switzerland, the USA, Canada and Australia. I have been lucky to be able to show my work regularly in galleries and museums, including the US. I have three upcoming shows this year, including a museum show in Germany.
How long were you in the CIA?