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Olaf Nicolai
Ménage de la maison
22.10.2022 – 7.11.2022

Installation of a square labyrinth made of green broom handles on a green area.

It might seem irritating to subject a freshly renovated building to a house cleaning shortly after
its opening, but this rhetoric is typical of Nicolai’s way of working. The artist continually breaks with expectations and hasty observations. He questions the familiar and painstakingly examines the spaces in which his works are shown. 

In Ménage de la maison, people sweep with a green plastic broom while speaking, humming, or singing. This activity can initially seem natural in the everyday operations of the exhibitions and café at DAS MINSK Kunsthaus in Potsdam, and perhaps therefore remain unnoticed. The performance, however, invites visitors and passersby to pause and more closely explore the meaning of what happens around them.

The green broom, which symbolizes house cleaning at DAS MINSK Kunsthaus in Potsdam, has already been used by the artist in earlier works. In 1998, Nicolai had a ten-by-ten-meter Labyrinth reconstructed from numerous green plastic brooms belonging to a Parisian cleaning department. The layout of this maze was based on a baroque garden design, which is, however, quite contemporary: the path to be covered referred to the principle of the maximum length of a limited surface, which is used today to design shopping centers, among other things. In its geometric form and artificial material, the hedge made of plastic brooms illustrates the fine line between the natural and the artificial 
in the urban context, which is also alluded to in Ménage de la maison. A house cleaning, just like a city cleaning, should restore a desired or hoped- for condition. The attempt to reach this state can lead to something being seen anew or something underlying, even repressed, being revealed again. In a figurative sense, an examination of present and past takes place during a house cleaning, whereby new encounters with places, events, and memories simultaneously arise. Both aspects are essential for DAS MINSK: “It is a new old place, which must find its identity between memory and the present,” director Paola Malavassi says.

Ménage de la maison responds to the concurrent exhibitions by Wolfgang Mattheuer and Stan Douglas, which also examine human-designed environment and the urban landscape. While in Mattheuer and Douglas’s exhibited works the (Schreber-)garden becomes a reflection of sociopolitical conditions, with Nicolai it is the everyday ritual of cleaning
that offers the occasion to casually address social constructs and behavioral patterns.

Text: Marie Gerbaulet, Curator of the performance

Concept: Olaf Nicolai
Performers: Meike Droste, Thomas Rudnick
Curator of the performance: Marie Gerbaulet
Assistant Dramaturg: Sylvie Kürsten
Production Assistance: Alina Stoll


Olaf Nicolai, Ménage de la maison


Image gallery

Olaf Nicolai, born in 1962 in Halle/ Saale, lives and works in Berlin. He studied literature and linguistics in Leipzig, Vienna, and Budapest and received his doctorate in 1992 with a thesis on the Vienna Group. In 2017, Nicolai received the Karl-Sczuka-Preis für Hörspiel als Radiokunst for his contribution to Documenta 14, entitled In the woods there is a bird .... In 2015, as a contribution to the German Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Olaf Nicolai’s seven-month performative installation GIRO was performed on the roof of the pavilion.

His artistic works and projects have been shown in international exhibitions at Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt, Kunsthalle Wien, MAXXI in Rome, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Centre Georges Pompidou and Musée du Louvre in Paris, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover, MoMA in New York, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, and WATARI-UM in Tokyo, among other institutions.

Olaf Nicolai, GIRO

The performance Ménage de la maison creates a situation that can be noticed by the visitors but does not have to be. It takes place almost incidentally, regardless of whether an audience is there or not. The spectators experience a possible variation, but not the entire “piece,” and the work is nonetheless always present in all of its conceivable realizations. Here, Olaf Nicolai takes up various ideas that he developed in earlier works:

For Innere Stimme (Inner Voice), which was first performed in Berlin in 2010, the artist wrote instructions for a performance that was based on Robert Schumann’s piano piece Humoreske, Op. 20 for two hands. In this piece, there is a third notation on a page of the score that is only visible for the performer, but it’s not played, and the audience isn’t aware of its existence. In the performance, the singers can improvise and decide how they perform the notation, only the melody is determined. In his work here, Nicolai brings what is only legible to the pianists, which also unconsciously influences their playing, into public space.

Olaf Nicolai’s contribution to the German Pavilion 2015 at the 56th Venice Biennale, GIRO, also took place daily, but could never be experienced in its entirety. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, there were people on the roof of the pavilion, carrying out activities that were not visible to the visitors. Only when the performers moved toward the edge of the roof to throw a boomerang could they be seen by the audience in the Giardini—if they happened to look up at that moment or were aware of the presence of the performers. The boomerangs, made in a rooftop workshop, remained in circulation in the city as casual gestures and relics of a performance. Like Ménage de la maison, GIRO also lived from being observed by chance.

The work Garten mit Zwillingen (Garden with Twins), which has been realized in various places since 2002, is also based on the experience of a seemingly random observation. Here, a pair of identical twins move around a public garden for a predetermined period of time. How they spent their time there was up to them—their whereabouts should appear unplanned and incidental to the visitors, a brief moment of irritation, that trumps the expected and reveals another way of reading reality. Olaf Nicolai continually creates such tipping points and ambivalent moments in his work: the art is there, but not immediately recognizable as such. Everything could also be something completely dif- ferent if the context in which we perceive it shifts.

Text: Leonie Pfennig

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