Nina Rodin> Writing
Texts in chronological order. Click on image for further details and images of the exhibitions or on 'read more' to see the writing.

Reproducibility and Empathy in Art

July 2015

Notes for a talk, Duplicata Symposium, Rye Creative Centre, Rye.


Reproducibility and Empathy - Notes for talk at Duplicate Symposium, July 2015

When I first walked into the BA studios at Camberwell it was my first time back in a university after walking out of a science lab a couple of years earlier. And I was really struck by the crowd of different personalities elbowing each other in the confined space of the painting studio. This is the first painting I did there:

It is a painting of my colleagues in the school studios, each of them painted in the style of their own painting.

Everyone seemed to be trying to claim a style but on average it all looked very much the same to me as it had in the foundation course. I had a strong sense of deja vu and these individualities seemed rather lost in the crowd.

It was also a real shock to hear everyone so utterly engaged with their own ideas, wanting to communicate their view of the world to everyone else on the course and to as wide a public as possible. Without any of these ideas being particularly objective vehicles of Truth. In Science, by contrast, or so it seemed to me, you need absolute certainty about some idea, some experimental result. You try to narrow down to a few variables. In Art, the number of possible variables seems to explode. This sense of crowding stayed with me for a long time. It was very noticeable to me how the process also didn’t have the necessary scientific repetition for verifying a result. I went from n = 10 or more in the lab to n=1, the one of the artist unique perspective, a discourse where ’I’ takes center place.

And it set me thinking about how what I started doing then was different from what I used to do in the lab. In both there was a certain amount of experimental tinkering and creativity needed to recombine the elements of the world into new ideas. And creativity, whether in the lab or in the studio, operates much in the same way in that it is about creating new associations between hitherto non-associated elements of our experience.

This set me thinking about a notion of delimitation. Basically, though our experience of the world is a continuum, most of human activities consist of separating something out from that background noise. We can’t stop thinking or experiencing, our brain changes state continually, and our experience of the world is in constant flux unless we are dead.

Deleuze and Guattari’s write about of territorialisation. Derrida talks about framing, James Joyce writes about apprehending the art object against a background of all that is not it. Lucian Freud talks about making a small part of the ordinary memorable. In fact Art theory texts are replete with references to some sort of delimitation and it’s a notion I have found that artists I speak to can relate to quite easily.

The artwork is a finite delimitation from the continuum of conscious experience. Fine, but so is Science or Philosophy or Business, for that matter. We focus our attention on a small part of our experience which we develop in depth. So what’s the difference?

Well, I think it is helpful to think of science as a delimitation of that which is reproducible, philosophy as a delimitation of consensus and art as a subjective delimitation. Let me explain… So Art is this ideally subjective take on the world. Is absolute originality actually possible? Well, from a neurophysiological point of view yes. Our state of mind changes continuously and it turns out our brain is sufficiently complex that no two individuals are or ever will be in the same state of mind.

(short explanation here of the structure of the brain, and how the understanding of its extraordinary complexity has evolved in the last couple of decades)

We will never be in the same state of mind twice in our lifetime. Obvious. Less obvious perhaps is the fact that no two people will statistically ever have been in the same state of mind for all of humanity’s history nor will there ever be in the future. In fact, you can calculate that the number of different states that the brain can be in exceeds the number of particles in the universe.

So there seems to be plenty of scope for absolute and complete originality. We only need to be aware of the ways in which our minds are different from those around us.

Yet, that is easier said than done. We are conditioned to be alike. Language whether spoken, sung or visual only functions insofar as we have a shared usage of it. A visual reference only works because we have a large reference library of common visual references. Someone who invented a completely original language would not be able to use it at all. There is evolutionary pressure to be alike, to fit in.

But there is worse at play, when it comes to us fully owning our own individuality. There is a part of our brain that doesn’t distinguish at all between our selves and others. A subset of neutrons called mirror neurons which fire in exactly the same way if say, I move my hand like this or you move your hand in the same way. They were discovered when studying phantom limb pain (explanation of basic experiment). In principle it means that if someone laughs, some of my neurons think I am laughing. If someone is being tortured a small part of me is traumatised. So they are also called empathy neurons as it is thought that it is this inability to distinguish between self and other that makes us able to feel empathy and compassion (in the sense of being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes emotionally and feel what they feel).

And I think this is extremely interesting in terms of art and our sense of touch…

(Anecdotes about why we are so disappointed when a Van Gogh is not a Van Gogh and about the experience of holding Darwin’s letter in my hands).

Thus if I see someone painting, there is a small part of my brain which feels exactly as if I was painting myself: touch by another is experienced like touch by myself. By extension, I believe that when I look at Fiona Rae’s latest paintings, for example, the excitement I feel is to do with the illusion that I might have painted them myself , the memory of an illusion of touch, and it is all I can do to stop myself running a hand over their surface.

There is a sense of cheating when it turns out the object hasn’t been touched by the person we thought had touched it or that it wasn’t touched by someone with those emotions or at that time. There is a disconnect there for the mirror neurons….

But perhaps also what explains our desire to reproduce or mimick something we perceive as pleasurable. If a certain touch has produced a certain painting, that painting produces in me a pleasure similarly to having held the brush myself. A painting that is completely flat and gives away nothing of its making (eg a digital reproduction) gives me less pleasure than one where I could run my hand over its surface and re-enact the touch of someone else myself.

So my intuition is that our problems with fakes (beyond the obvious ones of fraudulent monetary value being attached to them) is that it leaves our mirror neurones feeling cheated of something fundamental. Empty through touch, empty of touch.

The real artwork on the other hand, that highly subjective delimitation, the genuine connection with another individuality, produces a bridge between us and the artist. There is the possibility of resonance through empathy but also always a part that remains tantalisingly outside our grasps.

Because the artwork is a delimitation of a subjectivity which by definition is always different to ours. We may feel a connection, recognise an emotion or a part of our own continuous experience in that chosen by the artist but total overlap between our consciousness and that of the artist is impossible.

In summary, science should be reproducible, good art is not. And when we copy, make a fake or plagiarise, I believe the main problem is that we break this empathy link that art can produce by giving us a window into someones unique individual take on the world. Nina rodin, July 2015.

Pretty Peeved

March 2015

an experimental collaboration between Rebecca Molloy, Nina Rodin and Abi Box, Unit 3 Projects, London.



'Flesh. And tea. Departure points at the Trelex Residency. Molloy, Box and Rodin chat about paint, touch, the superficial and the deeper complexity below. Skin is the surface, flesh is the vaguer, live, pulsating entity. There is desire for something inside and visceral, dripping, sloshing. Paint is like a body fluid: snot, spit, blood, sweat and shit. Unctuous and attractive. And a messy thing of revulsion. This show is both serious and irreverent, every gesture considered and discussed. As a collaboration it is inevitably a compromise yet working in space rather than on a single canvas, three territories can find different points of view as each artist stakes out sometimes overlapping boundaries for their practice. But the lines are blurred and authorship is confounded and complex. Working in a collaboration requires one to throw up your arms and give in early. Shrug your shoulders but stick to your guns. A strictly logical disorder emerges out of humorous and argued-for interventions. As a collective, we take a stab at the infuriating precedence set by painting's crusty weighty history with a tender loving silky stroke of the brush and a violent, wild explosion of colour. Pretty Peeved.'

Equivalence Symposium

July 2015

Talk at a conferance on book art, Richmond University, London.

Read More... coming soon

A Manifesto against Collaboration


Collaborate!, group show, Oriel Sycarth Gallery, Glyndwr University, Wales, UK.



Flesh. And tea. It starts with a conversation. I chat with Rebecca Molloy and Abigail Box about paint, touch, the superficial and the deeper complexity below. Skin is the surface, flesh is the vaguer, live, pulsating entity. There is desire for something inside and visceral, dripping, sloshing. Paint is like a body fluid: snot, spit, blood, sweat, tears and shit. Unctuous and attractive. And a messy thing of revulsion. Rebecca squirts whipped cream in the forest, spills drinks in front of the camera, plays with nutella. I show her fluorescent physio putty, petri dishes and test tubes filled with paint. There is resonance, recognition, echoes, I feel I get Rebecca’s work before she has even started working in the studio with me.

There is shared attitude and curiosity, the same desire for something both serious and irreverent. A collaboration is inevitably a compromise yet I find myself drawn to a territory of play - of interaction with other artists despite the difficulties with defining authorship and the final form of the artwork.

Working in a collaboration requires one to throw up your arms and give in early. Shrug your shoulders but stick to your guns. In my collaboration with Molloy and Box, a strictly logical disorder emerges out of humorous and argued-for interventions. Collectively we take a stab at the infuriating precedence set by painting’s crusty weighty history with a tender loving silky stroke of the brush and a violent, wild explosion of colour. Pretty Peeved. The work is feminist, pokes fun at the macho muscle of abstract expressionism. The male gaze goes limp, the female sex is brash with in-your-face lush domesticity.

The show is shown a first time, we celebrate and breathe a sigh of relief that we got something together that we are all three excited by but within a few days I am already looking back and doubting the entire exercise. Where am I in all this? After all, collaboration seems like a dirty word to many artists. It is a delimitation (or a territorialization or a framing, depending on who you read) that has elements in it that I did not want and elements missing that were important to me but rejected by the others.

Yet I engage in collaborations regularly. Often these are opportunistic encounters. I run an experimental residency that encourages discussion, exchange and collaboration. I think of collaborations as opportunities to extend discussions beyond the spoken or written word into making. A collaboration is an energetic forum for play. And in Art, play is far more than childish fun. It is were I find the wild energy that feeds back into the most considered and difficult part of my practice. Collaborations force me to do some things that are uncomfortable and this informs a better understanding of what I really value at the core of my work. It jolts me out of too-well travelled tracks and keeps my practice from growing stale.

It is a social activity that breaks the ear-splitting silence of solitary ruminations. At times, I descend into vicious circles of thought where I loose faith in the purpose of my work. Towards the work of others, I am more generous. In collaborations I am free of procrastination. Alone, I am free to waste my own time with doubt. I feel I have to keep the ball rolling when I work with others. I work with artists whose work I respect or admire which allows me to be more ambitious on behalf of our collaborations. With my solo work, there is more doubt, more cringing, more modesty, more need for privacy.

I find it easier to video the process of collaboration. I have never video myself making work. In collaborations, the documentation is made available also to give some clarity as to authorship. The viewer can see who holds the brush but can’t see who owns the ideas. When the play staged in the studio has to move into a more public space, defining ownership and authorship becomes an issue. Dragan Ilic says: ‘I never do collaborations. My ego is too big’. Yet he relies on technicians, engineers, architects and scientists for some of his work. But there is a clear contract which allows him to retain sole authorship of his machines, his house, his entire way of living which is his work. Dragan Ilic is ‘une oeuvre complete’, a persona that includes all his production.

Insofar as art is often the result of learning from others or using tools or materials made by others, all work could be said to be collaborative. I like to think of hard and soft collaborations. Artists can work as equals in a neutral or shared space but don’t necessarily have to fuse their artistic persona. In cases of ‘hard’ collaboration like Gilbert and George, it doesn’t matter who is Gilbert and who is George. It could be Bob and Roberta Smith, a single artist, a single author.

One artist at least has suggested that we start a more sustained collaboration and show the resulting work on a shared website, perhaps under a joint pseudonym, much like the Mental:Klinik duo from Istanbul (also a couple, incidentally). To me, that seems theatrical and slightly false. I enjoy the direct connection, however tenuous, and cryptic to a single person- the artist - that the artwork affords. Even if I don’t understand it, I want it to be sincere: for there to be a genuine link to the artist’s unique subjectivity. Collaborations can muddy the waters. I prefer the clarity of the collaboration between Nikki de St Phalle and Jean Tinguely: in the fountain outside the Centre Pompidou, it is clear who did what in this spectacular display of machines playing with Nanas and other creatures.

In my first collaboration with Ivan Liotchev, we set out to paint two massive garage doors in Battersea. After days of furious painting and repainting over each other’s marks we settled for finishing one door each as there seemed to be no possible single image that we could agree on. With Sarah Knill-Jones, we take it in turns to be ourselves in protocols designed by one or the other but I am uncomfortable with many of the things that interest her. With Dennis de Caires, the only way we can paint on the same paper is by agreeing in advance that each painting will be cut up into 16 pieces sewn into a book: the final delimitation is pre-determined by an agreed protocol. I can’t imagine we would ever paint a canvas together and leave it whole. The cutting up absolves us both of the burden of aesthetic choice that comes with single authorship. With Nicholas John Jones, I am relieved when he agrees to title and sign his own canvas but wants nothing to do with the authorship of the work that presents his canvas and my copy as a whole in Fact and Fiction.

I enter into new collaborations more and more gingerly, conscious of the danger of exploitation and misunderstandings. With Pretty Peeved, we allow ourself a week of pure play behind closed doors, more than a month before the show in Wales. We agree in advance that if we are not all happy with the outcome, we can walk away. But working in space rather than on a single canvas, three territories can find different points of view as each artist stakes out overlapping boundaries for their practice. The lines are blurred and authorship is confounded and complex but each of us is at least momentarily excited and elated by the outcome.

Conversely I find myself more and more interested in the power and potential of artists collectives. I have curated group shows that became more than the sum of their parts. I have taken part in mail art projects that give each artist a space for individual authorship. Fold is a collective of four artist each with their own practice but who come together for elaborate publications. A format, always square, is set but but like the form of the sonnet, it is more an invitation to be essential and precise than an awkward constraint. The collective Gutai gave a very large group of post-war japanese artists a supportive framework for radical new departures in a politically challenging climate. There is power in numbers and insofar as all art exerts a power on the viewer (starting with the artist him/herself), large ‘soft’ collaborations where each artist retains individual authorship of their work can propel the work of all its constituents forward through shared opportunities and mutual support. Collaborations can be political vehicles for change. A louder voice. But at that point, the collaboration also ceases to be an artwork. For an artwork is resolutely singular. There is space in business, design, philosophy and science for consensus, logical positivism, reproducibility, optimisation. In Art, my prerogative is in my individuality.

Book art in art practice Summer retreat

August 2014

A description of a summer retreat that is also a manifesto for book art.


I have a long-standing interest in books as a format for visual art works. In particular I would like to see books more often in museums and galleries. Most artists nowadays work in more than one media (painters often also work with photography, or video, or performance, or sculpture, for example) but few have ever given much consideration to making a book beyond exhibition catalogues or sketchbooks. So I am on a bit of mission to give books their rightful place in the contemporary art world instead of always have books relegated to specialist makers and collectors. This said, making a book is quite a complicated project as it requires a lot of different considerations to be made at every step of the way. From choosing paper, to writing text if there is to be any, font, binding method, cover design, layout. In many ways designing a book is as complex a proposition as hanging an exhibition. The advantage is that every aspect and variable can very much remain in the hands of the artist. The book is like a small portable, self-contained gallery space, designed for a single viewer.

In the summer of 2014, I invited a number of artists working with books and related disciplines to come and exchange ideas, techniques and knowledge about making art works in the form of books. I gathered knowledge of book binding, graphic design and typography, printing, paper, the history of the art book and everyone was given a table and basic supplies to experiment with what they were learning and demonstrate what they knew. There was no teacher-student dichotomy in that everyone taught and learnt in equal measure in a peer-to-peer exchange.

We visited a traditional swiss bookbinder and one of the directors was able to come and spend some time with us in the studio in Trelex. This gave rise to a number of works being realised in collaboration with these extraordinarily skilled swiss craftswomen. The two weeks were extremely enjoyable and productive and I hope to organise similar book retreats in the future again.

It's very quiet here


Group show (as participant and curator), Gowen Contemporary Gallery, Geneva.


It's very quiet here - A portrait of a residency, an essay on visual silence, and footnotes for an exhibition.

1. On visual silence.

'It's very quiet here' is a phrase I often hear when resident artists arrive in Trelx. Sounds are not necessarily quieter - church bells and cow bells are very loud - but from the high windows of the large studio, one observes very little change or movement. In the distance, nothing ever seems to change much yet one then becomes attuned to the most subtle changes. perhaps the stillness is also more overwhelming because it is a new experience, different from the daily background din.

Over 40 artists that have worked in the studio since 2012, for periods ranging from 2 weeks to 3 months. Many threads have emerged but an early connection was made between the artists Min Kim, Kezia Pritchard, Kristofer Henrikson, Nicholas John Jones and Yoonjung Kim eventhough they did not all overlap inTrelex. The unobtrusive stillness in their work and the meditative quality of their practice make me aware of the concept of Visual Silence, a quality I have since explored in my own practice and sought out in that of others Continue to read on issuu...

variable control

Thoughts on painting

Feb 2013

Head to head exhibition catalogue.


In the studio of one of London's last painting courses we wryly joked that for something that is dead, Painting is certainly exhibiting some curious symptoms. There is however no denying that we are past a point of no return with respect to an age of innocence where marks were yet to be invented and where merely letting paint do its stuff as a direct extension of the artist's thoughts and emotions was original and could be construed as sincere. Navel-gazing painters who stick to the expressionist mark as one that represents emotion make me cringe with their naivety.Perhaps this is why a number of abstract painters feel ' up against the wall'. In 'La peinture est presque Abstraite', the existence of abstract painting seemed almost denied: all painting is representational, there is no such thing as painting that is just itself.(1) All painting is image, it cannot just be mark and process. Declaring yourself an abstract painter with brush and canvas today thus seems a stubborn act of defiance, a position, an attitude. How can you insist on invention within a medium that is but a series of quotes of gestures already performed by others? Every brush mark feels like an imitation of the marks of those that have come before me, every painting feels derivative. The notion of the hand of the artist as a value seems outdated: trying to invent a new mark for yourself seems like a desperately forced attempt at affirming difference. Whether you apply the paint through the intermediary of a joystick or an electric drill, I will be briefly amused but walk away shrugging my shoulders and wondering what the point is. If originality through touch is no longer possible, then why not simply exploit the amazing productivity of the digital image, where variations in colour and composition can be experimented with infinitely faster, then choose a form of mark making from the archives of history and send the whole project off to china where skilled craftmen can imitate the hand of any artist.

I would like to propose that the reason we painters keep banging our head against this wall that we feel pushed up against has something to do with touch. When I work on studies for my work using photography and photoshop, there comes a point where I am overtaken by a physical urge to return to the materiality of paint, an almost primeval desire for the visceral mess of pigment and binder. Though we have become more and more adept at talking about concept and form in our bejargonned statements, dig a little deeper and this infatuation with the damn stuff is what draws contemporary painters back to the coloured mud again and again. Talking to Nicole Hassler, a Geneva-based artist who produces immaculate and conceptually tight monochrome panels with nail varnish or cosmetic foundation powders, I was relieved but not really surprised at her admission over tea in my studio that it was all very good, but she needed to get back to 'la matière'. (2)

I find that this urge is satisfied in equal measure when I actively paint or when I look at a painting but hardly at all or much less directly when I look at a reproduction,whether printed or digital. I believe this has something to do with the mirror neurons or empathy neurons - a subset of neurons in our brain which do not distinguish between self and other.(3) For example, some fire in exactly the same way whether I move my hand or watch someone else make the same hand movement. Thus if I see someone painting, there is a small part of my brain which feels exactly as if I was painting myself: touch by another is experienced like touch by myself. By extension, I believe that when I look at Fiona Rae's latest paintings, the excitement I feel is to do with the illusion that I might have painted them myself , the memory of an illusion of touch, and it is all I can do to stop myself running a hand over their surface.(4) By contrast, what the images of the same paintings on a computer screen fail to convey, is a sense of the layers, the thickness of the paint. The image is physically flat and does not engage our stereoscopic vision or our sense of touch. It starves it. And so there is no empathy, only detachment, a flat array of pixels that sooner or later sends us scuttling out in search of physical presence, yearning for a communion with the painter through the thin surface of the canvas, the relief of standing in front of the real thing in a gallery and leaning in to its flimsy but real depth of surface, layers, time and labour, personal engagement and sincerity. No shortcut combination on the keyboard here: painting allows for no hurry, no impatience.

Painting can be skinned, crucified and disemboweled, burnt and dismembered. Emptied out of meaning to our heart's content. It survives and remains relevant because we are animals who need to touch.

(1) La Peinture est presque abstraite, 2009, Les Presses du Reel, and artpulse magazine article by Claude Termin-Vergez

(2) Private conversation, January 2013. Images of her work can be seen at

(3) neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html

(4) Fiona Rae: New Paintings at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, 18 January - 23 February 2013.


all images on this website are copyright of the artist