Outside the box. Interview with street artist Aakash Nihalani

Street art is synonymous with playfulness according to Aakash Nihalani. Just how can be observed on the walls of Torpignattara and in the spaces of Wunderkammer in Rome for his latest solo show Vantage. Based in New York but originally from India, this artist born in 1986 moves his first steps in the world of art after abandoning law school. Once transferred to the art program at NYU he falls in love with silk screen printing and the first figure he chooses to print with this technique is a three dimensional cube. What starts as a single shape turns into hundreds, cut out and ready to play with. During his first college exhibition a sculpture on display by a fellow student projects its shadow onto the floor. The outline it creates mimics the shape of Aakash's prints, and he is suddenly inspired to trace it with the adhesive tape he was using to stick his silk screen works on the wall. What results is an isometric geometry of tape, but even more, a life-size optical illusion that interacts with space and the viewer. This chance operation would shortly later be translated onto the most varied public spaces, offering the colorful and playful perspective of someone who thinks outside the box. 


How has New York's architecture influenced the geometric shapes you create with fluorescent adhesive tape?

Choosing the cube shape when I first started print-making was simultaneously an instinctive inclination but also a reflection of my surrounding urban landscape. New York's repetitive architecture is composed of big boxes divided into little boxes, and in every apartment people keep things inside even smaller boxes. This idea of dimension, shapes, forms, strongly appealed to me. What makes things even more interesting is when you start stacking shapes and they somewhat lose dimension. For example, a brick wall is made out of three-dimensional bricks, but once completed all you see is the two dimensional pattern. There's something fascinating about how the 3D feel is lost through the stacking process. Your pieces look like they’ve been made digitally. Though on one hand your art seems to react to architecture, it also appears to have accepted – in a playful way – that technology is an important part of our culture. 

What role does it play in your work?

I think there's definitely an idea of technology being omnipresent in our lives, but I didn't intentionally try to make my art feel digital. The lines are straight and fluorescent and that in and of itself will look digital on camera. Over time, I think that learning how to document my works with photography and video has affected the images and compositions I'm making. 


Your first solo show in Rome is called "Vantage", suggesting a particular point of view. What do you want to communicate with this title?

There are many ways to read this title. In a literal sense, the works are flat but are speaking to the three dimensional space in which they are placed. The composition only works when you are in front of it, If your viewpoint is from the side, it remains a flat object. When your vantage point is in front of it there's a play of space, an optical illusion, and at this point it is up to the viewers to choose how much they want to believe and have fun with it. At the same time "Vantage" is about how you look at life in a broader, metaphorical sense. Everything is a matter of point of view and life is all about how you want to experience it. We often get lost in petty concerns but a shift of outlook can put things in perspective. Ironically, it's a lesson I need to teach myself the most. 


What's the main difference between working in a gallery and in the street?

In the streets there are all these different elements that I can pick up on, react to and highlight, while the gallery is composed of a flat, blank wall. Nevertheless my main motivation here in Rome was to make work that had a feeling of site-specificity. With the canvases it's almost like building a pseudo-architecture that I can then play with, setting them up like 3D objects that I can move between. These works are a step in the direction of that playful spontaneity which characterized my work in the street. You also did some temporary urban installations around Rome.Yes, and we managed to do a very large permanent installation which is actually my first painted mural, maybe the last.


While Graffiti artists are normally self-indulgent, your optical art can be democratically read by anyone. What kind of relationship are you trying to form with the viewer? 

Geometry is a universal language. There is an inherent familiarity that we all have with shapes independently from our background and that's a great starting point. I enjoy the fact that my art can be read and consumed by anybody of any age group. My actual relationship with the viewer is very fleeting though, I'm often in the background taking photos of people interacting with my work, witnessing the emotion. People have different feelings and reactions about the ownership of space and what should be done with it. I think there is a greater relation built online via social media, because anyone can follow you and they can relate the name to the work. 

What about the interactive pieces you've done with people in the street? 

The first piece that I did which involved another person was with Mr. Sam Johns, a homeless man. There was something powerful about him in this very real situation, on a cold and rough night in New York. Interacting with him and making this impromptu installation changed his circumstances, as well as mine and also those of the people around who were watching. In some cases they were interested, in others they had reservations about the possibility that I was exploiting him. Afterwards, I worked with other people living in the streets and after a while I started to question my intention and my ability to make a difference for them. Was I just taking or was I giving anything? It became a conversation which I believe was really powerful and which I hope to continue. Aakash Nihalani's solo show at Wunderkammer in Rome. 


There seems to be a conceptual link between what you do and the work of artist Victor Vasarély. Were you directly inspired by him?

Actually I didn't come upon his work until much after I started the tape work. Before joining the art program at NYU I had no context of art, I had no foundation whatsoever, so my point of view was very much that of an outsider. Sol LeWitt probably had more of an influence on my aesthetic inspirations as opposed to Victor. It was only much later that I discovered Vasarély and now I look at his work and humbly bow. I also recently came across the work of Oscar Reutersvärd, the father of the impossible object, and he is someone I've been looking towards a lot and drawing inspiration from. You also often work with interactive digital media.The internet is a huge public space so there's definitely been a motivation for me to create works that live and are interactive on the internet. I started learning and experimenting with coding and programming and having behaviors attached to forms. For this exhibition in Rome we hope to have some of these visual works projected on the wall. I'd like to continue exploring digital media and the scale of the installations I do. In the future I'm planning on experimenting more, such as with tablets. I also love stop motion and plan on doing more narrative things.

In your work there's always a kind of elegance, in the way it simply demands attention without being obtrusive. What’s your idea of elegance?

There are different ways things can be elegant, but on a fundamental level I think it's about simplicity, not doing too much.  


Photos © Wunderkammer

Interview by Fabio Falzone  


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