DJAC Lately: Monica Nickolai

The nature of being artists allows us to document change and growth as it is happening. We can compare our current work to past work to understand our own development, depict a glimpse of our growth in the midst of it, or even use our art to comment on evolution that we see elsewhere. In DJAC Lately, we’ll take a look at the artists who’ve been with the Collective, and are currently in the country, to get an idea of what they’re doing and how far they’ve come.

Coming to South Korea has allowed multimedia artist Monica Nickolai to explore art in different ways linguistically, culturally, and philosophically. Like others who’ve found themselves in contact with a new set of cultural elements, Nickolai’s personal and artistic evolution came partially from taking a second look at her cultural background but this time, from the outside.

The DJAC checked in with Nickolai to see what she’s been up to since joining the Collective in 2014. Below are some edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. What is your general process when it comes to creating artwork?
A. Generally, my art starts with sketchbook writing. I enjoy free-writing, especially within a particular place. In the past, I’ve done a lot of work based loosely around dérives, a writing practice that involves walking around urban areas. I also enjoy just having a notebook around to jot down thoughts I have throughout the day.

Q. Does your work start tend to start with the concept, and then evolve into media?
A. Generally, my work is concept-driven, but I also enjoy playing with new media, especially digital technology.

Q. If you can define any evolution to your work over the years, how would you describe it?
A. As with any practicing artist, a number of factors have influenced my growth and interest. I have been working to merge content and form of my work more evenly, and I have been especially aware of capturing language as a form. Also, I have been thinking of art less and less as making “stuff”. I like to think of art as a practice of finding meaning in life, and of the art that results as archaeology, a visual means of sharing my journey with the world.

Q. Can you give an example of how you’d like to merge content and form more evenly? Maybe something you’re currently working on?
A. [This would] mean more time spent making in my studio and less time spent planning and conceptualizing. Recently, I had an idea for an aphorism (one-line poem) that I wanted to paint, thinking I had the aphorism, an idea of how to paint it, and all the supplies; I thought all that all I needed was to execute it. However, the painting more or less rejected my idea. Now, I think I should have played with my idea more, created more experiments with materials before proceeding with my final idea. The paint – form – and my idea of an aphorism – concept – were just too disparate to co-exist. At times, I get so caught up with wanting to create “great work” that I forget the importance of play and experimentation, which people who view my work don’t see.

Q. How has living in South Korea influenced your work?
A. It’s allowed me to work with language, education, philosophy, history, and culture. It’s helped me to see how much about my life I have taken for granted as the “natural” way of doing things, when in fact many cultural practices are the results of history-driven ideology. I no longer believe in total objectivity and see life much more as something mutable and transient.

Q. Where can we see that in the art you’ve made lately?
A. The piece I showed at the last DJAC show A No-no reflected my experience in Korea. For one, it’s neon, which is commonly used in Korea. For another, it was written partially in hangeul. Its title, “A No-no”, is another expression for taboo, and taboos vary from culture to culture, as does language. 노 (no) translates as forge, hearth, oar, and string. It becomes a kind of prohibition, but because of the layers of language and cultural meaning, one isn’t sure what is being prohibited. The work illustrates context determines meaning, and language is more than a collection of linguistic objects with fixed meanings. In fact, as Noam Chomsky illustrated in his famous sentence,  “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” even grammatically correct utterances can be without meaning. Many of the basic premises behind this work came out of my experience as a language teacher and learner in Korea.
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Q. What are you working on now?
A. Most of my work is currently in the scribble stage. I’ve been working a little bit with drawing and excising text from Shakespeare’s King Lear to create new compositions. I’m also learning coding and interaction design, which I hope will bring a technological edge to my work in the future.

See more of Nickolai’s work at