Utopia Without You
Tabitha Nikolai’s exhibition, Utopia Without You, at Williamson | Knight is composed of only four pieces. Two of them are sprawling, taking up nearly half the gallery, while the other two are far more constrained efforts. The work in the exhibition is made in the spirit of punk, which is dirty and aggressive, an embodiment of social ills. We have become accustomed to the soft edges of punk rock nostalgia in the worlds of both art and fashion, but Nikolai is the real deal. The objects in this show don’t concern themselves with either the viewer’s pleasure or criticism. The objects are allowed to do as they please. Broken is just a state of mind. Nikolai is concerned with social withdrawal, so it’s self satisfaction that drives the work rather than a more traditional quest for materialist perfection. In the punk tradition, degradation is a core value; instead of taking a name like Spit, Nikolai self-describes as trashsexual. The exhibition statement reveals an exhaustion with both raving bigots and cloying allies, and the work delivers its own push back. If the world is too fucked up to engage, autonomy is the only site of freedom. The exhibition demands attention and analysis, and occasionally stoops to likability.
For the titular piece, Nikolai used the Unity video game creation platform to program a virtual environment titled Utopia Without You. The medium of the video game seems chosen for it’s association with reclusion, providing an active, yet closely controlled, fiction of the uncontrollable world outside, offering an ersatz life to safely inhabit. The work consists of a modestly sized flat screen TV with an oversize, stylized, trackball. Instead of a small sphere that is easily pushed with the palm of a hand, Nikolai uses a heavy, bowling ball sized, turquoise and gold sphere–with an obvious manufacturing seam–set in a beveled, triangular shaped marble formica casing placed atop a stack of blue plastic milk crates. It has the presence of a half finished prop from a peplum film, which left me with a nostalgic charge for the adventure movies of my youth
The roller-controller however allows the viewer only a minimal command of a game without complex imagery, complicated movements, rules or even a clear objective. Participants aren’t tasked with saving a princess, finding a chalice or killing anything. Rather the piece offers a look into the world of reclusion, a limited exploration of a very small world. Its earnest self-assertion is more lifelike than the slick production of Grand Theft Auto.
Nikolai’s “game”offers a heavily affected image of some longed for place of solitude, a contemporary approach to The Little Prince, a glimpse of a solitary life on an astroid floating through space. In my attempt to play, I was only able to rotate the asteroid a tiny bit. The onscreen image glitched if I moved the controller faster than a snail’s pace. There was no apparent way to see all the different versions of the asteroid shown in the gallery documentation, adding frustration to futility, a human drama played out through technology. Malfunction is merely an artifact of a haphazard production style, something perhaps unintended, but not exactly unwelcome. The objects stationed on the asteroid never came into full view for me, so it was difficult to tell what they might be. The onscreen image was lovingly inept, like a high schooler’s doodle of an imagined video game, never able to convey the excitement of their mind.
Reclusion is seldom a totalizing situation, and Nikolai’s video game is no exception. The console is connected, with a trail of electrical wires camouflaged by plastic ivy, to an interdependent piece, A Rich Inner Life. This second piece consists of a home made computer adorned with LED lights submerged in an aquarium of what one initially assumes to be water (it is actually mineral oil). This anxious combination of fluid and electricity sits on a marred and dirty wooden shelf accompanied by a large horse shaped nicknack and steel pot. While the game offers a power dynamic of futility and control, the disquiet of the computer submerged in liquid conveys a feeling that’s reckless and self destructive.
These two objects are rich in contradictions–independence and connection, contemplation and action, peace and anxiety–that seem to simultaneously reinforce and destabilize each other. It would seem easy for this conceptual switchbacking to tear itself apart, giving the viewer nothing in return, but it instead feels existential and affecting. Sometimes the pieces, such as the ceramic horse, don’t add up, and I wonder if Nikolai has planted red herrings to divert our attention in a fitting game of personal evasiveness.
There are only two other pieces in the gallery, B-612, named for the astroid in The Little Prince, and Ariel the Everqueen, named for a character in the Total War video game series. The former is an astroid made of rubbish and the latter consists of commercially produced fantasy figurines installed on a stand fashioned from a wooden shipping pallet. Together, these pieces mix messages of pageantry and austerity, robust women and scrawny boys. They feel as if they are offering two sides of a reclusive’s psychology: the sense of power one feels in their own mind, and the sad searching of a world filed with hateful brutality and conditional compassion. Seeing the direct reference to The Little Prince reinforces a sense of solemnity about the show, yet left me wondering about the story’s character Rose: where does one feel love in this solitary world?
Formally, B-612 is a compelling assemblage of Nikolai’s personal trash, placed on a black metal shelf identified on the checklist as “computer housing” and laced with artificial cobwebs. A paper bag becomes a sandy ground covered with moss. A blue plastic antistatic bag becomes ocean water from which a cartoon mermaid emerges. A Ben and Jerry’s container seems to do double duty as distant mountain and ocean wave while a small palm frond dangles from the side like the wings at Mercury’s feet, compelling through the heavens a wad of trash held together by an orange zip tie. B-612 is utter shit turned to utter amazement, making it one of the most charming pieces I’ve seen in a while.
Solitude is the ultimate perversion, and society does its best to discourage it. To leave the social fold implies a rejection of the values that hold the social fabric together. To step away necessitates the question, why? What can be done alone that can’t be done among friends? One might think of the Unabomber’s shack in the woods or the schizophrenic sleeping in the park. The incel, that resentful “involuntarily celibate” living in a dank basement spewing misogyny into the world through a modem, bitter that romantic connection remains elusive. The recluse is the pedophile sneaking away to perpetrate heinous acts against society’s future. The recluse is the serial killer sneaking away to perpetrate heinous acts against society’s finest. The recluse is the witch, guided by demons, casting spells to dissolve this very fabric of society. The recluse is out of touch, socially awkward, and unable to adapt. But for Tabitha Nikolai, I suspect the recluse is just fed the fuck up.