MEXICO CITY — Ricardo Nicolayevsky, one of the most prolific Mexican video artists and experimental filmmakers working today, began his career in the early 1980s in Mexico City and New York City. Ever since, he has treated the camera as an extension of his psyche, striving to deconstruct the paradigms of portraiture and the moving image. Along with his practice in film and video, Nicolayevsky is a music composer who works with sound and video pieces simultaneously, weaving them together to heighten his incisive approach to portraiture. His body of work could be perceived as an extension of the artist’s subjectivity, lingering between the catastrophic and the surreal.
Retro: Retratos en Movimiento at the Centro de Cultura Digital pays homage to Nicolayevsky’s trajectory with a three-part program: a live screening and performance; a talk by the artist; and an exhibition showing 55 video portraits he’s produced since 1982. The program, curated by Mara Fortes in conjunction with Elena Pardo and Manuel Morris Trujillo, brings together a significant body of work to elucidate the artist’s process and distinctive style. The selected works also capture a forgotten and overlooked scene in Mexico during the 1980s and ‘90s, when film was expected to be narrative and nothing else received support. Underground artists continued making non-narrative films, but they never gained the attention they deserved. Nicolayevsky’s work is a glowing example of this type of film, and the Centro de Cultura Digital program and exhibition offer a much-needed opportunity for it to reach a wider audience.
The program began with a performance titled “Cine Expandido” that consisted of a screening of Nicolayevsky’s films Oh Julie and The Private Life of a Former Artist accompanied by voice and music improvisations by Nicolayevsky and Carlos Vivanco, a renowned experimental musician of the underground scene in Mexico City since the early ’80s. While the films screened, Nicolayevsky played and performed in the style of his cabaret years. Dressed in punk-glam attire — leather pants, false eyelashes, a hat, and a wig — he slowly undressed and eventually collapsed on the floor in only his underwear. As he shed his costume, multiple layers were revealed, exposing not only his true appearance, but also an attitude of vulnerability and honesty. The performance evoked the tone of a Joan Jonas piece, where the artist’s completely subjective approach is encapsulated in that precise frame of time, charged by a sense of deconstruction and delirium.
The Private Life of a Former Artist, a half-fiction, half-self portrait film, tells the intimate story of a middle class, white, male artist struggling for years only to end up in solitude and hysteria. The entire film — like many of Nicolayevsky’s pieces — takes place in one room that gradually becomes a kind of disastrous microcosm. Simmering with absurdity, the piece confronts the viewer with two parallel narratives, film and performance perfectly coexisting and feeding each other to arrive at an emotive crescendo. In Nicolayevsky’s film the artist is ultimately reaffirmed in his decision to dedicate his life to artistic creation, regardless of its outcome, resigning himself to an existence defined by the dissonant tension between creativity and routine.
Over the last 30 years, Nicolayevsky has produced several self-portraits in film and video that explore polychromatic variations of identity. Imagined or not, his alter egos have enigmatic, almost mythological features. His illusory manifestations screened in Retro: Retratos en Movimiento include a hybrid geisha-bullfighter, a French pimp getting drunk in a brothel, and Prometheus engulfed in flames. His works depart from a constant state of reinvention in order to perpetuate the multiple layers of his character, inhabiting a place that is neither completely real nor completely fictional.
The program’s exhibition component, comprised of a sculptural video installation and two large-scale projections, showcases Nicolayevsky’s Lost Portraits and New York City Portraits, series filmed in Super 8 and 16mm between 1982 and 1985 in Mexico City and New York City. The pieces are portraits of Nicolayevsky’s close friends and relatives that capture the idiosyncrasy of each character. Edited many years after they were filmed, the portraits register the innovative, turbulent attitude of his generation. Each film, titled with the character’s name, evokes a metaphysical awareness; the gaze of the camera seems to disappear through loose movements at a dance-like pace. The rapid cuts in editing negate time’s linear trajectory: the viewer becomes lost in a dream-like state that echoes a time that now seems lost.