The Polyphonic World of Nana Dix

by David Galloway

In his celebrated study of Renaissance painting, the British essayist Walter Pater asserted, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Though written in the 19th century, his work might be seen as a herald of the experimental spirit that would animate the Modernist movement, which witnessed a vigorous interchange between music and the visual arts. While composers interpreted paintings, painters often sought to adapt musical structures in their works. Indeed, the shared language of music and painting demonstrates the deep kinship: Terms like composition, rhythm, harmony and dissonance, coloration and shading underscore the communality. At a more literal level, musical instruments and musicians played a central role in the works of Pablo Picasso, while Arman literally dissected musical instruments for some of his most dramatic “accumulations.” Viewed in this larger musical context, the works of Nana Dix might be thought of as polyphonic, utilizing many tones or voices sounded simultaneously. It is worth noting here that the concept has important Modernist antecedents. Paul Klee, for example, evolved his own theory of “polyphonic painting”

and used the term as the title of several paintings. Starting from a very different vantage point, Dix employs a technique of layering, typically achieved through collage and over-painting, to create startling “multi-voiced” effects: accords and discords of glamour and the grotesque, romance and anxiety, the sensuous and the ominous. The inherent musicality of such compositions echoes with suggestions of a bal masqué or even of a dance of death. Associations with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” are perhaps not entirely coincidental. Dix’s work has frequently evoked Poe’s “The Raven,” with its themes of lost love, inconsolable grief, and the power of the supernatural. With its glistening, purple-black plumage, the raven has provided an inscrutable symbol of wisdom and witchcraft that has intrigued artists and writers for centuries. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued that the raven acquired such mythic status because it was seen as a mediator between life and death. A further and more frequent leitmotif in Dix’s oeuvre is the human eye - for poets “the window to the soul,” in the science of biom trics the most uniquely identifiable human organ.

Just how deeply rooted it is in our cultural consciousness is indicated by the number of idioms that employ the word eye: 82 in German, 119 in French and 269 in English. In Dix’s works the eye is sometimes multiplied or magnified, often obscured, even “blinded.” Surrealism and Dada offer numerous antecedents to such imagery; the most dramatic is provided by the prologue that Salvador Dalí created for Luis Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece Un chien andalou (1929), which concludes with a straight-razor slicing open a woman’s eye. If Nana Dix avoids such extremes, she nonetheless succeeds in tapping into the viewer’s primal fears. Furthermore, many of her compositions question not only the process of perception, but also common assumptions of beauty. What we witness is a polyphonic aesthetic that also finds persuasive expression in the artist’s collaborations with the composer Tobias Laemmert. In their most recent work, The Secret Garden, Dix’s video collage is deepened and enriched by the composer’s own acoustic collage – a pairing of image and sound for which the ambiguous raven once more serves as spiritus rector.