Seeing the bigger picture: Nick Ervinck’s virtual reality

Digital technology and 3D printing have long been on the cusp for transforming the potential of art. Belgian artist Nick Ervinck takes digital creativity to new dimensions with his new series of work NEBOAC, a series of two small boxes with small mutated 3D printed pieces. With the virtual world at the tips of his fingers, his artist’s brush is a radical tool for control and manipulatation, and in creating exciting new possibilities like printing pre-designed food. Winner of the 2006 Fortis Young One’s Award and the West-Flanders Province’s Provincial Prize for Fine Arts, Ervinck discusses with us the exciting yet threatening matters that are brought to the fore – for example, will we soon be able to print organs and living organisms at our will?

At its core, what is your work about? What is its starting point and statement?

The core of my work always starts with the contradiction between nature and culture, old and new. I take a vanguard position in the field of digital technology (such as 3D technology and computational design methods), but I also work with more traditional methods such as sculpture and ceramics. You could describe my work as a cross-fertilisation between the virtual and physical worlds. Digital images constantly contaminate the three-dimensional forms, and vice versa. My images balance on the edge of functionality, copy-paste techniques in a 3D-software environment, all derived from a wide range of sources.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general? What characterizes your work?

It’s hard to pinpoint a general approach since I don’t really have one: I always work with many different materials, techniques and design methods. It depends a bit on the situation really, and the specific work in question. Of course, I have my go-to approaches, like sculpting by hand or preparing everything digitally. I usually use the Autodesk 3ds Max software for designing – I like to think of my computer as my digital sketchbook.

The British artist Henry Moore, famed for his semi-absurdist sculptures would have a 3D design in mind, drawing it out on a piece of paper, and eventually turning the blueprint into a large-scale model. While my sculptures are sometimes too complex to even think about in my head, I design them with the computer. In fact, the computer is what allows for this associative thinking in the first place. It allows for a different way of designing and is, furthermore,much more time-efficient. This enables the work to grow and evolve, sometimes in a different direction from the one I originally planned.

My work is characterised by it’s yellow, complex and organic forms, evoking a sense of freshness and originality. While my work is full of art history references, it’s also adapted to modern day technology. I wonder if I come accross to the younger generations as a classic artist because I still present my work on a pedestal, while the older generations see me as more innovative because of the use of 3D-printing.

What were your first introductions to the visual arts?

Architecture has always fascinated me, so it was my first choice when I switched to art school. After those studies I switched to ceramics and graphic design. When I discovered software such as Photoshop, a whole new world opened up to me. I suddenly realized that you can do a whole lot more with a computer than just playing games. Finally, I switched to a mixed media course, and there, I gradually found my feet. I had a dynamic teacher, Danny Matthys, from whom I learned a lot. He was truly a mentor for me, teaching me to thinking outside of the box.

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

Every sculpture has its own story, and it depends a lot on the technique I use and what the story behind the work is about. Sometimes I’ll start with a story and design in my head and start sculpting it in foam, together with my assistants. While making the sculpture I’ll keep on changing my design until I’ve found the ultimate form. I think outside the box and have the nerve not to make obvious choices. Once the design is ready, I’ll sand it over and over, using polyester until the sculpture is perfectly finished.

Another example of my methods and approaches is LAPIRSURB, a sculpture I designed for the University of Antwerp. While designing, I was inspired by robots, aliens, monsters and mysterious creatures that were created by artists like H. R. Giger. Furthermore, I was inspired by the traditional helmets, jewellery and images from ancient sculptures, such as masks and sculptures from Inca and Mayan cultures. Multiple fragmentary pieces and hundreds of hours of manual computer-aided drawings of the latest computer software and 3D printing techniques were needed to achieve this sculpture. Since these sculptures can only be spatially realised through 3D modelling and printing, they result in a direct challenge to classical sculpture. Having said that, 3D printed parts are painted by hand, a process that requires patience and precision.

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

People often ask me why some artists are picked up, while others remaind ignored. In my career I’ve been blessed with some major moments that have been very important to build up my practice. Like in 2009, when I had the chance to work with Alain Liedts of the Liedts-Meesen foundation. He asked me to design a large-scale sculpture which would be placed on top of his building Zebrastraat in Ghent. It was my first go at creating something so large-scale, so it’s really thanks to him that I had th opportunity to prove the world that I’m capable of creating public art.

In that same year, I also presented my work in a group exhibition in Shanghai. During a stroll through the garden of Yuyuan, situated on the shores of the Huangpu River, I became fascinated by the whimsical structures of the rocks, reminding me of Henry Moore’s sculptures. Inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions, I designed the sculpture IKRAUSIM. I also worked on AGRIEBORZ, where I immersed myself in medical textbook drawings, with the aid of NTE doctor and surgeon Pierre Delaere. Later on in 2013, I met Wageningen University’s Plant Breeding Professor Tom Denijs, and became fascinated by the potential of food manipulation and the use of 3D print technology thanks to him. The sculptures that result from this collaboration have the working title Plant Mutations.

Every person I’ve met, every decision I’ve made has all helped shape my artistic practice. The decision to switch from part-time teacher to a full-time art studio with assistants has also influenced me and my work, of course.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

Thankfully, Belgium has a very decent art scene with many talented artists, and locally based collectors. We have a very good art scene in Belgium with many collectors. But of course, it’s also a very small country where possibilities are limited, to some extent. Our most populated cities don’t match to the London’s, Paris’ or New York City’s of the world, where it’s easier to roll on to the international art scene. For one, I’m very conscious about my decision to set up an art studio in a small rural village. It has its pros and cons: it’s a very quiet place where I can easily lock myself up and focus wholeheartedly on my art. On the other hand, my studio is pretty remote and hidden away from other artists and the international art world.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

My personal definition about contemporary art has changed and evolved. It is of course very personal: we live in a fast-moving world dedicated to economy, science, administration, and the likes. Art is what allows me to transcend this harsh reality.

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.

We have many good artists here in Belgium, and I’m always very curious about what they do, and how they do it – more out of interest and curiousity than inspiration. I’ve been collecting monographs from different artists, with quite a few from Belgian artists within my collection: Nadia Naveau, Renato Nicolodi, Filip Vervaet, Nicolás Lamas, Bart Stolle, Wim Delvoye and Johan Tahon.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work? And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

Art was never a topic in my home growing up: as a child we never went to museums, for one. Making the leap into art was certainly not easy, but luckily my parents and wife have always supported me and given me the space to grow. My kids bring me back to reality and allow me to escape outside of my own world.

What you are up to in the months to come?

I’ve been working hard on some new series within my oeuvre, with some upcoming exhibitions in Brussels and Duffel. You can expect a lot of ceramics, like a large-scale sculpture to be installed in Mechelen.