File Note 04: Nicole Wermers - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Jan Verwoert



Light, life and shiny things Images References Quote Biography Credits

Light, life and shiny things


Where there is light there is life. This much seems certain. So when you see a light in a window at night you know that someone will still be up. You might want to check and throw a small stone against the windowpane to see if the sound it produces on the surface of the glass will make someone answer. Watching TV alone at night is very much like gazing at an illuminated window. Like the glow of a fireside, the flickering light of television is comforting in itself. It gives you the sense that you are facing something that is also alive, which is looking back at you as you are looking at it. So as long as there is still light in the TV box this means that you are not the only one left who is still awake. In that sense the lightbox of the TV for modern city dwellers is what the lighthouse is, or used to be, for sailors at sea: vital evidence that there is other life out there somewhere. I hear that lighthouses these days are operated by computers. So is TV broadcasting. That’s why sometimes I feel like chucking stones at the screen to check if there still is anybody in there. Shooting rockets into space is very much like chucking stones at the TV. Stars shine.
So, naturally you want to know whether there is life up there. There has to be, right?
‘That which is light looks at me’ says Lacan. He elaborates that ‘the point of light’ is not only ‘the point of irridation, the play of light, fire, the source from which reflections pour forth’ but also ‘the point at which everything that looks at me is situated’.1 So the point of light is the source of life in the sense that I learn that I am alive only when my gaze is reflected by something else, when I see myself in the eyes of someone else and thereby perceive myself in a different light, one that falls on me from the outside. With life and light, reflection means reciprocity and therefore the mutual affirmation of existence. But as always, there is a catch. The point of light, Lacan argues, is not only that which gives me life but also that which mortifies me. When the eyes of the world are on me I freeze and turn to stone. The reciprocity works both ways.
If the source of light is, in fact, lifeless, this is what I become too. Illuminated by the light of the television, my face comes to mirror the screen and I am effectively mortified, lying motionless on the sofa bathed in blue light, mummified by the images wrapped around my mind.


These thoughts and feelings come to my mind when I look at Nicole Wermers’ Katzensilber III (2004), which is one in a series of collages based on images of different minerals. These minerals are shiny things. It is not just that their crystalline surfaces refract the light like a prism, they actually appear to emit light. They look as if the light itself had crystallized, as if light had turned into stone. Minerals are a special life form. They grow at their own pace, sometimes for thousands of years. Imagine the life force it takes to grow like that!
A collector of minerals takes pride in storing hundreds of years of life in his collecting boxes. Lovers give each other precious minerals, jewels that is, as a very special gift. It is a way of saying: you make me feel alive so I give you life as a present — and a present for life. Precious stones don’t fade. A precious stone is a supreme gift, because, like love, it resists consumption. How could you consume it? You can neither eat it nor use it up.
Paradoxically, the fact that jewels, just like gold and pearls, can never be entirely consumed is the very reason why our consumer culture celebrates them as the ultimate commodity fetish. But precious stones are also a cruel gift. Their durability is a vivid reminder of your mortality. Your existence is totally indifferent to them since they will outlast you anyway. As far as they are concerned, you are practically dead. Like the light that shines from them, precious stones both vivify and mortify you.
This seems true for jewels but even more so for Katzensilber, Fool’s gold, look-alikes of precious stones. Since they have little material value, their beauty lies strictly in the eyes of the beholder. The essence of their fascination is the immaterial effect their surfaces produce as they reflect the gaze back on itself. Katzensilber is all visual surface. As the eyes cannot see through stone, the impenetrable surfaces of minerals also form the limits of the visible world. The world of surfaces is devoid of human life, just like the silent galaxy of perforated planes, zigzagging beams and multi-coloured nebulas in the collage Untitled (Stern), 2005.
It is a world which is there for me to see but into which my gaze cannot travel. The star-like shape in the centre of the image simultaneously attracts the gaze and obstructs the view on the deep space that appears to be opening up behind it. Again, I feel like chucking stones at the shiny surface to see whether there is life in the space hidden behind the star. Most probably there isn’t. Still I wonder: do the stars know I am alive as I watch them?
After all, there are ways for lifeless matter to register human presence. A light barrier for instance will know it when I pass it. Another word for light barrier is ‘magic eye’. Imagine the silent world of things and surfaces is looking at you through its magic eye. What does it see? I wish I knew.


1 Jacques Lacan: The four fundamental concepts of Psycho-analysis, Seminar 8, Penguin Books, London 1994, p.95 & 96

The Practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau, Berkeley, University of California Press (1984)

Glamorama Bret Easton Ellis, New York, Alfred A. Knopf (1999)

A Diamond as big as the Ritz Francis Scott Fitzgerald, New York, Smart Set (1922)

Eileen Gray, Designer and Architect Phillippe Garner, Köln, Benedikt Taschen Verlag (1993)

Film und Traum, Zum präsentativen Symbolismus Uwe Gaube, München, Fink (1978) 

Einführung in eine wahre Geschichte des Kinos/Introduction a une véritable histoire du cinéma (Tome 1) Jean Luc Godard, Paris, Éditions Albatros (1980)

Church Builders Edwin Heathcote and Iona Spens, West Sussex, Academy Editions (1997)

The All Night Movie Mary Heilmann, Zürich, Galerie Hauser und Wirth (1999)

Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space Brian O’Doherty, San Francisco, Lapis Press (1986)

Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, New York, Allworth Press (1999) 

Hotel Palenque Robert Smithson, 1969-1972, Slide talk given to architecture students of the Ohio State University, published for instance in Parkett Nr. 43 (1995) pp. 133

The Writings of Robert Smithson Robert Smithson, New York, New York University Press (1979)

From Bauhaus to Our House Tom Wolfe, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux (1981)

‘The Illuminated Man’ J. G. Ballard, in The Terminal Beach, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd (1964)

Les Mystères du Château du Dé Man Ray (dir.) (1929)

Chicago Drive Isa Genzken (dir.) (1992)

The Shining Stanley Kubrick (dir.) (1980)

A Woman under the Influence (1974), Minni and Moskowitz (1971), Opening Night (1974) John Cassavetes (dir.)

The Last Pictureshow Peter Bogdanovic (dir.) (1971)

Lost Highway David Lynch (dir.) (1996)

‘On a sequinned lawn spurs a child’s toy, perhaps a red tricycle with yellow wheels, glittered like a Faberge gem, the wheels starred into brilliant jasper crowns.’ J.G. Ballard, ‘The Illuminated Man’, in The Terminal Beach, Victor Gollancz, London (1964)


Nicole Wermers (b. 1971 Emsdetten, Germany), lives and works in London. She undertook a residency at Delfina Studio Trust, London, in 2004 and has had solo exhibitions at the Secession, Vienna; Millers Terrace, London; Galerie Borgmann-Nathusius, Cologne and Produzentengalerie, Hamburg. Recent group exhibitions include ‘Other Peoples Projects: Herald Street’, White Columns, New York (2005); ‘Therefore Beautiful’, Ursula-Blickle Foundation, Kraichtal, Germany (2005); ‘Pin-Up’, Tate Modern (2004-5); ‘At the Palace at 4am’, Alison Jacques, London; ‘The Future Has A Silver Lining’, Migros Museum, Zurich and ‘A Nova Geometria’, Galeria Fortes Vilaces, São Paulo (2003). Other museum exhibitions include: Dorothea-von Stetten Kunstpreis, Kunstmuseum Bonn (2002); ‘Szenenwechsel XX’, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt a.M. (2001) and ‘German Leitkultur’, Kunsthalle Friedericianum, Kassel (2001).


Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of Frieze, and a guest professor at the Art Academy of Umeå, Sweden. This text is a development of a presentation he made at Camden Arts Centre on 23 March 2005, titled The Origin of Fetishism and Fantasy of Surfaces.

Supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.