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When 31-year-old artist Nora Turato performs, it’s usually in an empty institutional space. Her voice, body, and hands are the medium for the 20 to 30 minutes of stage time. The script is a mix of fragments from her daily consumption of language, like shorthand texts or online articles. Everything is given equal importance, arranged in order of instinct. These lines also make up Turato’s annual “pool” book. On the occasion of her MoMA performances this past March, her fifth, titled pool 5, was published in an edition of 500.
Born in Croatia, Turato moved to Amsterdam after high school to study graphic design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Inspired by a professor, she started to read her texts aloud. Fast-forward to her live performances, she’s since performed all over the world in spaces like Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and Vienna’s Secession. Turato also makes wall works, both as site-specific paintings and panels, block-colored with special typeface. Her first US solo gallery show, “govern me harder,” opened this April in TriBeCa at David Zwirner’s 52 Walker. The namesake two-panel enamel on steel is marigold yellow; “govern me,” centered in white lower case letters. Below: a huge “h.” The “er” aligned with the bottom of the second rectangle; “ard” a little left at the top. Online, this work has gotten a lot of love and an assortment of one-liners.
There’s also “you’re so vain,” on black. The “O” in a yellow “so,” stretched wide and squat to take up two-thirds of the panel width. Turato created a new typeface in which having a double letter thickens it into a fatter, bolder letter. In the mostly red work i sold it for million bells, the double “L” in the last two words is widened into one block letter. The bottom reads “bels” in a lined white box much like the warning on European cigarettes, a favorite of Turato’s layouts. On the walls are optical balls in red and green; red and blue; and red and yellow, lengthened and contracted into bands of varying size, with words like “horse sense,” “goddamnit,” and “showmanship” below.Turn the corner, and there’s a black wall with a leaning yellow disc. “Follow me you cowards,” it is meant to read, but the last letters are caught in the doorframe.
We spoke one Sunday afternoon, during what’s become our usual teatime — and were unceremoniously interrupted by my five-year-old, Jack.
Stephanie LaCava: So, you just had your opening on Friday. You closed the MoMA performances two weeks ago. This is your New York moment.
Nora Turato: And that’s kind of hilarious that I got “a moment in New York, a hot moment.” But what does that mean? How long does it last? [Laughs] At least I got one moment, you know.
LaCava: When did you first start planning for the MoMA show?
Turato: Like four years ago. Wow. And I first thought when I met with Ana [Janevski, Curator for Media and Performance Art], she was making some sort of a performance night at MoMA. A one-shot deal.
LaCava: How many performances was it in the end?
Turato: Around 30.
LaCava: And then the accompanying book, pool 5. Did it sell out?
Turato: Yes. It was only 500. But that’s still great.
LaCava: Are you going to do a second edition? Or now you’re moving onto pool 6?
Turato: I have to, but how I work changed a little bit. I’m recording more and I’m writing less down.
LaCava: Like leaving yourself a voice note?
Turato: Yeah, exactly. And I also want to start writing more. I don’t know how to explain it, but I have noticed lately that I’ve managed to tap into a kind of unconscious I wasn’t aware of before. It’s like the Internet in my head.
LaCava: Where has that come from? New York tap water or something?
Turato: I don’t know. It happened the last few months. While in New York, I was kind of working on different levels, making more notes.
LaCava: Like that amazing five-minute-long voice note you sent me about the scaffolding?
Turato: Yeah, exactly. It’s the way we communicate. But, I think it can be very violent when it comes from someone you don’t really know. With some people, I really love it. It really depends on how much I think that person would listen.
LaCava: That’s funny, because when I got yours the other day, I didn’t have my headphones, so I had to wait to listen. It’s more like a letter in that way, the privacy that’s not required for a text message. Also: the ubiquity of podcasts.
Turato: Everyone has a podcast, there’s a podcast for everything. There’s something to listen to all the time.
LaCava: I hope that there’s, like, a comeback of talk shows or new late night shows, the actual old model.
Turato: Like Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson. Something unexpected with unexpected guests in the flesh. All we’re doing is seeing people’s projected ideas of themselves online and then hearing their voices.
LaCava: I know it would be hard to do, but also one where nothing is pegged, like no PR suggesting a guest based on a release. The hosts have to choose the people and reach out themselves.
Jack: Don’t you have an interview?
LaCava: This is my interview. I’m talking to her now, right here at the table. Yeah, talking to her in life.
LaCava: Oh my God, here we have a five-year-old who just rocked up to our interview and started laughing because we were doing it in person. He’s used to me doing it on Zoom or call. [Addresses Jack] This is a real live interview. You can touch her. [Jack goes back to his room.]
To our point, we need the real thing. Sitting down, talking. You know what’s funny: I took him to one of your performances, and he got very upset because you said a bad word. You’re gonna laugh.
Turato: Which one?
LaCava: Stupid. He was like, “She said stupid!” Not “fuck” or “pussy.” That went over his head, but stupid… Since you arrived in New York, have you consumed different media differently?
Turato: Well, the thing is that they have HBO here. In Amsterdam, Netherlands, you don’t have HBO Max. So you can’t just log in; you have to download, change your IP address or whatever. So here, I just have it on my TV. I’ve been watching South Park and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
LaCava: Imagine your life in New York the past couple days was an episode of Curb. What character would you be?
Turato: Larry David, of course. I really relate to that guy.
LaCava: You guys look alike. [Laughs]
Turato: I honestly love his style. He has cool style. I would be cool with looking like Larry. He is totally good vibes.
LaCava: Did you hear that he had a documentary that was supposed to come out on HBO? And the day [before] it was set to come out, he canceled it, which I thought was a pretty baller.
Turato: Yeah, he’s a baller guy. That’s my role model. Do you think he buys art?
LaCava: We should do a three-way interview with him next time. You guys would totally click. Who’s my Curb character?
Turato: Seinfeld? But he’s like off stage, behind the scenes helping make the jokes.
LaCava: Who is Gregor [Staiger, her Swiss gallerist]?
LaCava: Yeah. [Laughs] Anyone else you can cast?
Turato: I can cast a lot of people, just not on record.
LaCava: Let’s talk a little bit about the opening that you had on Friday at David Zwirner’s 52 Walker gallery space, programmed and led by Ebony L. Haynes. Tell me about the process of installing the wall works.
Turato: We installed it all by hand. It took about nine days, but we worked a lot of nights.
LaCava: Claes [Storm] has become something of an Instagram celebrity. You’ve been storying him working at the space.
Turato: He’s my right hand. For me, I really enjoy working with people.
LaCava: You totally animate when you’re with people. I’ve seen it happen.
Turato: Yeah, exactly. There is a whole part of my work that has me alone when I’m rehearsing, writing, or [using] InDesign. Making sketches and stuff, that’s a whole part of it that I do alone. When it comes to installation and making things happen, I work with others.
LaCava: Did you make, like, a tiny model or maquette of the space?
Turato: There’s no miniature, it’s not good enough. I prefer to render it digitally. You can see the install shots before you even install the show. With an actual model, you can’t move it to see the corners. You cannot see the perspective looking from all angles.
LaCava: It’s true that many will see the show from shots decimated online, which makes me think of your performances. We talked about how you’ve become used to pictures of you circulating, mouth-open, hands flailing. You, animated.
Turato: I’m so desensitized to those pictures now. [Laughs] Unlike those, with the wall works I can see how the pictures will look, in a way. Of course, there’s many small changes that happen, but I like the idea of working on the exhibition in digital space. For me, it’s so much easier than anything else because then it’s almost like a video game. You can walk through it, you know?
LaCava: I found it so charming, though, that some people behind the desk at the space had the actual cut-outs of the letters at the opening…
Turato: Everybody took the stencils!
LaCava: Are those done digitally?
Turato: No, it was by hand. We first print the outline of the shapes on a really cheap printer. Then, we glue it on cardboard. This part of the process is really analog. The rest is math.
LaCava: The wall works are for sale? How does that work?
Turato: You should technically be able to install it if you have a precise person and you get our manual. There’s this beautiful box and instruction manual with color samples.
LaCava: Do they get the paint?
Turato: They have to buy the paint. They get a color sample of the original dated on acid-free paper. Every wall painting has a box with instructions on how to do it.
LaCava: So there’s only one box for the entire 52 Walker?
Turato: Three. There are three different walls. In a way, the process is so analog and simple. The only thing you need is precision and patience. It’s kind of reducing painting, not to expression but to precision. In a way, the human best is still not the best, not the digital best. Anyway, what I like about these wall paintings is that the further away you are from them, the more digital they seem, but as you get closer you start to see and feel the human hand. You know, people buy paintings and never have them installed, keep them in the box. What I like about these wall paintings is that there also is this kind of box and you can put it on your bookshelf.
LaCava: Or put your jewelry in it afterward.
Turato: Exactly. I keep tons of boxes in my own house, like shitty ones in fancy ones.
LaCava: Like matryoshka [Russian dolls]?
Turato: Exactly. Boxes in boxes. You know, I always have this one recurring nightmare. And I have it so often, I don’t know where the fuck it comes from. Maybe it’s like a ’90s Croatia thing.
I always dream about waking up in the middle of the night and the whole house is on fire. And I have to get only the most important stuff.
LaCava: Have you spoken to a psychoanalyst about this?
LaCava: Let’s talk about it.
Turato: I moved away from home in Croatia when I was 18. Into super-cheap housing that was made for refugees but then repurposed for students. I lived with, like, four dancers. There was all this graffiti inside the home, and at night the building would shiver. But then in the dream, I never take anything, because I realize I can’t take it all. Why bother?
LaCava: This makes me think of the permanent wall paintings, but also that you’re a performer — you carry it all inside you.
Turato: And the wall works, there’s an object. I still like objects, but in a way I think I can kind of let go of them easily.
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