Artist Nicole J. Waller on Gender and Self-Expression
Nicole J. Waller is a non-binary Swedish/Polish artist and fashion designer based in Berlin. For their most recent exhibition, developed while in residency at East of Elsewhere, J. Waller deconstructs a traditionally masculine power symbol: the modern suit. J. Waller questions the structures that limit self-expression and the experience of gender using the suit as their core motif. With floating fabrics and deconstructed tailors patterns hanging from the ceiling and covering the floors, J. Waller’s installation Constraints Constructed totally transforms the space at East of Elsewhere. At ease in the controlled disarray of their installation, J. Waller tells us about their vision and how their identity shaped it.
What does identifying as non-binary mean to you?
Everyone has a very different definition of what non-binary means so I can only speak from my own perspective. For me, it means that I don’t want to be referred to as male or female because I don’t feel that these categories fit into my way of being and expressing myself.
When I realized that I didn’t feel female, I was considering a transition, thinking is that what this means then? That if I don’t fit into the box of female, then maybe that meant I was male. Trying to figure out my gender lead to a period of emotional instability until I realized I didn’t fit into any of these boxes. I decided I would rather identify as non-binary where I don’t have to try to live up to these categories. I can express myself fully, and not think so much about what is masculine and what is feminine, rather what is me.
How is that experience of gender expressed with Constraints Constructed?
I wanted to incorporate materials that might be construed as feminine or masculine and allow them to shape the installation without asking the question, “What is gender?” I use the suit as a motif because in the history of fashion, the [pattern of a] suit comes from armor. Armor is an invention that historically really drew a divide that was based solely on gender. As a designer, I wonder about my responsibility in creating genders.
How did your state of mind change during the time you were working on the project?
It changed radically. I actually came out as non-binary with the opening.
When I started working on this project I was feeling really angry; I was frustrated with the dysfunctional systems of fashion and how fashion has so much power over ideas of gender. I think I’ve had questions surrounding gender for a long time, but when I started developing a project around them I had to provide answers for the first time in order to have a viewpoint. It was a very intense period of questioning.
Who are your collaborators?
For the opening night, I collaborated with Andreas Maan, a musician who identifies as a queer man, and Daniel Kokko, a performer who identifies as a cis man. They each took time to create while immersed in the installation and respond to it in their own artistic fields, but we actually didn’t put all the elements together until opening night. It was really nice to have it come together and share this experience with the audience.
Why was it important to invite other artists to interact with and create in the space? Especially people who identify differently?
I think gender should be discussed, it shouldn’t be dictated. I can’t go in and say, “let’s just disqualify gender for everyone,” because that would be repressing for a lot of people. It’s important to create an environment where these discussions can be raised. People can allow themselves to express their gender identity or their thoughts on gender without feeling judged.
There’s a strong sense of community here in Berlin for people who identify as gay and queer, but these communities are often also gendered and based on your sexuality. They can be really strict and expect you to have certain opinions. I didn’t set out to create a space for people of a certain sexuality. It’s for everyone.
Constraints Constructed is on view at East of Elsewhere until April 14th. The exhibition will culminate with performances by Zoe Darsee, poet and co-founder of TABLOID Press, and dancer/performance artist Stephan B. Quinci.