The title of Nicola Ginzel’s project, How Do You Restructure Form?, is a question that addresses the reader directly and prompts many others. Is restructuring the same as reconstructing, or, rather differently, does it bring about the undoing of form? Is it a translation of something into another material? If so, is it about the layered connections of matter and memory, process and materials? And, maybe most importantly, what is the form that needs restructuring and why?

In spring 2020, the Brooklyn-based artist traveled for a residency to Vienna, where her father grew up. A homecoming of sorts marked by recurrent pandemic lockdowns and forced solitude, her stay evolved into a four-month-long daily rubbing of the exterior footprint of the Palais Equitable in the city’s historic center. By using red carbon paper, she recorded the base of the building and the adjacent ground thus transcribing the construction that also houses a 15th century tree trunk riddled with nails. The nail tree talisman, known as the Stock-im-Eisen, is one of the rare surviving examples of the medieval practice of pounding nails into a tree for healing, good luck and protection. Encased in glass like a relic, the talisman is placed in a niche on the corner of the Palais Equitable that was built in 1891 as the European headquarter of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.

An early monument of global capitalism and its myth of perpetual market growth, the edifice is a modern landmark of the imperial city, and by the enclosure of the nail tree, it is also a vessel of pre-modern rituals. The life insurance company and the nail tree both address the human need for identity and protection, but Ginzel’s daily work was not only rooted in their shared affinity. The building, where her grandfather once had his office, was promised, but failed to become Ginzel’s paternal inheritance, and thus, it is part of her personal history. The Palais Equitable, a site of old and new belief systems, sacred and profane rituals, personal hopes and collective aspirations is a lieu de mémoire–as the French historian Pierre Nora calls locations of communal memory. For Ginzel, it became a workplace and a site to remember broken promises and her paternal ancestry.

Crouching on the sidewalk in the early morning hours to perform what was both a physical activity and spiritual labor, Ginzel rubbed stones, corners, sidewalks, and ornamental metal grilles. Her daily work was repetitive, laborious and meditative—akin to ancestral clearing—a frequent theme in the artist’s oeuvre. As she wrote in spring 2023, “trained as a printmaker and working in mixed media, my artworks are based in ritual and process. (...) I often see myself as an ‘artist as shaman’ attempting to change the trajectory or energy of the thing that I materially transform.” Ginzel's method defies the customary vocabulary of art and craft: her conceptually informed yet thoroughly materially grounded work moves freely among procedures such as drawing, collage, frottage, painting, construction, and performance.

How Do You Restructure Form? is rooted in the ritual labor of architectural frottage and the subsequent transformation of nearly two hundred red carbon marked papers of varying size, weight and texture through extended time and in varied media. In her Vienna studio, and later on the Bowery, in New York’s Chinatown, in a former clinic of osteopathic medicine, Ginzel worked on the dated and carefully ordered rubbed papers with a wide array of materials. She cut and rearranged them; marked them with graphite, pastel and gel medium; stained and painted them with espresso, gum arabic, turmeric, acrylic, watercolor, iodine mixed with dry pigment and ink; stitched them with wool; scraped, shaved and sliced them; and occasionally superimposed them with the dyed and painted remains of her late father’s pajama. By treating the surface of the papers as walls and palimpsests, and by combining and sequencing them as building blocks or construction materials, she created a large and strictly structured series that consists of sixty-five works–the shoji paper-based chapter is one of them.

Divided into subsequences based on their formal characteristics and materials, each chapter in How Do You Restructure Form? provides fragmented narratives that demonstrate the disappearance or subsistence of ornamental and architectural forms. Like fractals, individual works and chapters reiterate and modify, expose and erase their base structure, the linear network of red carbon rubbings. In some works, the Palais Equitable remains visible, in others, it is buried under multiple modifications. Ginzel records, then both repeats and erases the archival trace of the building, while she does the same to the paper itself. Like the map-like images of the late 19th century Viennese edifice, the structure and the topological continuity of the paper which is both a ground and surface in Ginzel’s hand is destroyed and then reconstituted.

Broken diagrams, symbolic maps and fragmented palimpsests, Ginzel’s project evokes the Freudian Wunderblock: it records and erases, remembers and cancels the handmade marks, building and the presence of their maker. Similar to a novel or a musical composition, How Do You Restructure Form? is an orchestrated multi-part structure that brings into play the ambiguities of memory work, the issues of locational identity, and the tensions of the elective affinities in familial relations that form and deform human beings. How Do You Restructure Form? is a question that despite its specificity can resonate with every viewer who ever pondered how things and people survive being alive.

Dr. Ágnes Berecz, PhD

teaches History of Art and Design, Pratt Institute, focusing on transnational exchanges and collaborative, multimedia practices in postwar and contemporary art