Nils Völker The artist on finding the beauty in mundane, household items

WordsAlex Kahl

From turning garbage bags into huge, breathing organisms, to making meditative wall installations out of frisbees, Nils Völker has dedicated his career to finding the beauty in mundane, household items. He tells Alex Kahl about how every project relies on some amount of coincidence.

When Nils Völker came across a website that sold cheap electronic parts big tech companies no longer needed, his interest was piqued. He bought loads of computer cooling fans, without really knowing what he would use them for. He started turning them on and placing flags in front of them, and they would flutter as if waving in the wind. “At some point I just tried it with garbage bags, watching them inflate and deflate, and I just loved the way it looked,” he says.

Nils paired more and more fans and bags together, initially aiming to make a giant version of the game Pong, with the inflating bags slowly recreating the movement of the ball and the platforms. “I made a mistake when uploading a program to the fans, so instead of all inflating at the same time, they went one after the other. And it just looked so beautiful. It was this wave-like movement.” He loved the result so much that he’s since used the setup in multiple exhibitions: hundreds of bags inflating and deflating in a fluid motion like a huge plastic set of lungs.

This strange, serendipitous process isn’t out of the ordinary for Nils. “I don’t have a message in mind at the start and then find the best materials to use to put it across,” he says. “It’s the other way around. I find materials and I’m happy if they end up sending a message.”

Nils has a whole studio full of odd little electronic items and gadgets, mostly collected from his days building DIY robots at home. He began his career as a graphic designer working on corporate design and book projects, but would spend his weekends building the small robots using LEGO kits. Over the years, the hobby became more serious and the LEGO made way for more advanced parts, and he’s since been working his way up to building and programming these huge installations. “It took quite a while for me to go from seeing myself as a designer who was doing art on the side, to really feeling and being like an artist,” he says.

Nils plays around with different combinations of odd objects, and once he finds a pairing that works, he’ll start with a prototype. “Often there’s a whole line of slightly improving versions before I start the ‘mass-production,’” he says. “For every project I have to use different skills and techniques which is one aspect of my job I like a lot. The work is extremely diverse, from electronics and programming to things like cast moulding.”

He gives each of his exhibits a fairly generic title, naming them after the number of bags used or the width of the objects he uses. “I really don’t want to force the viewers to see something specific,” he says. “It’s funny the things people sometimes see in a work that I never intended, but once they tell me, I can see that they’re right.” Some people see his huge, breathing sculptures as a nod to plastic pollution in the ocean, with the bags representing the ocean’s organs or the sound of them inflating and deflating reminding them of waves crashing onto a beach. The most common response is that the exhibits are serene and meditative. “I love those responses. My favorite thing is when people just love the way it looks, or how it makes them feel,” he says.

None of his projects make use of objects you’d expect to see in an exhibition, and he’s always finding things in his hoard to experiment with. For another installation, Paddling Pools, he uses, well, paddling pools. He was invited to exhibit in a huge church in France that could be made completely dark.

“I decided from the beginning that it had to be some kind of light work. I had a paddling pool lying around in my collection of items. I did a quick test with some LEDs and it was just really beautiful,” he says. The colorful lights shine through the translucent plastic of the paddling pools, appearing like a section of some alien spacecraft. For 10”, he used motors to make frisbees rotate smoothly on an empty wall.

Just as his process is serendipitous, it seems that having his work exhibited on a large scale has been, too. “I guess it’s a combination of luck and a lot of hard work. The more projects you realize the more your work gets seen by people, and the places I show my work at get bigger,” he says. “But it’s not like I’ve changed anything. I’ve always used everyday objects and materials for my work, and there are so many things out there waiting to be converted into pieces of art!”

A running theme in Nils’ work is the use of these mundane objects that are never really considered to be desirable or attractive, but in the way he uses them, are made into something elegant and graceful. “Everyone has these things in their house, but they aren’t something you’d make art with, because they’re not exclusive or special,” he says. “But if you have a lot of them and they’re working together, in coordinated movement, they can become really beautiful.”