Not a Shoe. Sophie Nys at Guimarães

A few months ago we asked art writer Josseline Black to visit Sophie Nys’ exhibition “Not a Shoe,” hosted by Guimarães art space in Vienna. The following is the text she wrote on that occasion. A special thanks goes to Hugo Canoilas and Josseline Black for their precise report. 

Not a Shoe. Sophie Nys’ solo show at Guimarães, Vienna

by Josseline Black

I am walking into Guimarães, the space in Vienna where Sophie Nys has an exhibition up called Not a Shoe. I see a video screen hanging in the center of what looks like a cross between a stable and the basement of a power plant, all cleaned and left in situ. I then participated in watching a film in which we are taken to the summer house of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. We see, in addition to the black and white moving images, one still of Heidegger sitting, with his “black hat”, enjoying his time and looking directly into the camera. Thanks to voiceover we learn early on where we are, and who this man is. Also, we are quickly aware of a certain opinion of the narrator which points to the quick and easy pseudo-intellectual fetishism of Heidegger, “that you are served Heidegger before the main course”. The film made by Sophie Nys maps out the edges out of a certain joie de vivre wastefulness that is positioned as necessary allegedly within a petite-bourgeoise community.


Sophie Nys Die Hütte, 2007 -2018 16mm film transfer to DV Duration 12 mins. Edition of 3,  photos by Gregor Titze

Sophie Nys Die Hütte, 2007 -2018 16mm film transfer to DV Duration 12 mins. Edition of 3, photos by Gregor Titze


In a certain way, Nys uses Heidegger as an archetype and litmus test from which we can derive the tide of the neoliberal, the glossing over, and suffice to say, what is Heidegger meaning anyway? While watching I became helplessly aware of my own will to power and also on the flip side, my impressionability. “The shoe is not a shoe”. Really?

Practice-wise, Nys collected the content of the video durationally over some years. The final edit was brought to completion to her vision at Guimarães. However, this is not all, after seeing this short piece, one does not have the impression of having watched a short video, but rather one has the impression of having been moved to both sides of an equation: that of the innocent and that of the oppressor. Space is lit in Plato’s cave sort of way for digesting the awareness of how we are easily sold on ideas, maybe Heidegger’s maybe others’, such that we are rendered fragile. The final montage of the film takes us away from the house and into a long sweeping passageway, and ends with a distant almost skeleton-like Cross.




Climbing the stairs and in a state voided, I see a napkin-sized picture of three men, their backs to us, a pastel 70’s colour palette, almost a Hockney composition. The image is small, it’s found and it finds us. The three men, equally spaced, are facing into a swimming pool, and I learned from Canoilas that they are urinating into another void and another territory where the subconscious (if it exists) is triggered, as in the cave – archetypal arrangements of the symbolic. The peeing as a multitude questions participation. The shoe may represent certain movements.

One often has the feeling that to qualify as intellectual certain things need to happen. I am not sure about that. But I agree with Sontag when she wrote that we do not need a “hermeneutics of art, we need an erotics of art”. I brought up this idea with Hugo Canoilas, one part of the triptych that runs Guimarães. With Not a Shoe, Nys gives us an erotics of an exhibition. All the senses are triggered one by one, the hidden pulls to the perceiver, the intellect is sexualized and so on. The physical is muted and the first feeling is rendered dissonant within a complicated harmony. Seeing this image of three men after watching the film – with which I was already somehow destroyed – brought me closer to an uncomfortable place. Canoilas then led me into a third room where I saw on the wall three golden rectangles at chest height mounted, the size of one man’s torso and head. Within each, one can see an imprint of the top of a water fountain (an ongoing subject of formalist research from Nys) and the marks of water. I learned from Canoilas that Nys had him and the other two in his unit pee onto the Golden paper, each one, one for one.

At this point, I had the impression that I was brought really to my knees, that I was being asked then to also look down on them, the facilitators, but also look up to them: another level of what I had been asked to do with Heidegger, and then the little photograph which seemed so big with its content. Where was I? Do I play a role? Where is my power? The shoe forces the foot. Canoilas and I discussed extensively this experience I was having and I attributed it to Nys’ working on a certain level: gearing her practice such that we are attuned to what would be the empirical concept of Kant. For Kant, cognitive knowledge has its territory, the concept has a domain, but the empirical concept does not have the same parameters of demarcation. It has a domicilium, a resting place, a home of sorts. It is of itself there. I think the big impact for me in Nys’ work and within the arrangement of elements at Guimarães space is the awareness of being inside of the machinery of the domicilium but not being able to position it or myself, and this is what Kant meant with the use of the word “empirical.” It is there by itself and at home. From every side and on the semiotic, physical, emotional and visual level, we are moved within this exhibition yet we cannot get away. It still echoes.


Sophie Nys Frottage (Hugo, Nicola, Christoph), 2018, Frottage and urine on card 100 x 70 cm, photos by Gregor Titze

Sophie Nys Frottage (Hugo, Nicola, Christoph), 2018, Frottage and urine on card 100 x 70 cm, photos by Gregor Titze


When Canoilas and I left the room of golden rectangles my attention was brought to a window I hadn’t seen when climbing the narrow curving stairs before. On it was lying a foil that had been protruded to read a sentence in German: “The factory owner and the management behaved correctly.” While Nys had been researching the space of Guimarães and considering how her work would be developed there, she contacted the relevant factory (active between the two World Wars) and asked about how they were treating their workers. To this inquiry, they responded placatingly and this sentence is printed on this foil, next to it lying melted chocolate, which they had sent her to thank her for her consideration – the email was written by the director, not one of the workers from the factory.


Sophie Nys, Zeugnis Waagner-Biro chocolate on embossed aluminum foil 29 x 54 cm, photos by Gregor Titze

Sophie Nys, Zeugnis Waagner-Biro chocolate on embossed aluminum foil 29 x 54 cm, photos by Gregor Titze


Descending again into the space where the film had been screened, I wanted to watch it again, and I did, and I was bringing myself again to the point where I felt emptied out. What is colloquially so fabulous about Heidegger is how he is bringing one out of their complexity and detail and into the inversion of Spinoza’s imminence. However, I think that the acts within the exhibition: the attention to detail, the intuitive layering, the playing on the archetypal, the use of isolation, the use of explicit language, are choices which Nys’ makes to bring us into a place of honesty, questionability, and a necessary fear which stems from the awareness of the brute political fact of our very existence on this planet, and therein, our connection to a system from which we cannot emancipate ourselves fully. Baudrillard wrote that “desert is an ecstatic critique of culture,” and I would say that Not a Shoe is an ecstatic critique of “empowerment”. Breaking up is a form of getting back together. I still read Foucault. I encourage visitors to find the layers mapped out by the artist and Guimarães within the proposition Not a Shoe.

Discussion Un commento

  1. February 14, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Not quoting Duchamp as a dorect reference for the tiltle and motifs sounds a bit shallow to me.

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