“Make sure you take everything with you! Don’t leave anything behind!”. The lady who shouted this was probably something like the thirteenth attempt on our part to gift random strangers in Landau with a Nutcracker.
The Nutcracker is part of a project by Daniela Nasoni, a Varese-based artist who shared the gallery space with me. However, whereas I merely had photos hanging on the walls, she spent two days building up and painting as many Nutcrackers as possible. The Nutckrackers can reach two meters fifty in height and are made from scratch out of recycled materials: Daniela collects cardboard boxes on the streets of the cities where the project is taking place, deconstructs them, puts them together to form the various body parts and eventually paints the Nutcrackers before delivering them to random strangers.
I got to know Daniela during our time together in Landau and I was excited to hear about her project. A successful painter, Daniela gave up the “mechanism of saleable artwork often placed in inaccessible locations”* to make as many Nutcrackers as possible, the ultimate aim is a Nutcracker for every inhabitant of the world – the project’s official name is 6,829,360,438.
Her focus is not so much in the object itself – although the root is of course in the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann – rather in the act of giving, in the performance of creating and donating an object to random strangers. When asked the rather uninteresting question of “so why are you doing this? how do you earn a living?”, she promptly explains that this is not the point, much to the contrary the project is about doing something for nothing, something we all find very hard to grasp. If you define her process of making the Nutcrackers a waste of time, you are one step closer to understanding: Daniela wants to give value to wasted time and start changing our attitude towards one another (and towards the concept of gratuity and donating) by coming into our lives with a cumbersome, unpractical object.
The giving of the Nutcrackers can be seen as an invasion of someone else’s space but it is precisely because of this that the concept works so well.
Delivering them, now, that is another story.
I accompanied Daniela with another friend of hers on a tour of the city of Landau with the aim of delivering one Nutcracker at a time. The first attempt had been successful and a mother of two accepted the gift saying that one of her sons was just going to celebrate his birthday. Upon seeing the size of the object, someone had even called the husband, who reluctantly avoided any negative response and waited for us to depart.
The following attempts however were mostly source of increasing frustration. Whereas Daniela seemed accustomed to the negative and suspicious reactions, I thought that the mention of “art project” and “conference organized by the city of Landau” (we were creative here) would have sealed the deal. I was wrong. Inhabitants of buildings with security cameras spied on us while we were trying to convince the only person who even bothered to respond. When we were not greeted with plain contempt (“stop telling stories”), it was mostly suspicion that held people back. In the end, we had not managed to donate any more Nutcrackers and had to go back to the gallery.
What I found through this experience was that the problem was not so much our inability to convince the targets of the action, rather the fact that we basically were not listened to at all. We normally started by ringing a random door bell at the main entrance and when someone answered, we would briefly explain who we were, who the artist was and what she wanted to do. The moment the word “gift” was uttered, people would shut down. However, I am not even so sure that we managed to keep anyone’s attention that far into the sentence. By the fifth attempt I thought we had a pretty well practiced speech and I was starting to feel embarrassed that I could not help out, since Daniela was relying on us to translate her words into German. In the end we discussed the speech in terms of strategy (such as trying to figure out by the last name who was potentially Italian so that we could rely on cultural common ground), which brought out the complexity of the issue that the artist is tackling: you need to get all strategic even when genuinely all you want to do is deliver a gift.
*citing the leaflet given out by the artist