Swedish artist creates in Shanghai
This is Nicklas Hultman
Known as Nicklas H., Hultman mixes photography, hand drawing, and digital illustration
Born: Skövde, Sweden
Occupation: Visual artist and graphic designer
Career: His work has been shown around Sweden, as well as in Berlin, Barcelona, Shanghai, the US, and the UK. He is also a successful graphic designer, serving a wide range of clients.
What might have been: “My parents wanted me to be a painter – houses, not canvases – but I didn’t like it so I quit.”
Before I meet Nicklas Hultman, I know he’s a graphic designer and visual artist. Trawling through his website, I see photographs of a tattooed arm holding bouquets of flowers up against a white wall. On his Instagram feed I get a few more clues from the hashtags he uses to describe some of his photographs: #beard #ink #gay #shanghai #china #tattoos #temporarychinese #flowers.
A couple of weeks later I’m walking towards a casually stylish restaurant called The Grumpy Pig, in Shanghai’s Jing An district, where I will be served “really good hamburgers,” Hultman assures me.
He’s sitting on the front step of the restaurant, and I immediately see the #beard and the #tattoos. I know also that we are in #shanghai in #china. He is not carrying #flowers, though, so I introduce myself and we go inside to flesh out the profile I’d developed from his hashtags.
After we order our hamburgers, which are as good as he predicted, my first question is, “So how do you see yourself? Graphic designer? Or visual artist?”
Hultman thinks for a minute, then says, “In Sweden I was a graphic designer who created art in his spare time. Here I’m a visual artist who supports himself by doing graphic design.”
When he lived in Gothenburg, Hultman had never exhibited art outside Europe. After he moved to Shanghai with his husband in 2014, he looked locally for opportunities to show his work and, although he spoke only a few words of Chinese, quickly found himself in demand.
He submitted work to Shanghai’s DAFF festival and was selected as a key artist. But the festival was canceled by the authorities at the last minute, a fate that not infrequently befalls organizers of “fringe” arts events in China.
He exhibited his “Static Flower” series at the “Bring Your Own Beamer” event in Shanghai last November, as well as at the “Paradise Lost” exhibition in Cardiff, Wales, in October and November, and at GRIN gallery in Providence, Rhode Island, US, from November through January 2015.
Hamburgers and fries finished, Hultman and I move a few doors down to the high-ceilinged apartment in an old building where he and his husband are the only foreigners. Laundry hangs in the hallways, and we can hear the shouts of neighbors carrying on conversation without bothering to leave their own apartments.
As Hultman boils water to make us a pot of Chinese tea, I try to figure out his art. I ask about the images, where he holds flowers against a wall: Why is that art?
“I’m not saying it is art,” he says. “I like flowers, and I think it’s a really nice way to present them. I started doing it just to document them for myself. And it turned out that I liked them, and now maybe it will be art.”
I ask how he makes his “Static Flower” images.
“I’ve been putting things in the scanner for a while,” Hultman explains. “I make the room super dark, hold the flowers, pour water onto the scanner glass and the light from the scanner makes the image. What I like is that you can’t control how it turns out. And when that is done, I print them and scan the images. And as I see the light moving, I move the prints and they distort.”
Hultman thinks he’s close to the end of the road with “Static Flower,” but he plans to continue scanning.
“I recently started to do patterns from things I see when I’m out in the city,” he says. “You can’t ignore the world you’re living in.
“I’m not trying to say anything, least of all anything political,” he continues. “When I do things, I just do them. I have no great plan. I don’t look for it to be good or bad. It just happens to be one of the two.”
I ask how Hultman manages in Shanghai, speaking very little Chinese, and he says, “When our toilet stopped up, I had to go out to buy something to unclog it. I had to draw a picture of what I wanted. And then they gave it to me and said something to me in Chinese and I didn’t know what they’d said, so I just smiled and gave them the money.”
In the art world, as in Shanghai, he’s navigating uncharted waters.
“In Shanghai, I have no idea which galleries are the coolest or which artists are the coolest or where to go or not to go, and I don’t understand what they’re saying, so …I can do whatever I want.”
And with that, I finish my #chinesetea and say #thankyou, leaving Hultman to scan #flowers and listen to the #oldchineseladies shouting to one another down the halls of his apartment building.
Text: Robert De Vido
Published: May 9, 2015
Last edited: March 22, 2018