Placing Value on the Miniature Form: Reflections on the short form works of Ricardo Nicolayevsky
By Katy Montoya

At the Morelia Film Festival, Ximena Cuevas curated a program of short films by her long-time friend and collaborator Ricardo Nicolayevsky to pay homage to his decades-long body of work in light of his recent passing. The program began and ended with fragments of his short film Impromptu and included a selection of shorts he made of his friends and of himself between 1982 and 1985 during his time in New York City entitled Lost Portraits.

The curation of Nicolayevksy’s films shown at Morelia immediately evince a lightness in form and content, an ease with turning the mundane into art, overflowing creativity, and a genuine enjoyment of making things. He plays with genre and experiments with the medium of Super-8 film. In his film Ricardo Self-Portrait 1, he lines his eyes with black makeup only to smudge it all over his face, and in this way, the piece performs in tandem with him. Our first introduction to the Nicolayevksy of the film is a zoom-into his face. He sensuously sticks out his tongue. The piece facetiously narrates, “Mmmmm…ORALITY.” Baby Ricardo who’s image opened the piece, contrasts starkly to the Nicolayevksy of the film’s present in 1983 New York. As he continues to make faces, the phrases “Rooster pig,” “The Poet Ass a Young Man,” and “Some Daze Ago” guide our watching. He is a budding film student at NYU, carrying with him the cultural inheritance of his artistic and intellectual family. At the same time, he is coming into his personally staked out libido for life, pleasure, and art and his irreverence toward virtuosity.

“La disonancia hace explotar a un oído novato.”

My favorite of his Lost Portraits is “Debbie.” Here, Debbie attempts to cajole a turkey into its cage, then resigns to sweep her stovetop. She wears a shaggy scarf as a wig. But she has coral red lips and Nicolayevsky zooms in to create a beautiful portrait of her. His blurred camera pans create fuzzy streaks of silvered colors, his sharp angles create an ironic sense of formality, and the soundtrack is a remix of the turkey and smaller bird sounds. In the short span of the film, the viewer is immersed in a concentrated dose of her playful relationship with Nicolayevsky. Their irreverence is poignant, their silliness aestheticized. Many of the Lost Portraits and other films in the selection last less than a minute. Each installation of the Lost Portraits opens with a title page and ends with credits, and each is personally musicalized by Nicolayevsky, which in a series of such short films, can create a somewhat jarring viewing experience. I wondered why each film was made to stand on its own, rather than form part of a longer work. Listening to an interview with Nicolayevsky and Cuevas, he seemed to offer an answer. The constant pressure to create longer form pieces, he says, was rooted in the West’s inability to value the miniature form. This, he contrasted with the preponderance of miniatures found in Oriental art.

“If you listen to a musical prelude, it’s a whole microcosm.
An aphorism from Seneca is a complete universe.
A short experimental film is its own universe.”

Being closer to music and painting than literature and theater, the experimental short film, he says, “Doesn’t come to tell you a story or to complete a panorama for you. It arrives directly at the essence of a synthesis that captures that seed, that secret, that magic.” Nicolayevsky was dedicated to the short form, having written, paradoxically, a large tome of aphorisms, hundreds of pages with one to two lines written per page, called Mamotreto. His candid preface reads, “This book has been created with the 21st century reader in mind, who…cannot achieve sufficient concentration. That is why each page contains the minimum, the essential.”  Nicolayevsky not only measured duration as a matter of beginning and end, but as a unit of time that could only be made up of the present. His aphorisms like “Al tiempo se conoció a su debida hora” create a shorthand for how he personally inhabited the sense of time in his short films, while exemplifying his constant exercise in condensing ideas down to a potent concentration.

On an episode of Nada es original, Cuevas recounts how during the cold NYC winter, she and Nicolayevsky filmed things in the morning, ventured out to the laboratory to develop the film in the afternoon, and Nicolayevsky mounted a performance space in the early evening. At night, they would invite friends over and project the freshly made films musicalized live by Nicolayevsky on the piano. In their nostalgic and romantic recalling of their youth, Nicolayevsky said they created “Genuine cinema, as natural as drinking coffee.” His friend and collaborator Naomi Uman said that he liked to make a game out of life based on resourcefulness and a reveling in scarcity, asking what material do we have? What props do we have? What scenarios can we play with?

“Con el vaso lleno caminamos muy lento.”

I am interested in thinking about where the genre of miniature painting Nicolayevsky extols stands in relation to the generation of its own “synthesis of an essence.” The beginnings of this art form can be traced to the ruins of the Uyghur kingdom of Kochi, and Ancient Egyptians also made miniatures of their pyramids. Through the Turcic and Mongol tribes that invaded Persia, miniature painting, named as such because they were found in illustrations in books of manuscripts rather than larger works made to be displayed on walls, came to dominate Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman painting. They often included details so small that they were sometimes painted with a brush with only three hairs. Spatially and temporally, miniatures are meant to portray multiple scenes, frozen in time yet occurring simultaneously. Little shadow or perspective is used in them, and given the separation of calligraphy and ornamenture, they were collectively worked on by various artists, annulling the concept of sole authorship.

This genre, after all, has profound parallels to the conditions and language of cinema. Miniature paintings exist in a constant play of intertextuality with the Islamic poetry with which their illuminated pages are intertwined. These are poems that many learned to recite by memory since childhood. As Sussan Babaie reminds us, miniature paintings “see and capture the key aspects of the story and recall the whole poem that relates to it.” A miniature painting “does not describe, it evokes” faith, the senses, and intertextuality. Mohammed Arkoun writes, “A memorized text, after all, exists not outside the individual but within the layered perpetual space of sentient perception engaging with all experiences inhabiting the same mind.” Modern and secular conceptions of perception, visuality, and representation, limited to the material, fall immediately short of art and aesthetic experiences unbound by time or materiality.

Through its prioritization of perception over essence and the performative over the representational, we can understand why size or long duration cease to matter in Islamic miniature painting. While this may stand in tension with Nicolayevsky’s own words, I also see in other reflections of his consistencies with the value he attributed to the short form. He insisted, for example, that his mode of spontaneous short filmmaking allowed him to do rather than to be his art, and to be in the ephemeral rather than any kind of permanent sense (“estar” instead of “ser”). He asks, how can we latch onto a fixed identity if we are beings in constant change? A potential answer to this can be found in another of his aphorisms that reflects on the suspension of duration, when a fixation on the present becomes “transcendental.”

“Cuando el segundo se aletarga, entonces descubrimos la belleza”