A Conversation with Nikolai Haas about “King Dong Come,” the Haas Brothers’ Fantastical New Show
Travel is transformative for the Haas brothers. A 2013 journey to Cape Town inspired the artist duo—Texan-born twins Simon and Nikolai, the former a master blacksmith, the latter a carver—to collaborate with a South African artisan collective. The resulting series, “Afreaks” (2015), is a menagerie of colorfully beaded animals that made the rounds at Design Miami and at Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Triennial.
But the trip also had an unexpected spiritual impact on the brothers. The experience prompted them to create “King Dong Come,” their second solo exhibition at R & Company. Midway through the show, we talked with Nikolai about their experience on the road, the cathartic experience of creating a fantastical character, and the viewer-centric structure of the Haas brothers’ new body of work.
Artsy: Who is King Dong? What does he represent?
Nikolai Haas: King Dong represents the part of ourselves, or the part of those that we admire, that we may be uncomfortable with or have a hard time understanding. King Dong is a leader. He represents a system or large social structure like religion, government, art, business.
Artsy: Tell me about the
creative process behind the invention of this character.
Nikolai Haas: I guess our point with King Dong was to put forward a character upon whom anyone may impress their ideals or cynicism. He is not good or evil. He’s not laden with personal or historical context. The viewer’s impression of him is the whole point, and every viewer’s take on him is more important than our hopes in building him.
For me personally, my experience building him with my team was cathartic. At times, I hated what I felt he represented, and at other times, I felt he could be the answer to all my problems. Ultimately, King Dong was a mirror. I was looking at myself when I looked at him. I guess that’s what I want him to be for those that view him, and I guess that’s what I feel larger social structures are for all of society. A mirror…one big-ass mirror! Or a joke…a big furry ball with a dick on it. If someone saw him or religion or politics or art as a mirror or a thing with a dick on it, I could easily see their point either way.
Artsy: Your recent travels to South Africa inspired a new interest in spirituality that informs your current exhibition. Can you explain more about that?
Nikolai Haas: South Africa was beautiful and hard. We had to swallow a lot of hard truths about ourselves and the world in general. We also met some of the most beautiful people we’d ever had the pleasure of working with. I think the main thing we learned in South Africa was that even if you think you know everything, you absolutely don’t. Life is so dang expendable and so precious at the same time. The world is huge and there’s so much in it, and it’s so beautiful and so ugly.
My biggest takeaway, personally, was that life is all about perspective. Ultimately, one is gonna be as happy or sad as they want to be. South Africa gave me perspective. I think my twin brother, my wife, my family, and my studio with everyone in it led me to my spiritual inclinations. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world, and I’m not sure how I have what I have, but I’m so thankful for it.
I think that this journey informed the show just because we all experienced it together—meaning my studio, twin, family, and everyone else around it—and then had to all create something together in the aftermath of it that made sense inside of a new way of thinking.
Artsy: Can you talk more about the architectural concept for “King Dong Come” and the reasons behind it?
Nikolai Haas: Yeah, it’s totally immersive. We wanted the space to be an incubator for thought. Like I said before, the whole point of the show was to allow people to really feel their own experience. The individual’s experience is more important than the work itself.
We also wanted to convey movement through a story, a journey through a forest to visit a holy man or a sage-type character—a very general story to allow one to impress their own, more specific story upon it. We made it immersive so that no aesthetic or physical aspect of it was happenstance. This allowed for a fuller abstract experience. There’s no distraction from an interior fantasy to be lived by the viewer.
“The Haas Brothers: King Dong Come” is on view at R & Company, New York, Nov. 15, 2016–Jan. 5, 2017.