Nikolina Petolas: “I Merge Photographs With Other Things So It Would Make Sense To Me”

Narnia meets Inception in this series of incredible photo-manipulations. Nikolina Petolas is a Croatian conceptual artist and photographer whose outwordly, mind-bending works give us a glimpse into her most deep daydreams and nightmares. She uses her own photographs and other (sometimes oddly unexpected) elements in order to modelate a world in her image. As she told Cultartes Magazine in the interview below, the three pillars of her imaginary, neverending realm are primal instincts, digital montages and self-portraiture. The rest is the background noise – whatever makes you “dive deep while still staying on the surface”, as she says.

Daniel (Cultartes Magazine): When and how did you start creating digital art specifically, and why did you choose surrealism?

Nikolina: I was experimenting with photography for about 12 years, with various types, from still life, macro, landscape, some portrait. I also worked few years as a graphic designer, where I worked, besides Photoshop, with Illustrator and Painter and some other softwares and I came up with idea of merging my photography with enhancements from other applications. I was never really interested in just photo-manipulation and retouching of my photos. Although I experimented with that as well, I wanted to express with my photography something that wasn’t actually there in the first place while photographing it. Not some effects or striking colors. I wanted to completely change what I saw in front of me through the camera viewfinder, so I started to create conceptual composites.

It is strange to explain why and how I came up with this odd objects that actually shouldn’t be there, in reality. I guess some of my ideas come from subconsciousness and some of them I dream of. I see them there when I catch a glimpse of what I will photograph. Not actually see them, of course, but in my mind. I see that they would fit into specific frame. Sometimes I put them there on purpose, other times I see that nothing else would fit in specific scenery, but that somewhat strange combination of objects and animals. By experimenting and combining all sorts of stuff, I merge a bit of one photograph and a bit of others to create a scene that makes sense for me.

'Along comes Another'

‘Along comes Another’

Strong winds are lifting up house and items. Woman is walking a dog and struggling with powerful dust wind.

Strong winds are lifting up house and items. Woman is walking a dog and struggling with powerful dust wind.

Insect nest under ground. Surreal image of woman in insect lair.

Insect nest under ground. Surreal image of woman in insect lair.

Insect nest under ground. Surreal image of woman in insect lair.

Insect nest under ground. Surreal image of woman in insect lair.

What is the main idea you want to incept into viewers minds? What’s so special, in your opinion, about human behaviour and the psychology behind it, that is worth exploring?

Most of my work concepts are coming from expressing emotions and dreams, things I experienced through life, or some observations I came to through relations to others. Human behaviour is often linked to prime instincts – survival and reproduction. However, things are often not that simple and strong connection between these two essential needs spread on so many levels, both physically and emotionally.

For me, it is always interesting to see what lies beneath the surface, to look into what is not visible at the first sight, what is hidden and not what is shown – the essence – which lies dormant deep inside us and people we know, or we think we know, and how their behaviour is related to that essence. Some of the worlds I create are dark and moody and explore that part of the mind that is maybe not so pleasant, but doesn’t necessarily has to be bad or scary. On the contrary, it may be a turning point for some better change. Although on the first view it looks somewhat frightful, I don’t consider myself macabre or horror artist. The point of these worlds is not to be repelling and a turn off for the viewer, but to transfer a message that, sometimes, we need to look at the parts of our consciousness that maybe are not so appealing and easy going, but are certainly equal , if not more important.

Other times my work is dreamy and eerie and presents some place where it is nice to get away from everything and everyone and live how you wish, with fish, elephants, giant fruits, whatever you can imagine and to dive deep while still staying on the surface.

What is the element or the elements that make your technique and your art process different than others’?

Today there are so many great digital artists and photographers, that it is quite hard to invent something completely new. I wouldn’t know if it is so different than the others, but I try to do everything by myself. I don’t use stock photography. I sometimes use some pre-made brushes or textures, but I photograph everything I use in my work. That is sometimes limiting as I cannot finish artwork if I miss some object until I get to photograph it, so often I have to go to a search where to photograph a missing object and that often leads to some strange places or traveling to different countries. It is quite time consuming and sometimes limiting, but it is a great feeling to work with my own photographs.

Pumpkin Patch @ Nikolina Petolas

Pumpkin Patch

As I can see, most of them are self-portraits, in a sense that your presence is the centerpiece of the whole scene in a work. What’s the reason behind this?

Yes, there are many self-portraits in my work. In some work my presence is quite personal and they show my state of mind at the time of creation. I somehow don’t see that I could put some stranger into those kind of scenes. Other times the figure in the work is just a character in the scene and doesn’t present me personally. Although it is me in the work, it is actually just a part of the story.

One of the other reasons for self portraiture is that, besides the fact that I don’t like very much working with people, it is quite difficult, in some scenes, to adjust a pose into a centimeter, and to get a lighting right from the start. I then have to repeat a shooting. Since I create some works in phases, sometimes even months after the shooting. It would be very complicated to do it with a model who already left home or cannot come to repeat a pose.

Tell me more about the project you’re being part of.

The International Surrealism Now is the largest world exhibition of contemporary surrealism. It is a project by Santiago Ribeiro, Portuguese surrealist painter, who has been dedicated to promoting the Surrealism of the 21st century, through exhibitions held in various parts of the world: Berlin, Moscow, Dallas, Los Angeles, Japan and many more. The project began in Coimbra in 2010, where a first major exhibition took place, organized by the Bissaya Barreto Foundation. The exhibition is composed of works of drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and digital art. 73 artists are participating to the project with their works.

Dreaming of Red - Nikolina Petolas

Dreaming of Red

Young woman among elephant herd. Surreal photomanipulation of elephant herd

Young woman among elephant herd. Surreal photomanipulation of elephant herd


Passing Strangers @ Nikolina Petolas

Passing Strangers

Surreal image of cfemale clones in steampunk inventory.

Surreal image of female clones in steampunk inventory.

Insect nest under ground. Surreal image of woman in insect lair.

Insect nest under ground. Surreal image of woman in insect lair.

'Science of Sleep' @ Nikolina Petolas

‘Science of Sleep’

What do think is the present and the future of surrealism nowadays? Is it still relevant, in a time where minimalism seems to take over?

I believe surrealism will always be relevant. It explores actions and processes not under the control of the conscious mind. Surrealists were also deeply interested in interpreting dreams, which probably reflected unspoken feelings and desires, fears and conflicts. In my opinion, it was relevant long before the original Surrealism art movement and the Freud dream theories. There were many old masters, like Bosch, Fuseli and many others who painted their dark nightmares, strange dreams and unexplainable visions.

So, as long as there are subconscious messages and dreams and wondrous and strange fantasies that are difficult to explain, there will probably be surreal artists. For many decades now, art genres mixed up. As well as in music, sometimes there are not strict distinctions between genres. You can find nowadays surrealist minimalists or minimalistic surrealists, there are traditional painters that are minimalists, and 3D surreal modelers, photographers that distort reality and hyper-realistic paintings that look like photographs, various fusion of styles, expressions and techniques, as well as a mix of those with some other art genres. Surrealism in the 21st century has expanded in various directions, such as Visionary Art, Fantastic Realism or Dark Art.

Minimalism today is far gone from the minimalism 50 years ago. Art and music progress along with technology, and decades that go along. New experiments are born, there is a merge of different styles and movements, so surrealism as a way of expression will find its way in some new form in future as well.

Which is your most – let’s say – bizzare habit, your most out of the box method you adopt during your art process? 

Shooting the photographs I need for my projects. In my years of collecting photographs I visited some abandoned places which are not so safe to go through, I was secretly shooting in places I wasn’t allowed to photograph, I was stretching the legs of soaked dead insects, buying animal skulls on the fair, almost got hit by a train once. 

Tell me more about your latest projects and your next project

Right now, I still have few works to finish and some exhibitions in the near future. I also plan to work on a new series of artworks about connection between people and their communication without words. I still wouldn’t want to talk too much about it as I am not sure how it will turn out.

View more of Nikolina Petolas’ artworks on her website.

Main photo: ’10 Years of Solitude’. All photo credits: Nikolina Petolas.

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Romanian self-taught writer, based in Cyprus, interested in contemporary art, unconventional culture and gonzo journalism. Writing for almost a decade, he is agnostic, supports a censorship-free society and reads way less than he wants.

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