Titled B-612, the sculpture is a football-sized meteor constructed of cigarettes, candy wrappers and an empty pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and other pieces of trash Nikolai and her friends left in a bedroom she recently moved into after a period of housing instability.
"That was a really amazingly satisfying experience—to have a door and have a zone that's totally your own zone," says the Portland artist. "Friends of mine would come over and we would eat Taco Bell or smoke cigarettes or eat ice cream. I would save that [trash] because it was just so charged with vibes of us having time that was alone and stable and to be able to connect."
B-612 is part of Nikolai's multimedia exhibit at Williamson | Knight's small Pearl District gallery. It's a show that craves both connection and respite. Each piece in Utopia Without You is a synecdoche of a disheveled gamer's bedroom—the rock of trash that is B-612, a hand-painted miniature elf displayed on a wooden table, a flat-screen TV playing a video game that Nikolai programmed, and Rich Inner Life, a gurgling fish tank filled with mineral oil and the electronic circuit that controls the video game. With its technological guts resting in goopy fluid, Rich Inner Life almost looks like a cyborg animal.
Utopia Without You is an amalgamation of insular worlds that displays trash as nostalgic treasure, and blurs the boundary between digital and tangible. "I like that tension between fake things and real things, and to sort of elevate fake, trashy things as being real as anything else," says Nikolai, who is transgender. "That comes from both spending a lot of time in digital places and those feeling as vital as anything else, and that's also relevant to being a trans person and being a 'fake lady' or whatever."
Nikolai has created a series of worlds in a more literal way, too. Nikolai's video game depicts an asteroidlike planet rotating in the void of space. The program loops through several different settings, and visitors can rotate the asteroid using a glittery, bowling ball-sized orb. In one setting, the floating rock looks like it's undergone an apocalypse—there are trash cans on fire and a cop car that gets thrown around like a toy when you rotate the asteroid. Others are more serene, like a scene with crystals, a purple tree and a floating cherry.
At first, Utopia Without You feels like an escapist haven. But there are traces of isolation in the show, including a bowl of liquid bismuth crystal, a toxic interpretation of the bowls of ramen noodles that often accumulate in Nikolai's room.
"Escape and fleeing can be a really productive act because you have to reproduce the self outside of other people's hostility," Nikolai says. "But at the same time, I'm ambivalent because I know so many gamer people or other trans people who just don't leave their house very much because they're wrapped into these worlds that are very addictive, particularly if other things are so hostile."
That ambivalence can make things like gaming addictions difficult to discuss without ignoring the pain that necessitates coping, or ignoring the pain that the method of coping can cause. It's not really a conversation we have the right language for, which is why Nikolai was somewhat wary about publicly broaching the subject.
"It can be frustrating because people are just really shitty to neurodivergent people and to trans people," she says. "They're not trying to see through to the fact that some people are just wired differently and want to live their lives differently."
Initially, Nikolai planned to publish a lengthy essay about the people and experiences that inspired Utopia Without You. But ultimately, she decided it was best for the show to be more abstract. "Honestly, it's really hard to know what to do as a trans person talking about these things that are internal to trans communities and the way that we cope, and then putting that out for consumption to a mainstream, cisgender, artgoing audience," Nikolai says. "I don't really want to air dirty laundry for these people. Trying to find the spot for the conversation is really hard because there's just not a lot of platforms for it."
Utopia Without You is capable of wordlessly explaining itself, while making it clear it doesn't owe you answers. On the same small bookshelf that holds Rich Inner Life, there's a glossy ceramic piggy bank in the shape of a horse wearing a pink saddle. It's a kitschy detail that you'd imagine would end up in a girly, suburban bedroom. Instead, it was a gift that was given to Nikolai only a few years ago.
"I like to keep it around because it implies that I have a girlhood and a history," Nikolai says. "It's this weird beard or prop of girlhood that adds authenticity to my brand."
In a sense, the piggy bank is also an emblem of how little the word "fake" can explain. The pony isn't literally from Nikolai's girlhood, but that doesn't make her girlhood any less real or the pony any less of a fitting symbol for it. "Even I guess well-meaning, liberal people, they really don't see trans women as women," Nikolai says. "So I just—for my own psychic well-being—have to be comfortable with fakeness and authenticity meaning nothing in particular, because that's just where society situates me."
Utopia Without You is firmly ambivalent about escapism as a necessity and escapism as a danger of its own. Still, Nikolai has woven subtle hints of hope throughout the exhibit. Flash drives of Nikolai's video game are on sale at the gallery to benefit Trans Lifeline. Over some of her pieces, Nikolai has scattered moss, vines and cobwebs. It implies her world of code and electronics is not unchanging.
"There's these feelings of isolation, there's this den," Nikolai says. "But that passes—that ages, too."
SEE IT: Utopia Without You is at Williamson | Knight Gallery, 916 NW Flanders St., williamsonknight.com. Noon-5 pm Thursday-Saturday. Through Oct. 13.