Nina Cristante is an Italian-born artist, nutritionist, and personal trainer. Her most recent home base was London, UK, but really, she’s a traveler. A few weeks ago, I received an email alerting me that Cristante was in Los Angeles and taking new clients. Rather than booking a diet consultation or personal training, I requested an interview. I’d been following Cristante’s understated online trail for years — listening to her music, scrolling through gallery installations, and watching her bedroom workout videos as if they were art films. More persuasively, I’d been hearing about Nina from friends. They credited her with easing their hormonal acne and cortisol bellies. She’s reputed to have a rare body of knowledge. In person, Cristante is effusive and elegantly fit. We met to talk twice, each time she opened with an offer of water and/or hot tea.
There’s an elusiveness to your work and web presence.
Yes, loads of people have been telling me it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I don’t do it deliberately. I actually thought my website was very clear. There’s the diet with Soundcloud and Instagram, a page with shared anonymous testimonials, one with my workout routines, another with news and links, and then there’s a blog that’s dying out.
Elusiveness can be intriguing. You attract a different type of interest than you do with obvious branding.
It’s just more who I am. I don’t try to be interesting by being elusive. I feel like I have a privacy to my work and myself.
How long have you been personal training?
Since December 2015.
And the nutritionist work?
Still from video for Brynje’s ‘Sayings of the High One’, 2016.
How did you come to it?
It was a personal journey of sorts. I was unwell and I got well. The main thing was meeting this Italian dietitian who’s a genius. She totally sorted me out. Now that I look back at it, it’s very obvious what she did, but at the time, it felt magic. I just transferred some bad habits of my control freak—ness with some good ones. In a way, she kinda fooled me. I was just doing what I liked. This woman also works a lot with the female body. She normalized for me the idea of the cycle. Instead of having this freak out week that many of my female clients have, you learn to understand it. You can use food in pharmaceutical ways to make pms and ovulation better, sometimes even prevent any of the symptoms.
What is health, to you?
Health is balance, clarity, and openness.
Where in Italy are you from?
What was your upbringing like?
My family would define itself as Communist.
That means something different in Italy than in America.
Yeah. I’m not a “Commie” as such. But my family is very left wing. Anti-American. Anti-consumerist. Against the hyper-entertainment mentality typical of our time. I didn’t grow up with a TV which means I don’t really have a strong endurance for it… I often watch documentaries and interviews while training though, I love doing that.
It’s interesting you call it training.
I feel like I’m training. I don’t work out for a particular body shape. I like developing skills. I make programs for myself. I only use my bodyweight and whatever space is available to me at the time — there’s an idea of training in that. When you have restrictions of any sort, you become creative. I have to think of ways in which to move my body differently to keep my mind entertained and alert.
’fitness povero towels’ at LIFE SPORT Berlin, 2017.
The YouTube workout tutorial is such a trope. I only watch one — Yoga with Adriene, she’s so crushable.
I used to consume a lot of workout videos and I started noticing how they were made. Like, the ones on the beach would have the shadow of a man filming. Some are so sexualised, some totally not but equally bad – unattractive to me. The music is usually terrible. The whole vibe has this horrible smile on. Like, “Hi! I’m Katie!” I started consuming these videos by putting the sound down and copying the moves, that was probably the start of making my own videos. I was thinking about a different way of doing them. I wasn’t consciously thinking, this is going to be an artwork, and it’s going to be very liminal. I just wanted to move my body. So I started drawing workouts out to perform.
It’s a real industry now, vloggers. Do you have a sense of who the stars of fitness vlogging are? What’s popular?
I don’t. The more work I do, the less I’m connected to the internet. I have a friend who is a personal trainer and he sends me fitness books to read. It’s one of my goals to read those books but I haven’t yet. I keep reading novels instead.
You call your videos “fitness povero.” How do they relate to the Italian Arte Povera movement?
They share frugality, minimalism, and the use of everyday materials.
What role does travel play in your life and work?
I’ve been traveling since I was four. It’s part of how I used to see my mom. I’m very nomadic. I hate feeling stuck in places and moving around gives me new ways to define myself and my surroundings. For similar reasons, I’m not good in groups. I don’t feel comfortable in them because, like in families, you can become a caricature of one aspect of your personality. I find that claustrophobic. Same happens with spaces.
Did you ever play team sports?
I did. Successfully. I played basketball in an all-boys team and volleyball in an all-girls team. Training with a team adds a further purpose to the movement of the body.
You mentioned the other day that you’re like a house cat — you love being at home.
That comes from traveling. Because everything around me is often so new. I have all these rituals, I know how to wake up — that gives me a sense of home wherever I am.
What are your rituals?
I feel my whole morning — when I can — unfolds as a performance of rituals: meditation, lemon tea, ginger tea, ashwagandha. I make my bed meticulously, breakfast, I train. I like wearing the same outfit when I go to bed and folding it under my pillow every morning. I meditate every evening.
You don’t sleep naked?
I don’t sleep alone naked.
I read in a magazine once that you have more sex dreams if you sleep naked.
That’s the problem. It’s kind of too much. I like female bodies a lot so sleeping naked alone doesn’t seem like proper rest [laughs].
Have you always been so disciplined?
I have always been controlling. Being controlling is more often that not bad for you. Now that I know more what is “healthy” for myself, what makes me happy, it’s very hard to go against that feeling. Maybe my controlling behaviour has turned positively into self-discipline. The goal is balance now. They say this feeling of not being able to do things wrong comes with meditation. Your brain, if it’s let to breathe free, naturally goes towards health and happiness.
I remember you talked in that Dis interview with Anna [Soldner] about “Intuitive Eating” and how — I’m going to paraphrase — when you’re in tune with your body, there’s one way, like the Tao, it’s obvious what you need, which is something I relate to meditation.
Some people can be conscious of that without deliberate meditation. Intuition can come from unlearning and learning, from experience. Destructuring, asking yourself — is this what I want because I want it or because these things are in action to make me want this? Know where things come from. Know our intentions. Clarity can come from running, playing music, reading — my brain has been broken into pieces and rebuilt totally different by books I’ve read, or by documentaries, interviews, food I’ve eaten — everything has potential.
We live within a culture that promotes and profits off of craving, economies of addiction. Or, I exist within a class that has access to this — to certain media technologies and snack foods and what not. I’ve had to learn to make time for emptiness. It got too easy to fill myself up. I remember as a kid and teen, feeling bored was common. Maybe boredom or emptiness or spaciousness is a vital human rhythm that we’ve lost with the Internet and consumer culture?
Maybe yes, you are right. Without sounding retrophiliac, I feel that now we have to shield ourselves from information. I’m talking about information in every sense: content, images, other people, food. There seems to be an excess of all of it. In London, I had that feeling. Creating a survival capsule where I could just be myself, whatever that means, became essential. Hiding to rest and pace myself, eyes closed. I feel it has to be a conscious decision in places like London or New York. The process has to be of deactivation of scenarios and stimulation. I remember being bored growing up too. In retrospect, it’s a cliché, but those times were definitely some of the most creative.
In personal training, you work with people one-on-one. Have you learned to intuit what different people need? Do you dialogue?
I have to be careful not to recognize too many similar patterns in different people. Keep my process always fresh and fluid. For example, make sure not to think that because one person has a similar case to another person the same things will work for them. Learning to do things always differently is important to my work. Also, sometimes is hard to catch the nuances of someone’s mood, mentality, or actual lifestyle because people often lie. There’s shame and guilt around the body. It’s definitely always a dialogue.
What’s your relationship to the artworld?
But it’s a context you’re familiar with?
Very. I used to work in galleries. I quit eventually. Since making my own work, I feel like I am not negatively affected by it. I think it comes from caring less. I rarely go to openings or engage directly. Maybe I’m lucky because I know people in it so I can stay out and still make work. But I also feel like most successful people around me don’t really engage with it, they use that energy to make good work. I think it’s good not to make the equation “art equals artworld.” Making art is different from “the world.” So far the best people I’ve worked with are Life Sport. They’re open-minded, elastic, mysterious people. They run a space in Athens and now one in Berlin. Both are supported by selling sweatpants.
Why are you in Los Angeles? How long will you be here?
I am here for three months. I got on a plane on January 1st — from London. That way I missed a clear cut end of 2016, and here with the weather, I keep feeling like it’s the end of summer. I keep saying it’s October 2016. Consistently.
‘fitnessed III’, at Cell Project Space, 2016.
That’s funny. Before the election.
Exactly. It’s like my body is rejecting the times. I’m here because I have shows in the spring in Europe and I wanted to concentrate. I wanted a difference of landscape and vision. I was attracted by the space that there is here — mental and physical, everything is so wide and wide apart. And how there is not really nightlife, not like London at least. Love the nature too.
Have you engaged with the wellness and fitness cultures here?
It’s difficult not to [laughs]. The other day I watched the documentary about Father Yod with a friend and she mentioned something very interesting about the correlation that LA has with health and new religions. Ideas of detoxification and purification are typical tropes of spiritual awakening and are part of cults terminology for sure. Father Yod unified directly “healthy eating” with a cult by opening the first health food restaurant in LA and hosting upstairs meeting of the Source Family. Although he is pretty extreme… I do find him emblematic. Here “health” and “wellness” seem to be similar to an ideological belief system, a religion of sorts.
Well, LA is a Virgo. So where will you go next?
I’ll go back to London, then Athens, Italy, Copenhagen.
When you travel, do you book return flights or is there just one way?
I sometimes do but I don’t feel like I am returning if you know what I mean… I like to feel like I am always going forward.
‘Marie – Jo’ (study), pencil on paper, 2017.