Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray is the quintessential merger of visual art and horror. The classic British tale of a young man and his portrait painting that houses all of his evil doings gets the Italian horror film treatment (and a cravat) in this 1970 movie directed by Massimo Dallamano.
For some reason it always comes back to Bava. And while I know that the skulls in Mike Nelson’s exhibition More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) is not a direct reference to the skeletal figure in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (itself a direct influence on Alien), the similarity between scale and presence is striking.
No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of the house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. - The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, page 24).
From literature to the theater to the screen. Narrative and meaning shifts with medium changes as films like Frankenstein and Dracula often differ greatly from their book predecessor.
Susan Hiller’s Channels at Matt’s Gallery is an audio-visual conglomeration of near death experience (NDE) narrations told through a full-scale installation of television monitors. Whether these monitors simply house these personal stories or act as a portal through which they emerge isn’t clear. It doesn’t need to be. Bathed in the glowing light of these numerous screens, numerous voices come forth with one eventually becoming the clearest. Hours of recantations are housed here, in these screens, in this room. It’s the near-ghost in the machine.
Channels is a mixture of static, noise, and voices. Sometimes you wait a while for the static to clear and the stories to begin as if we’re all there using the televisions are our conductor to those who have experienced death. Told are tales of sensations of leaving the body, the past flashing before them, feelings of humor and regret, and, naturally, the tunnel of shining light. We also learn that there are qualifiers of what makes an NDE. They seem elastic. Significantly, these people are not dead. They are not the ghosts using white noise as a communication tool with the living. These voices are alive and they have conquered death.
Not dissimilar to Mike Nelson’s installation More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) next door, Channels deals with the unknown. Not strictly in the sense of questioning the ultimate unknowable (what happens when we die?) but in the very fundamental aspects of being: how do we hear? how do we recognize? how do we experience things? And like the film Poltergeist, these provocations occur through the mediation we are all familiar with – television (or if we want to think more broadly, media). Technology controls are interactions with each other and, as new technologies emerge, our relationships with one another evolve according to these new networks. Channels explores such a network of people with shared experiences, traumatic or peaceful, and uses the object of the television to shared these stories with us.
Hiller has made reference to dreams in previous works and the question of dreams and the way in which our mind constructs dreams while unconscious and how we process them while awake is significant here. In her book The Dream and the World Hiller writes, “If you start to think about dreaming, you may well find yourself in a vortex of philosophical paradoxes, enigmas and conundrums that liquefy any fixed notion of ‘self’ and ‘reality’.” And isn’t that what Channels produces? Is it possible that Near Death Experiences are simply an individual mind coping with the inevitability of death; a unique experience for each person with enough generalities of the human mind? Or is it more frightening to suggest that there’s something external producing these similar sensations?
The voices heard, whether alive or dead or even the real people who had a NDE, produce a series of hauntings within the space of the gallery. Here, these moments of the unknown are continuously re-lived and re-counted, processed and questions by those who hear them. Us.
Image by Peter White courtesy the artist, Timothy Taylor Gallery and Matt’s Gallery, London.
The following is what I hope will be the first of many writings about the work of Mike Nelson. This particular essay stems from his recent exhibition More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac) at Matt’s Gallery in London and our conversation about architecture, horror films, and narrative implications.
In Richard Lester’s 1969 post-apocalyptic comedy film The Bed Sitting Room, a select few find themselves living in the strange aftermath of nuclear war in London. Their natural attachment to objects (the city is littered with shoes, suitcases, millions of discarded things) and the old order of life shifts again when, suddenly, a new post-war effect takes place…they begin to turn into things themselves. A bed sitting room, an armoire, and even a bird (all with the power of human consciousness and speech) are the mutated forms of life. Although designed for the audience to laugh at the absurdity of this new existence, the film reveals there is a real horror in acknowledging the possibilities of what might happen when the world changes.
Mike Nelson’s latest installation at Matt’s Gallery, More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac), produces a similar provocation. Inversing the architectural structures he has become known for, Nelson has laid out a series of objects that are a series of suggestions or, as he put it, a “semblance of atmospheres.” The absence of an established “place” in which to house these things, aside from the gallery room itself, creates a sequence of open-ended narratives, connections to be made as one wanders through the room, stepping over objects, encountering mysterious forms like glancing giant skulls, trash cans grounded in cement, and long-form boards that are too low to be benches but high enough to become intrusive.
What’s most compelling about Mike Nelson’s work is that it gives permission for this kind of immediate interaction. The passivity associated with art or film viewership cannot occur in his installations and, unless you only stand in the doorway at Matt’s Gallery, certainly can’t happen here. There is an active engagement of looking in More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) by walking over, through, and around these inexplicable objects that navigate and determine our bodily movements in this framed space. Whereas Nelson’s architectural environments provide an obvious context of our experience, the items usually contained in those places is now dispersed and fragments our associations with them. We become the last people in London who traverse the new landscape.
This goes back to Nelson’s idea of a “semblance of atmospheres”, an uncontained atmosphere that suggests a narrative rather than providing a linear and literal reading. Much like in The Bed Sitting Room, there is a confusion of forms and their readings, a conflation of organic and inorganic that conveys a strange new world or, at the very least, the remnants of an old strange world. The absence of figures in the installation is outlined in pieces that imply human form; a deflated work suit complete with a hat hanging from a metal backbone and a shoe with spikes underneath (the other “foot” is a stick) lays in the corner while a similarly deflated sleeping bag holds court in the middle of the room, dirty and barren. Animal skulls dangle from re-structured chairs suggesting that, such as in the film, living creatures are now components of material form. Scalped masks lay frozen on the floor. More ominous are the wooden sticks (charred and jagged) formed into something between a grave marker and crucifix or the scarecrow-like figures with animal skin draped as a body and a tambourine.
Though lacking an overriding or oppressive narrative, Nelson does subtly drop hints that could mark the cause of this barren landscape. As in his title reference to Balzac, there is no escaping politics and society here. Specifically, there is one sculptural object housed in the back corner that consists of a broken crate from Jaffa, Israel alongside a near-destroyed caution sign (enter at out risk) and hanging plaque with Arabic writing. There is the suggestion of a former architectural structure that seems to have been blown apart. A reference to the volatile and ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the dispute of land territory and agricultural ownership, this near obliterated object could contain the meaning to the end we are witnessing. That there are giant skulls framing the room doesn’t dissuade this argument. This is what could remain.
Both The Bed Sitting Room and More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) connote a very powerful presence through absence and explore what exists at the liminal boundary between the two. By acknowledging the unknown and a non-reality, they depict a possible reality of a new world born from and within the destruction of the old. And isn’t this what science-fiction, horror, and art do best? Show us possibilities of an existence that we cannot begin to fathom or visualize or formulate by ourselves? Providing a visual reference to the unthinkable, the unrepresentable, my reading of Mike Nelson’s installation is just that: disparate forms coming together to imagine what remains and what is possible in an unimaginable plane of existence. More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) doesn’t require an architectural guide to convey the abject terror of disassociation from the familiar; the sculpture entities are alone a frightening implication that we humans are not a part of this new other world.
Images by Caryn Coleman, courtesy of Mike Nelson and Matt’s Gallery.
Spending time with ghosts. Simon Starling using the cinematic lens to evoke the artwork ghosts of Duveen Galleries past for his Commission 2013, Phantom Ride. Past and present converge in this haunting installation at Tate Britain where previous commissions by Pablo Picasso, Chris Burden, Douglas Gordon, Fiona Banner, Martin Creed (amongst others) come back from the “dead” to live again in the 300 foot long cavernous space. This architectural space (designed by Romanie-Walker and Gilbert Jenkins) was the first public gallery designed for sculpture in England when they opened in 1937 and has become a portal from which history emerges into our contemporary lives.