Psycho Buildings

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“Here, we find architecture not in its functional guise but as a site of desire, memory and doubt, home to personal contingencies and collective histories, the clashing of cultures and coalescing of subjectivities. Refusing to address us in the spaces they generate, engaging us in ways that are at once visceral and conceptual, and that call attention to what must be experienced rather than merely seen.” – Ralph Rugoff, Psycho Buildings from the exhibition Psycho Buildings: Artists Take On Architecture.

Image: Mike Nelson, To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft (1999), 2008.

Skulls: repetition and representation

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.
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Part of the Repetition and Representation series. 

Mike Nelson: “More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac)”

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.

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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.

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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.

mikenelson-02This 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.

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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.

Mike Nelson on The Coral Reef (video)

In 2010 I visited The Coral Reef. It is a non-place, a construction, a fictional other-space housed within the reality of an art museum. Non-linear, abandoned, and claustrophobic. Dirty. No other artwork has ever made my heart pound and my palms sweat.

Here is artist Mike Nelson talking about the re-installation of The Coral Reef at Tate Britain (where I saw it).

Mike Nelson – 500 Words in Artforum

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Mike Nelson’s 500 words in Artforum (read the whole thing here):

LINEAR NARRATIVE HAS NOT always been important to me, but illustrating the sense of meaning and space beyond what is actually presented in a show is. As a child I was taught that if we want to see a figure moving in the distance as darkness falls, we should look to the side of him to see the movement more clearly. This idea resonates with the way I work: I try to draw the viewer in to focus on one thing in order to understand another. I hope that this way of working is becoming more pertinent in relation to our media-saturated lives. The constant mediation through technology that we face everyday leaves very little time or space for the unknown––no time to imagine or wonder what might be or have been. So few people have the desire or the patience any more to engage with work in this way.

Image: Coral Reef (2000)

Mike Nelson

Mike Nelson scares me. His installations are claustrophobic and isolating and while no one thing in the elaborately constructed spaces is particularly frightening (clown masks aside), it’s the immediate convergence of all the things that produces an overwhelming intense experience. And I can’t get enough.

I feel like I shouldn’t be in one of Nelson’s rooms, touching and opening doors, searching my way through the maze (not in the literal dark but the tension is just the same). The sense of something being off is palpable and yet, during this feeling of disorientation, I feel totally within my element. Like a good horror film, I feel both displaced and engrossed, enjoying not knowing my way and appreciating the sensory overload provided to me. Indeed, Nelson’s work has a lot in common with the aesthetics and structure of horror cinema such as his employment of architecture and interiors, particularly in the usage of a succession of rooms.

In her essay on Nelson’s Coral Reef (owned by Tate and recently on display at Tate Britain), Helen Delaney says: “Nelson’s use of suggested, open-ended narratives is influenced by filmmakers Sergei Parajanov and Dario Argento, whose ambient, non-linear films present tableaux that absorb and envelop the viewer. The movement from one room to another produces a kind of filmic ‘cut’ between one scene and the next, allowing narrative possibilities to proliferate without coalescing into anything fixed. It triggers a growing sense of unease.”

I could only wander, stop, and stare when encountering his Studio Apparatus for Camden Arts Centre… (1998/2010) at Camden Arts Centre’s now closed exhibition Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts). Consisting of three rooms (dirty entrance walkway and a small reception/office room that led to the larger backyard object extravaganza. In an attempt to focus, record, and re-live the experience I just wrote down all I thought I saw: selection of motorcycle helmets with raccoon takes; slices of science fiction mags; fake flames; slouched body with paper bag head; log fire with face shield, fur, gas cans, wood planks and concreted blocks; space constellations of hubcaps, wire, and balls; latters; antlers; Mickey Mouse with devil antlers; chicken wire; humming radio; fabric mountains; the list goes on.

Each new work I encounter of Nelson’s is a new adventure. I have a long road of discovery ahead when it comes to his work and I’m looking forward to the journey.

Mike Nelson will be representing Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale this summer. Image is from Camden Arts Centre, courtesy of the artist.