Mike Nelson

This is a really nasty part of London – not in any definable way, just in its lack of clarity. Go through an underpass and you find yourself in a dead zone between traffic and empty industrial buildings. I’m looking for Mike Nelson’s studio, but instead blunder through a plastic curtain into a space full of Hazchem warnings on plastic containers. Finally I am rescued and taken to the studio by someone whose retro-biker, Hell’s Angel style is scarcely more reassuring.

The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent 2001

Nelson, a candidate for this year’s Turner prize, admits this is the first time he’s ever had a studio; he has previously worked from a room at home. But his forthcoming installations at the ICA and for the Turner make a more conventional professionalism necessary, though there’s an itinerant, vagrant quality to his art that explains why having this large space in Hackney Wick, east London, troubles him. He is more at home in his storeroom stuffed with objects that seem between times and places: Chinese decorations, old posters for Alien, motorbike helmets, stuffed birds, plug sockets, arcade machines, and his favourite – a mounted stag’s head left out in the rain until most of the skin has rotted to reveal the skull.

Nelson has received his Turner prize nomination for building installations out of wood and punctuating them with junk. He creates stage sets, emotionally charged false buildings within buildings. The rooms and corridors are self-contained, with ceilings. And yet they’re not seamless. They have a raw, wooden hokeyness, a rankness, a stench of bitter memories.

The Deliverance and The Patience
Installation view

This was at its most pungent in The Coral Reef, a series of rooms he built in 1999 at Matt’s Gallery in Bow, east London. It induced a nameless anxiety in those who experienced it. With its warren of corridors and claustrophobic rooms – a junkie’s squat, a minicab office, an arcade, a workshop, all supplied with enigmatic props – this installation caught imaginations like no other recent work by an emerging British artist. And then it was dismantled, vanishing back into the imagination. Even now, thinking about those gloomy corridors, I have goosebumps. When you wanted to get out, you came up against a false door; even the reception of the gallery with its visitors’ book turned out to be part of the installation, a fictional place. When you signed the book, what were you assenting to?

It was a contract, says Nelson, to accept his invitation into a fictional world, the same contract a reader makes with a novelist. If you do this, what Nelson offers – very different from the irony we have become used to – is total immersion in a work of art.

He has been making his fictional architecture since the early 1990s. This was at a tangent to the glamorous London art world. While others were being snapped up by Charles Saatchi, he was filling out a planning application to the London Borough of Hackney to rebuild Babylon in Shoreditch, with a detailed description of Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room and the hanging gardens. Nelson’s extravagant, literate art has more in common with an older generation of installationists, particularly with Richard Wilson, the creator of the Saatchi Gallery’s tank of oil, 20:50. Wilson taught him, and also paid him to help build his house – a crucial introduction to joinery Nelson uses to build his environments.

Mike Nelson during construction of
installation

Since staging The Coral Reef, Nelson has been promoted as a star, as yet another candidate for the role of post-YBA big-name artist. But he doesn’t quite fit the bill, because his art is too strange and prickly.

After a widely admired exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale – inspired by William Burroughs and located in an old brewery – he now has a show at the ICA, to be followed by the Turner exhibition. There is, he admits, always a risk of his art not working, as it relies on a particular chemistry of the installation and its location. But at its most powerful, it’s impossible not to be swept away.

This is because Nelson’s art has the psychic malignance of surrealism, as it peruses the city’s forgotten corridors and long-locked rooms. It’s gothic, baroque, it’s whatever name you give an art that fabricates alternate worlds. His installations are a means of storytelling, but the kind of story he tells is not a narrative. It is a series of moments, an atmosphere.

Mike Nelson The Coral Reef, 2000 (detail)

Nelson’s studio is murky, silent, full of long bits of wood, sawdust, bags of rubbish, and a box of old travel books. He tells me about being trapped in Bucharest. He went there on a fellowship with high ideals about meeting artists who had worked secretly under Ceausescu. Instead, he was trapped in a tiny flat in the city’s theatre. It was linked to the tannoy system so he got every performance – “usually a Ben Jonson play in Romanian” – pumped into his room. The only contacts he made were with dogs, and he ended up making a show about that. Then, finally, he met some artists. It turned out he had been kept away from them for obscure political reasons.

Eastern Europe is on his mind at the moment. The installation he is making at the ICA, based on old Lonely Planet books, hypothesises a world of all the states, such as the USSR, that now exist only in old guidebooks. Nelson regards the out-of-date manuals as Borgesian fictions. Asked what architecture impresses him and he comes up with Ceausescu’s scheme to build a new city in his own image – the dictator demolished vast tracts of housing to make way for this monstrosity. The architecture that has influenced Nelson most is that of mosques.

His favourite writer? At the moment, Stanislav Lem, the Polish science- fiction writer. As a builder of narrative worlds, Nelson is more influenced by writers than by artists. Those central to his work are Jorge Luis Borges, HP Lovecraft, Joseph Conrad. He quotes the preface to Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy: “I should define as baroque that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.” Most of us are familiar with the baroque as an architectural style. Nelson thinks about it, as defined by Borges, as a kind of fiction in which stories have other stories concealed within them, or in which – an effect Nelson loves – a preface turns out to be the story.

Article from The Guardian Online

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The Turner Prize – Tate Liverpool 2007

The Turner Prize has travelled outside London for the first time in its 23-year history, and you can’t help but notice that this daring excursion is making its organisers feel just a little anxious. In the capital, you see, there are enough pseuds on hand: types in architectural spectacles who are perfectly at ease ignoring the emperor’s-new-clothes element of the competition, and who wouldn’t be remotely embarrassed about discussing, in sombre tones, a film of a man in a bear suit prowling an empty art gallery. But what about Liverpool, soon to be European Capital of Culture? Won’t its citizens simply laugh out loud at the ‘art’ that has been so kindly delivered to them?

In my view, it would be to their credit if they did, but this is obviously not quite the reaction the Tate is after. Desperate to nip the sniggering in the bud, it has issued what reads like a coded warning. Across the city hang banners that read: ‘We’re open to you. Are you open to us?’ If I were a Liverpudlian, this veiled threat – ‘Don’t let everyone else think that you’re oiks!’ – would make me boil with fury. What does it say when one of our greatest galleries is reduced to telling off potential visitors – accusing them of cultural bigotry, in fact – in order to persuade them to see one of its most important shows? It says, I’m afraid, that the problem lies not with the audience, but with the work. Good work, however ‘difficult’, speaks for itself. People will want to see it.

But back to that bear. The four short-listed artists are: Mark Wallinger, Mike Nelson, Zarina Bhimji and Nathan Coley. Wallinger, who I predict will be the eventual winner, has been nominated for State Britain, his reconstruction of Brian Haw’s anti-war protest in Parliament Square. However, it is one of the many weirdnesses of the Turner Prize exhibition that it does not always include the work for which an artist was nominated and, in Liverpool, Wallinger is showing Sleeper (2004-5), a two-and-a-half-hour film in which he can be seen wearing a bear suit and gallivanting around the glinting boxes that comprise Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin – a performance he apparently acted out over 10 nights. As movies go, I can’t exactly recommend it. For real bear action try Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. This bear, when he finally appears, spends his time wandering forlornly across the gallery, sometimes pawing the glass windows, sometimes breaking into a trot. It’s sweet – and pretty funny, if you know what Wallinger looks like (he is 48 and resembles an advertising executive who’s had one too many expense account lunches) – but only for about three minutes. As for its ‘meaning’, I’d have been lost had it not been for the Tate’s notes. Here’s a summary: the bear is the emblem of Berlin which, during the Cold War, was inhabited by ‘sleepers’, surveillance operators who wore disguise; the work, then, is about identity and national memory. A curator informed us that the installation of the piece – you go into a black box to watch the film – is also significant, it being the precise opposite of a van der Rohe glass prism. I wasn’t sure about this – aren’t all cinemas black boxes? – but he was so tragically earnest (from his manner, you’d have thought he was talking about the Armenian genocide, not a grown man in a bear suit), that I didn’t feel able to stick up my hand. Sorry.

From here, amazingly, it’s downhill all the way. Mike Nelson’s piece is called Amnesiac Shrine. In the 1990s, Nelson invented a mythical gang of bikers called the Amnesiacs, and he has turned to them again for ‘their help’ in building this work, subtitled The misplacement (a futurological fable): mirrored cubes – inverted – with the reflection of an inner psyche as represented by a metaphorical landscape 2007. I don’t know how, exactly, the Amnesiacs ‘helped’ Nelson, since they don’t exist, but the piece consists of two piles of driftwood with bits of red plastic cut to look like flames attached to them and four ‘rooms’ into which you can see only through a hole in the wall. Inside these rooms are piles of sand and fairy lights which, thanks to strategically placed mirrors, seem to extend into infinity, like the desert. It’s about the Iraq war, I’d guess, but with its reliance on repetition, it’s desperately flat and unengaging.

Zarina Bhimji is also preoccupied with conflict. Her exhibited work consists of seven photographs and a film, Waiting, made in a sisal rope factory, all of which are the result of her recent travels in India and East Africa – journeys that she researched by reading ‘the biographies of policy makers in the shaping of British power within these countries’. The photographs are of crumbling walls, one of which has a row of guns leaning against it, and are notable for their lack of a human presence. The idea is that you read them as you would a face; they speak of pain and dispossession. Waiting is beautifully shot but, populated only with the ghostly by-products of rope-making, it is also intensely boring. In art, tedium is the one unpardonable crime.

Still, never mind. When it comes to sheer dullness, Nathan Coley takes home all the prizes. Coley is interested in the ‘built environment’ and, if they’re not careful, visitors will trip over two of his commentaries on it as they enter and leave the room where his stuff is gathered. At either door is a piece called Untitled (Threshold Sculpture) 2007: a low length of oak. At the press view, a reporter repeatedly asked one of the exhibition’s curators whether people would realise that this was part of the show. I thought it was a fair question. Stepping over the ‘sculptures’ myself, I assumed they’d been put there by the Tate. Now I know better, I still cannot see the point of them, and refuse to start weaving laborious metaphors about boundaries, real and perceived; my own glasses are not sufficiently architectural enough for that. Elsewhere in the room you can see There Will Be No Miracles Here, in which those words are spelt in lightbulbs and mounted on a scaffold. I’ll resist using this phrase as a neat summing up of the entire exhibition, and tell you instead that it was inspired by the decree of a 17th-century French king in an effort to put state law above the rule of God, and is another way in which Coley explores how ‘power can be inferred through public space’. Whatever. I thought it was banal, like everything else in this show bar our antic bear – and I wonder how it got here.

In London, as a panicky sop to those who feel the Turner’s absence there this year, you can see The Turner Prize: a Retropective; the work of previous winners of the prize. As an exhibition, it feels oddly scrappy but it contains enough work – exciting, even now – to show that, in the past, the prize has had at least some outstanding winners (Howard Hodgkin, Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst). In other words, it does not have to be this way. So what, this year, went wrong? Oh, there are a hundred reasons to visit Liverpool, a great and stirring city, but I cannot in all conscience tell you that the 2007 Turner Prize show is one of them.

Article from The Guardian Art Section