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
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
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