Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Mike Nelson


Mike Nelson creates large, sprawling installed environments that completely transform the interior of any space they inhabit. From the construction of rooms themselves (Nelson's installations often take the form of a series of rooms built within a space) to the vast array of objects that inhabit them, these are theatrical, experiential, absorbingly detailed pieces that defy easy interpretation. You can find yourself, in just a few steps, travelling between a banal office space (complete with working PC, desk, plants, plug sockets, light switches) to the inside of a garden shed (petrol smell, old tools, planks, nails, rags) to an empty room bathed in eerie red light. Both disorientating and mesmerising, Nelson's work invites the viewer to lose themselves not only in the maze-like constructions but in the myriad of associations and interpretations they offer.
Nelson is currently represented by Matt's Gallery in London. He was nominated for the Turner Prize and represented England at the Venice Biennale (both 2001), and has since exhibited at the ICA in London and the 2002 Sydney Biennale. The installation "Lionheart" has been purchased for the collection of the New Art Gallery, Walsall, and will be on display 25th July-14th September 2003.
Is the element of surprise important to the viewer's experience of your work?

Not always, say with a piece such as "To the memory of H.P.Lovecraft" (1999) it was - I'd hung a heavy steel re-enforced door at the entrance to the gallery, inside I had demolished everything up to the height that the unseen beast could have reached which had fictively tried to eat itself out of the white cube, whilst it emulated the subtitle of a Borges short story; a kind of parody of a parody. Here the scene was quite surprising, stepping off the street in that most gothic of cities Edinburgh, the scene was of utter rabid devastation. "Tourist Hotel" also used surprise in that it gave the viewer a fake or misleading main exhibition, the real bulk of the show (which looked less like "Art") being squeezed into and underneath the stairs and mezzanine of the Douglas Hyde gallery in Dublin. However, Lionheart does not use surprise in such a way, partly because to some extent it is less a built environment for a particular space, and more an autonomous object of sorts. Surprise is a good narrative device. It cannot replace a piece of densely well written description or prose, it can enhance or punctuate it.
"Lionheart" seems a piece full of suggestion, a kind of visual fiction to be pieced together by the viewer. Do you see this as narrative or leaning more towards the surreal?

The two terms are not mutually exclusive, but I would say that narrative is the element that forms the structure for the piece. If you wanted to compare it in terms of art historical terms there are many that could have some pertinence. In terms of how I perceive the piece being read your description is quite accurate; the piece was made in 1997 at a point when I had developed a way of working which used the construction of a hybrid script to create an object or environment through which the viewer could access the essence of the piece but still relate it to their own experience or history - their own script. I was also particularly interested in the resonance of an object that knows why it's there even if you don't. This is something that I think you will find in the work of Paul Thek through to later artists such as Mike Kelley, and often appears like, or is, the detritus of a performance.
Do you want people to forget they are in an art gallery when they look at your work?

I want them to slip between that self-consciousness of looking within an art gallery and a more meditative state where the act of movement and viewing absorb to the point where the visitor is reading the work sub-consciously or storing the information to be re-read later, maybe within a context that makes sense of the information at some time in the future.
You have said that your work requires a "particular chemistry between the installation and it's location". Does this make the reconstruction of works in a new space difficult?

I don't actually remember having said that. However, there is often a relationship between the work and where it was made. This does not undermine the work when the piece is re-installed, it may change it, and different pieces are affected to varying degrees. When a work is remade or re-installed its status is changed, especially when it is put into a museum collection, it becomes historical, like a document, it speaks of its time and place just like a painting by Goya or Barnet Newman would.
How carefully do you pick the objects you use in an installation? Is there any element of randomness to what goes in?

I tend to be looking for certain objects or materials when I'm building a piece, obviously within that equation with the type of materials I use there is a huge element of chance as to what you find at that given time and location. Lionheart was built at the time of the 1997 general election, and was constructed out of materials that came from places other than the country they were collected in: Materials from London were collected and transported in the back of my pick-up to Bremen in Germany where more materials were collected. I also took a trip to Helgoland, an island in between England and Germany, where materials indicative of that place were gathered. The materials were very indicative of the countries and there current geo-political position at that point. The London materials were from a very wide and eclectic range of countries reflecting our colonial history, whereas the German material was predominantly from Turkey and the East of Europe reflecting the trade routes that had reopened since the fall of the Soviet Union several years earlier. Helgoland's relevance was that it is a piece of literal common ground between the two countries, not only in geographical terms but also in that ownership of the Island had changed hands between them; the British swapping it with the Germans for Zanzibar at the end of the 19th century. Lionheart was built to resemble a notional island.
Your use of surrounding contextual material (e.g. the book accompanying the ICA show, handouts and essays) suggests that you want to make your installations harder to pin down rather than easier...

You say that as if it is a bad thing. I think it should perhaps be re-phrased as opening up the possible frame of reference. I think the book; "The Forgotten Kingdom" was a generous accompaniment to the ICA show, all the texts within it were relevant to the piece or previous pieces and existed as another layer of reading to the works. It was seen as a kind of reader to "Extinction Beckons" my previous book and to "Magazine" the book I have just put out.
Is there a perverse pleasure in transforming the corridors of somewhere like the ICA into a grubby 80's-style amusement arcade? Do you enjoy toying with people's expectations of certain institutions?

In that particular case yes, it was so close anyway all it needed was a little push.
Do you see being nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001 as a largely positive or negative experience?

It was exactly as I imagined, once nominated its inevitability negates all discussion of pros and cons.
What do you have planned for the digital piece you are making for

The piece demands that I don't discuss the potential workings of it in detail, it has been going on for some time now and as it does history and technology complicate its completion.
What other projects do you have coming up in the future?

I converted a 1954 GMC bus into a Red Crescent mobile hospital come veterans opium den in San Francisco recently, which hopefully is moving to New York in September. Also in September I shall be in the Istanbul Biennial, and next year I'll be doing a show at Modern Art Oxford.

© John Brainlove 2003

Mike Nelson was interviewed via email 2/7/03 for fusedmagazine.

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