Mike Nelson’s creepy installations deftly avoid the pitfalls of Britart. He’s a great choice to represent Britain at this year’s Venice Biennaleby Ben Lewis / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Magazin by Mike Nelson: the artist’s installations place viewers in the role of the voyeur
A new chapter in British art history is beginning. Mike Nelson, the artist chosen to represent the nation at this year’s Venice Biennale in June, is the first in a decade who is not from or closely linked to the Britart movement of the 1990s. The 43-year-old Nelson is a member of the disparate, low-key generation of British artists whose work has been in demand from public institutions since the turn of the millennium. Twice nominated for the Turner prize, the Loughborough-born Nelson is represented by Matt’s Gallery, a non-profit space in the East End which has been a crucible for this remarkable new wave of artists, among them the filmmaker Lindsay Seers. For once, Britain could be the star of the show in Venice.
Nelson’s installations—creepy, rundown rooms full of sinister objects and crumpled bits of paper—create a morbid scenography of social outcasts, conspiracy theorists, extremists, survivalists and terrorists. It sounds like obvious stuff: Hannibal Lecter meets Osama bin Laden meets Fred West. But his work exudes the excitement and seduction of action movies and police shows. It is voyeuristic, but also collaborative; the viewer is an investigator, or detective stepping into a crime scene.
You can see what Nelson does at Tate Britain, where they are showing his breakthrough piece, The Coral Reef. Originally made in 1999-2000 for Matt’s Gallery, it was bought by the Tate in 2008 and rebuilt in 2010. It is a small labyrinth of tiny rooms, each of which seems to be home to a different extremist persuasion. One room has a US flag, a framed poster of a B-2 bomber and a fan in the shape of an American football. Another looks like a minicab office managed by Islamists, with posters of Koranic texts on the walls. A third seems to belong to Hell’s Angels. There are old copies of Playboy magazine, bins full of carefully arranged soft drink cans and yellow foam burger boxes, fans whirring away, old mobile phones, a CCTV screen and a machine gun. “You are invited to become lost in this lost world of lost people,” Nelson said of this work, which he sees as a typology of outsiders set against society.
All this sounds far too on the nose to make great art, but Nelson overcomes this hurdle by deploying the palette of subtle modifications which only contemporary artists know how to use. There’s an unmissable precision—that sofa slots perfectly into the length of one short wall—and skill in the incongruous combinations of materials: a cheap white plastic bulletin board hangs over a grandly crimson velvet chesterfield. Nelson’s second strategy is to make everything a little undersized, giving the uneasy sensation that you are walking round a scale model.
His work is cinematic in scope but the installations are not film sets; there are too few elements interacting in each space. At the Frieze Art Fair in 2006, Nelson concealed a darkroom, saturated in red light, between some partitions. From the ceiling, in a neat pattern, hung row after row of sinister photographs of the art fair as it was constructed. The work, Magazin (see below), was all very Blow-Up, yet, in a little conceptual twist, the voyeur’s erotic subject was the art fair. In 2008, at the Hayward Gallery’s “psycho-buildings” show, Nelson’s installation was a large empty gallery with a row of jagged and gaping holes along the white plasterboard walls, as if someone had chased round the space with a sledgehammer, or opened fire with a machine gun. In art terms, this was a game of two textures, as the smooth white paint of the gallery wall contrasted with exposed chipboard. Scary stuff, but delivered with minimalist aplomb.
To attract attention and survive financially in this culturally democratised, socially networked age, artists are going to have to adopt the genres and forms of popular culture. Yet they will also have to avoid the simplification and sentimentality which beset British art in the 1990s, in which butterflies on bright colours symbolised life and death, or a hangover, in the form of Tracey Emin’s bed, could be a feminist gesture. Nelson performs this balancing act deftly, and it could earn him and Britain a Golden Lion this year—which would be our first since 1993.