PRINT February 2002



On the phone with Mike Nelson, I note that my typescript of our conversation begins at the end and travels backward. He's not surprised: Serpentlike, Nelson's installations are forever nipping at their own tail. In his 2001 Turner Prize display, a maze of narrow corridors spiraled around a dimly lit store of old doors, shabby furniture, yellowing newspapers, a battle-scarred game machine, and other detritus: apparent junk that an accompanying text (and a telltale white-coral fan) identified as the dismembered carcass of Nelson's Coral Reef, 2000. But the Tate installation's involutions corkscrewed tighter still; its floor plan mimicked that of an even earlier work, the 1996 Matt's Gallery project Trading Station Alpha CMa, a deserted hideout whose hypothetical occupant apparently passed his time reading Lenin and (a Borgesian detail) gnawing on raw bones.

However, this reflexivity isn't an idiosyncratic indulgence. For Nelson, one suspects, the reframing of past motifs in present contexts is rather like moving a magnifying glass over a specimen: Focus is gained, lost, and regained—with added insight. His examination of his own works' past is contiguous with his scrutiny of grand historical narratives, and his treatment of both a reminder (to borrow Hal Foster's words) that history is not punctual or final: Present contingencies and the accretions of myth compel adjustments to the picture.

I've fixed Nelson's reflections in print at a point when, he stresses, everything's in flux. After a year of unprecedented accomplishment (a much praised show in Venice, a Turner Prize shortlisting, a major installation in progress for the Sydney Biennale 2002), he's wrestling with new dilemmas, posed by increased visibility: How can works designed for multitudes maintain an intimate address?

Rachel Withers


Last year I installed three big pieces between May and October: The Deliverance and the Patience at the Venice Biennale; The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent, my Turner Prize presentation at Tate Britain; and between these, Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted (titled after a quote from eleventh-century Assassins founder Hassan-i Sabbah), which opened at London's Institute of Contemporary Art in late September. I intended that installation as a harsh polemic. Less enjoyable and seductive than the other two, it's a complicated piece that I'm still working out for myself. In retrospect, it's proving very important to my practice—more so than the Tate project, a hermetic, introspective work that was, to some extent, the victim of its own success, so noisy and congested that viewers couldn't experience it as I'd intended.

My works require a certain suspension of disbelief; viewers have to accept the reality of the space they're entering. One reference point for me has been the films of Sergei Paradjanov: rich, ambient, nonlinear folk histories, series of tableaux that envelop you so that you comprehend them both analytically and intuitively. But the ICA installation wasn't quite like that; it was deliberately parodic and required conscious decoding. I converted the ground-floor corridor (a limbolike space connecting the museum's bookshop, gallery, and bar) into something like a dingy video arcade; the entrance to the lower gallery was a cross between a seedy gym and a torture chamber. I wanted to underline my sense of an awkward relationship between the ICA and its audience. In my experience, it's an unsympathetic place for visitors and exhibitors alike.

I also constructed a “reading room” of shoestring travel guides, a comment on the “typical” visitors the ICA presupposes—the “Lonely Planet generation,” people who think they're going on unique journeys. This includes me, of course, and the preview card acknowledged my own inevitable involvement in the practice of cultural tourism. It shows me standing with a robed Buddhist monk, but it's a calculatedly ambiguous image: It might show Tibet or the Welsh Hills, a real monk or a friend in costume.

The show was prefaced by a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, who defined the Baroque as a form of self-parody. Borges comments that certain works can't be parodied because they are already self-parodic, and in retrospect I see that my piece reiterated what the ICA as an institution already did—does—to itself. But the project also parodied my own practice, in that it revisited a work I'd planned in 1993 but never made. I turned the ICA's upper galleries into “Gallery Lago,” a “reconstruction” of an artist-run space where I'd planned to show a work called Untitled No. 22 (High Plains Drifter): a kind of emulation of Niele Toroni that involved painting the exhibition space red all over. The 1993 show was canceled a week prior to opening, but had it gone ahead, painting spaces red might have become my typical working practice (I'd numbered the piece to suggest, falsely, that it was part of an existing sequence).

The Clint Eastwood reference riffs on themes of self-parody and institutional critique: In a way, Eastwood's career is a sustained parody of a stereotypical persona; from the Sergio Leone films to Unforgiven, he returns in different guises as the silent avenger. In High Plains Drifter, his character manipulates the inhabitants of Lago into painting their town red, as a metaphor for a living hell. However, the events that erupted during the installation—remember this is back in September—complicated things further. My simulation of the gallery's “office” contained a 1991 newspaper clipping of a warship bombing Baghdad even as, in 2001, the bombing of Kabul started. The icon of the avenging American hero, the repetition of history, the father's return via the son—all these connections inevitably took on controversial significance.

My Venice piece deliberately paralleled seventeenth-century trade, piracy, and the birth of capitalism with present-day trafficking in human beings, and elements within the installation now seem uncanny: The “Travel Agents” room, for example, contained an insurance company's map of global disasters, posters of Boeing jets, a snow globe with the World Trade Center, and an Arabic magazine. But when an event confirms so forcibly your suspicions about how the world really is, it's grotesque—fantastically depressing—and problematic in terms of the work. Perspectives are shifted so that the obvious readings dominate while the underlying historical textures, the attempted representation of how things have come to be as they are, get obscured. In the gallery, as in the outside world, violent reaction ensues, when reflection and self-examination are what is really called for.