Mike Nelson

Freud, in a much-cited passage from The Uncanny (1919), describes getting lost in a maze of unfamiliar city streets and returning time and again to the same place—the red-light district. The Coral Reef repeats on visitors in like fashion. Painstakingly assembled over three months by Mike Nelson, this “reef” is a claustrophobic, metaphorically (and literally) pungent warren of simulated rooms: a nightmare array of dingy paneling, broken light fixtures, lurid shades of wall paint, disintegrating carpet, and flammable-looking furniture in ripped vinyl or grimy velour. Whirring electric fans lend the rooms an air of suspended animation. In a fiendish twist, Nelson duplicates one room at another point in the maze. When this fact dawns, real panic ensues: Might all the rooms be doubles? Nelson’s rooms are mostly variations on the theme of “reception area,” subdivided by counters and equipped, like seedy taxicab offices, with ominous chicken wire or metal grilles. (Are these to protect staff from customers, or vice versa?) Props hint at the character of each room’s absent proprietor. One features Islamic posters and a brochure advertising a Mecca pilgrimage for the year 2000. Another contains JFK memorabilia and tacky nationalistic Americana—a photo of a fighter plane, a bald eagle painted on a slice of log. Other hypothetical inhabitants include Mexican Marxist revolutionaries, evangelicals, satanists, porn addicts, and dope-smoking bank robbers. At the maze’s core is a squalid, oil-soaked garage-mechanic’s office—among the detritus here, an abandoned biker jacket, an empty bottle of scotch (Sheep Dip brand), an army field phone, and a 1991 tabloid trumpeting the start of the Gulf War. Next door is a miserably tiny room with a sleeping bag on the floor: the hideout of some Unabomber in embryo? Nelson’s installation recapitulates the creepy survivalist paranoia of some of the Talking Heads’ best songs (“Life During Wartime,” say, or “Once in a Lifetime”).

Freud ascribed his red-light district anxiety attack to the public curiosity his accidental tourism aroused. But he taught his readers to know better: His flusterings betrayed an unconscious attraction to the place. On one level, the imaginary occultists, recluses, obsessives, and sociopaths who inhabit Nelson’s reef are types one would really like to avoid. On another, the installation actively provokes fantasies of dodging the discontent in civilization: The idea of abandoning normal social preoccupations— staying sober, keeping clean, attending to other people—starts to exert an insidious, perverse fascination. Here, Nelson’s tour threatens to veer down a distinctly dodgy-looking dirt track. He has been criticized before for turning the so-called fourth world’s survival tactics—the occupation of sites unfit for human habitation, the recycling of umpteenth-hand consumer goods—into high-culture spectacle. This particular installation’s apparent equation of Islamic faith or Marxist ideas with, for example, satanism could well provoke similar irritation, even offense. The validity of such objections would depend on whether Nelson is understood to be simply reiterating a range of media and genre stereotypes or inviting viewers to probe their own relation to them. If one is prepared to risk a serious imaginative identification with the work’s scenarios, they deliver an unsettling reminder that the road leading to extremity, dispossession, or even psychosis is in principle barred to no one. You may yet find yourself in another part of the world, living in a shotgun shack, asking yourself, “What have I done?” Even more scarily, you might feel you’ve come home.

—Rachel Withers