Mike Nelson

An artistic homage is by no means a straightforward gesture—it can be an act of cannibalism or one-upmanship as much as of indebtedness or respect. Like the cartoon snake that swallows some distinctively shaped object and distends into the same form, the tributary artwork consumes the object of its admiration, cloaking it with its own skin. But unlike the snake, which usually gets to cough its meal up again, intact, the artistic homage irreversibly transforms the prized object. Mike Nelson’s show “Triple Bluff Canyon” did just this, paying an intricate tribute to the work of Robert Smithson and simultaneously turning it into raw material for a practice that’s fundamentally very different.

Featuring three related but discrete constructed environments, the show diverged from the labyrinthine single-installation formula Nelson has become known for. One, mimicking a run-down cinema foyer, provided a sort of “trick entrance” to the show. It led visitors past a disused-looking ticket booth into a shabbily carpeted octagonal lobby, furnished on opposing walls with four mirror-paneled doors. The lobby’s self-conscious symmetries and the mise en abyme of the doors lent it a creepily compelling atmosphere.

Another work, consisting of reconstructed elements of Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, made the homage explicit. Modern Art Oxford’s high-ceilinged main gallery was startlingly transformed into a huge three-dimensional tableau mimicking the classic 1978 Arts Magazine cover photo of the broken-backed shed, while in an adjoining gallery Nelson had carpentered an entirely imaginary back entrance to the shed: A wooden tunnel led into a simulation of its interior. In an intriguing twist, front and rear sections didn’t match up. The “interior” was actually located underneath the shed’s “facade,” inside the giant structure supporting both the facade and its (hollow) burial mound. Nelson’s version introduced further complexities by interring both portions in sand rather than earth. The tunnel hinted at the entrance to a pharaonic tomb, while the museum’s main space was swamped by a very convincing twenty-foot-high dune. The setlike character of Nelson’s work has often been commented on; here, the location was either a sci-fi movie or a war film (oil barrels were visible inside the shed).

Another room-within-a-room replicated the Victorian-era domestic space that’s served for years as Nelson’s own studio. But its litter of props—animal masks, human bones, sci-fi paperbacks, and religious knickknacks—intimated that this was the den of an authentic subscriber to cult mythologies rather than of an artist who treats them as raw material. The room doubled up as a screening booth: A video of a lecture by Jordan Maxwell, conspiracy theorist, played on the gallery wall. (Qua Maxwell, “world history” is fully explicable as a conspiracy by the “Illuminati” to establish a “New World Order.”)

In her recent book Mirror-Travels, Jennifer L. Roberts calls attention to the underexplored “complex of historical reference . . . that structures Smithson’s work.” “Triple Bluff Canyon” is likewise heaped with clues echoing (and appropriating) the “impure array” of interests flagged in Smithson’s writing: crystallography, geology, sci-fi, Borges, Poe, mythical cosmologies, and so on. But Nelson puts his Smithsonian ingredients to very different use. Roberts comments that Smithson’s work “looks forward . . . to an entropic end time, an eternal state of cosmic sameness.” Nelson’s self-consciously citational assemblages reference the morphing of historical myths (Maxwell’s conspiracy theories, for example) to the point where even the artist’s own work becomes a recyclable artifact, yet every return is different. Though the idea of history as an infinite, Borgesian hall-of-mirrors carries a claustrophobic frisson of its own, on balance it seems a more tempting notion than the eschatological thesis.

Rachel Withers