Nathaniel Mellors

The ambiguous finale of the ’60s cult British TV series The Prisoner finds leading man Patrick McGoohan’s character, Number Six, apparently freed from the mysterious allegorical village he’s been trapped in and returning to his former metropolitan life. In Nathaniel Mellors’s 16-mm film (transferred to DVD) MACGOOHANSOC, 2005, a steely young Englishwoman claims to be “the body of Patrick McGoohan”: Not his spirit, not the fictional spirit of Number Six, but the physical form of the actor (who is still alive). Such compound perplexity is typical of Mellors’s gravitation toward points at which prior distinctions collapse—and typical as well of the way he re-presents said confusion as a pseudo-authoritarian tactic. Here, “McGoohan” and two chorusing, intermittently bored henchpersons, all in Prisoner-style uniforms, perform a totalitarian rant, addressed to the “spastics” who will comprise their constituency, on topics like the impossibility of widespread success and compulsory sterilization of women and children, taking in Goethe’s conception of horticulture along the way.

Filtering tyrannous impulses through broken language, MACGOOHANSOC sent tendrils out to the myriad works in various media that inhabited the darkened environment of this show, “HATEBALL.” At the video’s conclusion, Brian Eno’s beatific hymn to stasis, “By This River,” wells up: Characteristic of Mellors’s fractured associative logic, which flaunts enough connective threads not to be dismissible as chaotic, Brain One (Mozg Jeden), 2005—a video projection of words supposedly spoken by a “senile Eastern European supercomputer”—features an anagram of Eno’s name in its title. This HAL-like throwback’s flow of Polish contains the word “Schwarzenegger” (an actor who really did become a right-wing politician). Elsewhere there’s another reference to a muscle-bound action hero: A 16-mm film in which a thespian wearing a blood-soaked, flesh-colored bodysuit (which turns up elsewhere on a stuffed figure draped over a chair and named in reference to Number One, éminence grise of The Prisoner) reenacts Sylvester Stallone’s emotional scene from the 1982 film First Blood, wherein his damaged soldier decompresses after Vietnam. Another unhappy homecoming like McGoohan’s, perhaps; another chance for things to fall apart (the actor slips into an Irish accent halfway through). A final filmed mangling of communication shows Japanese musician DJ Scotch Egg attempting—with meanly comical results—to repeat the words of The Fall’s “Who Makes the Nazis?” (“Free makes the Natchez!” he shouts, to off-camera giggles.)

Spindly sculptures surround these illuminative oases: Polystyrene balls balance on wooden armatures in Ruth & Richard, 2005; a large orange rubber ball, The Hateball, 2005, whose form, tipping the show toward a truly nerdy referentiality, echoes the monstrous balloons that smother dissenters in The Prisoner and rests in front of a leaning board onto which is projected an oil wheel’s slow-moving psychedelic patterns; glass heads are filled or dusted with degraded material—earth, stones, mold, cereal. Rather than role-playing the confusion-inducing demagogue, in these pieces Mellors seemingly hazards a blunt aside—intimating that intolerance today rides on an Orwellian visual and verbal dissimulation whose effects are mentally corrosive. Such is the prolixity of this artist’s bouncing thought, however, that one is also led to analogize the way bafflement operates within political language with its presence in contemporary artistic practice. Plenty of current sculpture replicates Mellors’s sad-sack arrangements, but hardly any of it matches their reflexivity.

Martin Herbert