New York

Mike Nelson

The title of A Psychic Vacuum, 2007, British artist Mike Nelson’s first large-scale project in the US, echoes that of Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971). Lem’s text is a collection of reviews of nonexistent books; Nelson’s work might be described as resembling the set of an imaginary film. Revisiting the labyrinthine structure of his installation The Coral Reef, 2000, the Turner Prize–shortlisted artist here filled the interior of a long-disused building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a suite of interconnected rooms containing various arrangements of locally sourced found objects. The highly atmospheric result was an effective meditation on “the presence of absence,” the shadowy undercurrents of American belief, and the space between reality, representation, and replication.

Having negotiated the clamor of commissioning organization Creative Time’s official welcome (there was a disclaimer to sign and copies of Nelson’s cheekily titled book Magazine [2003] to peruse), visitors were ushered toward a small door in “Building D,” one of four separate sites into which Essex Street Market was originally divided. Passing through it, they found themselves in what appeared to be the charred remains of a Chinese restaurant, greasy dishes and paper bags piled around the darkened room. It was unclear whether this was a lucky find or a constructed environment, and a similar ambiguity recurred throughout A Psychic Vacuum. The origin of any given part of the installation was decipherable, if at all, only through extremely close observation. While many of Nelson’s interiors appear to have existed for years, their battered surfaces and abandoned feel suggesting heavy use followed by extended neglect, most are in fact the results of extensive research and meticulous construction. The artist refers to the necessity of suspending disbelief and surrendering to the work as one might to more conventional forms of fiction, but the narrative here is, by his own admission, so nonlinear and immersive that one very quickly ceases to think about the degree to which it appears “convincing”; it simply is.

The “restaurant” led to another, smaller, room, which in turn gave way to a third, and so on. Hot, grimy, and dimly lit, the grim little chambers and scuffed, narrow hallways tended to suggest low-rent car-service offices (beloved of the artist for their seedy look and illicit feel), torture chambers, and other clandestine gathering places. All housed props of one kind or another; in some cases these were arranged into ersatz shrines, in others left strewn about as if their owners had hurriedly quit the scene. The objects, most of which were acquired from nearby salvage yards (surprisingly inaccessible places, according to the artist) or from flea markets, or on site, included dusty books and magazines, rusted tools and broken toys, religious artifacts and the like that may or may not have played a part in mysterious rituals, and a map of the US with its left side torn away and replaced by a crude black outline.

An interest in recent American history—specifically as it intersects with paranoid conspiracy theory and two-bit mysticism—recurred in allusions to JFK mythology. A Psychic Vacuum also made reference to American street culture in the shape of, among other things, the tattoo parlors and clairvoyants’ storefronts that appear throughout any big city. There was also a bar of sorts, a photographic darkroom, one room that confusingly duplicated another, and a stunningly unexpected finale in the form of a cavernous hall piled high with sand. Nelson takes a leaf out of Gregor Schneider’s book, and out of Christoph Büchel’s, in the sprawling ambition of his project, but where the former tunnels ever inward toward his own psyche and the latter conjures fully coherent situations based on the pathologies of others, Nelson takes a broader view, roping in fragments of a story that proliferates as endlessly and self-referentially as Lem’s strategically maddening text.

Michael Wilson