I open the door, confronted by an upright knee-high storage crate.
Glancing across the white cube, to the far corner, I wonder if there’s anywhere I am allowed to go, beyond where I am now standing. The space is dense with scattered junk, none above head height. Piles of rotting wood, metal scraps, a few skulls. Debris without any form of explanation. What is this material doing here? It’s a littered, antagonising space, initially offering no redeeming aesthetic quality.
The first few deadpan moments are characteristic of Mike Nelson’s work. It’s an underwhelming feeling, and you can find yourself asking, “Why bother?”. But there is also something enticing. He encourages the viewer to be more daring, and in the work being confrontational, makes you want to be confident, and have a go at walking in between this over-populated space, and see how far you get. There’s no use in being polite here. So I remove my coat, and my bag, and slump them into the corner where they become part of the scene. I wander through, stepping over and through crudely constructed sculptures made from bones, metal gauze bins and old, rotten school benches. I pass things that start to resemble hastily strung together human forms. Things that have heads, arms and legs. I start to concentrate a little more on the stares and intimidation I start to feel. Perhaps there was more detail in these heaps than I previously thought.
I start to identify these things as people, but I become conscious of the fact that I am doing so. For a moment I don’t see them as objects, or scattered, impotent material. I am making them easier to comprehend because I am seeing them as little characters I can relate to instantly, because being a person is all I really know. That wooden swastika cross is waving at me. A balaclava is strung limply onto an upturned axle, it’s gaping, empty holes staring back at me. I think of how I would feel terrified if someone wearing this were to approach me. I feel safe with my prejudice in my small white space, it’s not really a person. But I’ve still imagined it to be one.
I then realise I have crossed the entire floor, making associations with every soiled sleeping bag and rusted piece of scaffolding, creating a route that I was not forced to take. I could have chosen any path, the whole floor and space provides no start or finish. I don’t experience the work with any particular narrative or chronology, no formal structure with which to anticipate how I should approach any of it. My interpretation of the sculptures relies on me making a sense of this world from my own experiences.
I’m disappointed only because there is solely one entrance and exit with which to access the installation. I pull back the fire exit doors, hoping they provide an extra surprise or two, but despite the invitation to go wandering around the back, there is nothing there deliberately placed for my attention, just gallery paint and construction material. The truth is, that would be too much of a diversion from the core of what is happening here. Too much like Nelson’s other installations .
In this room, the whole work is a construct from more than the initial sum of its parts; the installation as a complete work, made from the assemblage of several sculptures, which is in turn made from the individual materials. Beyond that, I think about how the materials have been made. Torn , ripped, pulled, rescued from obscurity, plastered or revealed through the process of decay. The emphasis here is in the objects, the stuff, the material, not the characters. There is something spooky about the unknown, the other. What is the history of these objects? Where did they come from? I assume things about their use from another time. They are detritus from past moments. There is a different event preceding every moment of this materials life. No beginning and no end.
Slowly, I see the use of objects, materials, even space repeating itself. A juggler’s skittle at one end of the room is like a prosthetic limb for a ‘man’ made from broken bits of timber and a pitchfork. At the other end of the room, it is seemingly casually chucked into a metal gauze bin. Further on, a metal gauze bin is tipped onto its side and filled half inside, and then half outside with concrete. Concrete holds down another metal framed sculpture in the centre of the room. The balaclava and its emptiness are like the huge skull-like sculptures eerily smiling at me from the opposite side to which I now stand. Next to one of these hurriedly plastered constructs is a ram’s skull, held aloft by a metal rod. A rams horn lays on the ground, the gaping hole from where it has been removed from a skull faces upwards. It is like looking into the abyss the same way it was looking into the eyes of the empty balaclava. Plaster skulls have holes big enough to reach my entire head inside. There are halloween masks, squashed underneath more metal gauze structures. Their emptiness, the eyes seemingly staring back at me with nothing inside, remind me of the skulls, the plaster objects, the rams horn, the duality a constant reminder of everything that has previously been seen. At some point, every facet has become a reminder of another.
The masks, the faces, the crude arrangements of material ultimately provide a sense of moral ambiguity. The longer one spends with the work, and the more associations, similarities and comforting comparisons that are drawn, the more a cinematic kind of darkness hovers, a sinister terror coming from a feeling of isolation, loneliness and even madness. As if we have just missed out on bearing witness to several ritualistic events. Or somebody has created manifestations of people to talk to, secluded from the rest of the world, hidden away with the blinds closed, guided by only their own personal history.