Weather-beaten swinging doors open onto Gang of Seven (2013), an installation comprising dozens of assemblage sculptures created by British artist Mike Nelson. The work was co-commissioned by and first exhibited at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, and The Power Plant, Toronto, and allusions to a Canadian setting abound. The work’s title is a mash-up of the Group of Seven, an early 20th-century school of Canadian landscape painters, and the Gang of Four—both the Chinese Communist political faction and the British post-punk band. These references establish the work’s central themes: expeditions into uncharted territory and social deviance.
The accompanying catalogue includes a text by Dick Hebdige (a sociologist known for studying subcultures), who elucidates Nelson’s longstanding concern with life on the periphery. Nelson creates large-scale immersive installations that often include haunting, highly detailed domestic tableaux. The decrepit wooden entryway to Gang of Seven signals the viewer’s passage to an alternate realm, where sculptures are props for an elaborate narrative.
The iconography of Gang of Seven is nautical: coils of braided rope, buoys, a tattered black flag, rusted metal chains with hooks, driftwood, shells and a message on a paper scroll enclosed in a glass bottle—all items found on beaches around Vancouver. Generally speaking, assemblage is the art of the castaway, but Nelson plays on the maritime sense of the term: the work conjures a survivor of a shipwreck, stranded and forced to make do with materials immediately at hand. One assemblage is an improvised grill composed of scrap metal suspended over a fire pit, with jagged pieces of red plastic standing in for flames. Other totemlike sculptures, including several anthropomorphic constructions with plastic jugs in the place of heads, suggest devotional rather than practical purposes.
According to Nelson, each object is a clue to the mysterious rituals of a biker gang known as the Amnesiacs—the same protagonists behind his Amnesiac Shrine or Double coop displacement (2006), the work that earned him his second Turner Prize nomination, in 2007. These bikers, or perhaps pirates, scavenge items from an ocean that Nelson compares in a text accompanying the show to the sentient sea in Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel Solaris. Lem’s alien ocean conjures physical manifestations of cosmonauts’ deepest thoughts and fears, and Nelson’s castaway objects may also be understood as metaphors for lost or repressed memory.
A second work, Untitled (Eighty Circles through Canada), 2013, also created for the Canadian exhibitions, was on view in the gallery’s back room. Inspired by the slide collection of Canadian anthropologist Wilson Duff, Nelson projected 80 slides of campfire remnants that he photographed on a road trip through British Columbia and Alberta. The circular shape of the fire pit in each image recalls geometric interventions into the earth by artists Richard Long and Robert Smithson, yet here the imposed form is found, suggesting a vernacular mode of Land art. Nelson’s work recasts the movement as an anthropological and archeological endeavor: the study of human cultures through physical remains.
Though Nelson seduces us in Gang of Seven with the visual immediacy of found objects, which seem to allow access to a remote time or place on the Canadian coast, he also provokes us to question the relationship between authenticity and fiction. The flames in his campfires are fashioned out of plastic, after all, and the charred logs they surround have been bolted together—a few of the many details in the exhibition that self-consciously expose artifice.