The story of the Airstream is one of fashionable technological innovation bound up with the fantasies of the nuclear family and manifest destiny. Half a century later, the vehicles’ skeletons look like tinny half-hot dogs or torpedos from an old war drama. Mike Nelson’s installation, A Quiver of Arrows, consists of four Airstreams from the years 1939–69 and mostly forgoes the specifics of their historical eccentricities; joined into a ring (using the scraps of a fifth), the work examines the experience of spatial compression as a metahpor for inhabiting the America Dream today.
This show at 303 Gallery is the artist’s first commercial gallery show in New York (surprising when you see that he’s represented on Gagosian’s web site; less so when you consider that the trailers on view are one installation, not a set of sellable editions). Entering the gallery, you’re struck by the way the elevated, wheel-less Airstreams consume the space and direct both your vision and your movement. You walk along the gallery’s perimeter and enter the structure in the back of the room, by a staircase. Once inside the Airstreams, the first thing you notice is the sickly sweet smell of cinnamon. It is the vehicles’ most enduring and mysterious characteristic, and a cliche of the perfume of old and sublimated things.
A Quiver of Arrows presents its constituent parts in a circuit, but does not for the labyrinthine level of immersion of the artist’s biggest project to date, the block-size A Psychic Vacuum (2007) at the Essex Street Market. The Airsteams are installed with the original appliances and Nelson has added isolated follies of decoration, but the prevailing feeling is of emptiness: “It gives a sense of abandonment. It’s not like someone has just stepped out.” says the artist. “It’s a faked readymade, an archaeology that’s obviously self-created.” That’s to say it produces some of the condition of a real experience, with a nod to its circumstance.
The style of the Airstreams’ décor shifts from trailer to trailer, suggesting various occupants but more significantly various roles for the trailer as a luxury object, and thus as a carrier of meaning as American fantasy. The Airstream was an upmarket brand in a market doomed to the trailer parks. It also rose up out of nowhere: “The time periods are interesting in that there would still be covered wagons hanging around on the West Coast somewhere when the earliest of these was being built,” says Nelson, pointing to a type of natural foreign-ness native to the object, essential from its newness to its current state of decay. “Suddenly they made an aluminum version to tour around to explore the country.” Nelson, who is British, has also selected trailers that date from between the beginning of World War II and “the realization by a lot of people that the Vietnam War wasn’t really going anywhere, the end of certain idea of a dream.”
The defining image from the installation comes from inside the trailers, looking out the window into a small courtyard of trailers that looks like the shaft of a tenament. The image makes for a feeling of entrapment but also of very real and very melodramatic hope for an expanse beyond the trailer’s ring. Nelson calls the courtyard the work’s “corral,” referring to “a moment in American history that’s very populist” and the insularity of the American mindset: It’s a huge continent, which encourages that insularity but there is insularity within the culture, self-obsession.” In the case of the Airsteam, the traditional, individualistic perspective is a romantic vision that is always hitched to another engine—whether it will admit it or not.
A QUIVER OF ARROWS IS ON VIEW THROUGH APRIL 10. 303 GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 547 WEST 21 STREET, NEW YORK. IMAGE COURTESY 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK; FRANCO NOERO, TORINO, MATT’S GALLERY, LONDON.