Suddenly I’m not sure where I am. Are we going into an interview, as promised, or is this another of the disorienting multiroom installations on which Nelson’s growing reputation rests? His worlds of flimsy walls, ratty furniture, and bric-a-brac can make you wonder if you’ve strayed into a dilapidated hotel or, perhaps, a terrorist cell. They have won him two short-listings for Britain’s Turner Prize and shows this year at the Venice and Singapore biennales.
“Let’s sit here—as good a place as any,” says Nelson, looking like a small-town carpenter with his worn jeans and thick black beard. By now I’ve gathered that this room at Matt’s Gallery, the avant-garde space that launched Nelson’s career in 2000, is much too tidy to be one of his artworks. Nelson’s installations are scenes of studied disorder and confusion, with heaps of detritus and elaborately constructed systems of corridors and rooms. Once inside, visitors can feel as if they have stumbled into someone else’s squalid life and might have a hard time finding their way out. They are enveloped in interconnected spaces that are full of clues about the people who seem to have occupied and hurriedly abandoned them—dirty dishes, soiled clothes and old phonebooks, copies of Playboy or trashy novels.
Many of these objects hint at people living on the margins of society, such as backwoods survivalists, urban guerrillas, or members of a motorcycle gang. Or they suggest religions or dusty belief systems, with Marxist tracts, Rastafarian images, or references to fascism combined unsettlingly with the humdrum. One installation, at the Camden Arts Centre in north London earlier this year, included a Styrofoam swastika hanging by a wire over a desk occupied by empty beer bottles, broken radios and televisions, hunting caps, and a single, enormous flip-flop. That last detail hinted ominously at the lair’s possible occupant.
With a Nelson installation, the viewer physically enters a place where an ideology is born and lives, but it is often ambiguous or half-hidden behind the clutter of objects. The ideology—like the viewer—becomes part of an open-ended narrative that stretches out over many rooms, Nelson explains. “I’m looking to make installations that allow the viewer to walk in and occupy an idea, rather than have the idea imposed on you,” he says in his intense, raspy whisper, blue eyes gleaming. “It’s not political polemics in a didactic or linear way, but something meant to engage the viewer.”
Not all critics think he succeeds. The announcement that Nelson would represent Britain in Venice brought some mildly dissenting voices. In the Guardian, critic Adrian Searle called his work “an endless succession of banging doors, and room after room of indeterminate squalor.” Another critic, sniping at a Nelson show at Tate, said the installation was “a metaphor for the Tate’s own melancholy outstations, where thousands of unexhibited artworks are stacked in equally shadowy surroundings.”
Nelson has more academic training than many artists, with an M.A. from Chelsea College of Art and Design, and it shows in conversation. He refers casually to thinkers from Jean Baudrillard to Plato, wrestles with the meaning of his own work, and weighs the legacy of Robert Smithson or installation artist Edward Kienholz in long sentences that often end with “Does that make sense?” Yet he comes across as deeply suspicious of art theory, particularly the kind that sees art as a tool for settling scores based on gender, race, or political lines and that, he says, flourished at British universities in the 1980s. “It was a time in history when people thought there were a lot of wrongs to be righted,” he says. His art today, he adds, has emerged from that kind of thinking—or rather, a certain resistance to it.
“I found a lot of thinking about art in the 1980s to be quite prescriptive and restrictive. It tended to dictate. So my generation in the 1990s was trying desperately to make sense of that while making art that was interesting to look at,” Nelson says. “I’m an artist making sense of materials, not a theoretician. But they do operate on some of the same territory. They’re not exclusive of one another.”
Nelson’s breakthrough work was The Coral Reef, which he mounted in 2000 at Matt’s Gallery from objects and debris gathered from alleys, trash bins, and car-trunk sales all over London. The work was a sprawling labyrinth of 15 rooms, including a grimy taxi dispatcher’s office and an urban guerrilla hideout, with stacks of Lenin pamphlets and a beat-up sofa. One room was decorated with kitschy Americana, including a Kennedy commemorative rug, and another with references to Mexican Zapatista revolutionaries. A more enigmatic room was empty except for a rumpled sleeping bag. In another, visitors entered to find a clown mask and a model submachine gun, as if stumbling into the aftermath of a heist.
A bleak commentary on transience and exhausted ideologies, built in an out-of-the-way gallery in east London, The Coral Reef became an underground sensation. The title refers to Nelson’s aim of creating an intricate, reeflike network of lives “all existing under one sea, which is capitalism,” he says. It drew comparisons to the work of the late American artist Paul Thek, whom Nelson says influenced him even before he had heard of him, and the Russian installation artist Ilya Kabakov.
“It was one of those word-of-mouth, catch-on exhibits that you had to see. It was the moment that clarified in a lot of people’s minds that Mike was going to be a figure to be reckoned with,” says Richard Riley, the London-based curator of this year’s British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “He’s an enormously influential figure here, very much an artist’s artist.”
Until The Coral Reef, Nelson had been known mostly by other artists and ignored by big collectors, including the Saatchi brothers. The piece brought him his first short-listing for the Turner Prize and an appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2001, where he contributed an equally complex installation called The Deliverance and the Patience, in a disused brewery on outlying Giudecca Island. With 190 feet of corridors and 16 tiny, overlit rooms filled with cheap knickknacks and battered furniture, the piece felt like a tawdry version of labyrinthine Venice itself.
Tate Britain bought The Coral Reef in 2007 and, under Nelson’s direction, reconstructed it with all the original materials last year. The historical moment had shifted subtly the second time around, however. In 2000 the piece captured and objectified the idea, then in vogue, that the fall of Communism had spelled the end of ideologies, if not of history itself, while also anticipating the malevolent power of insular terrorist cells that hatched the later attacks on New York, London, and Madrid. Several of the piece’s claustrophobic rooms bore references to Islam and fanaticism.
“History has been quite kind to it,” says Nelson, referring to the piece’s prophetic resonance. “The idea was to invite the viewer to become lost in a lost world of lost people. It was based on an interest in belief systems and in emulating the city I was living in at that time, which was London.”
Visitors often feel as if they have entered a theater set in his installations. But Nelson speaks more often of links to literature and film in his work. Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery and an early champion of Nelson, compares installations like The Coral Reef to “a film set, in which the viewer has to come up with the script.”
Rugoff remembers seeing The Coral Reef in London in 2000. “I was struck by how nothing seemed out of place, tone-wise; nothing felt wrong. Other artists doing something over such a large area would probably make a few mistakes,” he says. “With Mike’s work, you get a sense of the psychological states associated with each room, as well as a meta-narrative as you move from room to room. It’s a deeply pleasurable, yet also compelling and unnerving, experience.”
In 2008 Rugoff included Nelson in a group show on art and architecture at the Hayward called “Psycho Buildings,” which also included Do-Ho Suh, Ernesto Neto, Rachel Whiteread, and Los Carpinteros. (The show’s title could have applied to the Hayward itself, a famously eccentric building in Brutalist concrete on the Thames, which one critic called “a cross between a Second World War gun emplacement and an Inca temple.”) Nelson built a series of uncharacteristically austere white environments that were scenes of total destruction by some nameless, wild beast—walls gnawed, furniture broken and chewed, floors covered in wreckage. Entered through a trap door, like a zoo cage, the piece instilled a deep sense of lurking menace: Had the animal escaped, or was it still among us? His inspiration was a short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges about a house devastated by some alien force that is never actually described—a typically Nelson mix of literary allusion and atmosphere, on a giant scale.
Nelson’s installations are so successful at making people forget they’re in a museum, and so full of small objects, that he occasionally has a problem with theft. Tate had to close The Coral Reef at least twice last year because people were stealing objects or otherwise damaging the installation. A denim vest from the late 1960s decorated with a “Hell on Wheels” badge and a Confederate flag disappeared. Nelson had bought it for $16 in a London shop. “Once they’re inside, people can get a sense of transgression,” he says. “Maybe it’s because they’ve been elsewhere in the museum, with ropes and guards everywhere. But the piece is a formal exercise. It is a still life, a tableau. People don’t always understand that.”
Gathering objects for his installations has made Nelson an expert dumpster diver, curating trash from alleys and sidewalks from San Francisco to São Paulo to Sydney. In Istanbul, he persuaded the imam at a refurbished mosque to sell him the discarded furniture, which he then used in his installation at the city’s 2005 biennial. He spent a sweltering summer in New York in 2007 scavenging hundreds of objects from junkyards and building sites for a vast work at the derelict Essex Street Market, sponsored by the arts group Creative Time. Although he was happy with the result, his experience dealing with shrewd junk merchants showed him that “it gets harder and harder to get good stuff now.”
Nelson was born in 1967 in the university town of Loughborough, in the English Midlands. He developed an aptitude for carpentry with the help of his father, who was “good at making things.” At the University of Reading he went into painting, but he soon discovered that he felt more comfortable working with heavy, sculptural materials. The Middle East fascinated him, and he continued traveling there even after his experience losing his passport and all his money in eastern Turkey. Some critics see a density and crowding in his work that recalls Arab souks.
Living in scruffy south London, Nelson was attracted to the shoddy, makeshift quality of buildings, particularly taxi booths, which become a recurring motif in his work. An early installation, in the lobby of the building housing the Economist magazine, featured a concrete cast of an actual Iraqi mosque that was built, like the office building, in the early 1960s. Nelson meant the work to be a comment on difference and similarity, familiarity and otherness. Although it was well received, the installation was later demolished, a fate his work has met before and which he says doesn’t necessarily bother him. “When it’s done, it’s done. It’s not always possible to keep it,” he says.
In the early 1990s, Nelson used his woodworking skills to help the artist Richard Wilson build a house in the London neighborhood of Bermondsey, which was a deeply formative experience. He moved gradually into big installations, just as the global biennial circuit was expanding enough to make them commercially viable. Today, living in London with his wife, video artist Rachel Lowe, and their two daughters, he rarely works in any other medium. Last year he built a huge work at his New York gallery, 303, that featured a partly disassembled Gulf Stream camper mounted on a kind of gangplank, which viewers could walk through.
Nelson often compares his work to archeology, and with this installation, entitled Quiver of Arrows, he took an almost archeological interest in dredging up period objects to re-create a particular frame of mind—in this case, the American road as an expression of the search for belonging and meaning. Like much of his work, it has a sense of documenting history. As Riley said in a statement, it was “the attention to detail, historical accuracy, and physical nature of Mike Nelson’s sculptural practice” that won him the Venice commission.
The 303 Gallery has Quiver of Arrows packed in storage and is offering it for about $400,000, a sum reportedly close to what the Tate paid for The Coral Reef. The gallery also sold a small sculpture made of driftwood and bits of orange plastic cut from traffic cones, all of which Nelson salvaged from a beach outside New York City. The piece sold for about $12,000, comparable to the prices of his other small works, which, like the driftwood-and-plastic piece, are often drawn from his installations.
Nelson gives no clues as to what he will cook up in Venice, but, he concedes, it is a new work, and he remains committed to his up-from-the-ground style of building installations from materials culled from the world around him. The process gives him a certain freedom. “I don’t have a studio,” he says. “I just work where I turn up.”
Roger Atwood’s last profile was of the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, in November 2010. Some of his articles can be read at rogeratwood.com.