Mike Nelson, 24a Orwell Street, installation detail, 2002. Biennale of Sydney.
When you’re planning a piece, does it evolve out of the materials or where the work will be installed?
Mike Nelson: There is no set way they evolve. This one [24a Orwell Street, exhibited at the Biennale of Sydney, 2002] came about because it was originally planned as a freestanding work. The original premise was that it would be built on an empty lot or in a suburban setting. The idea was that you would build from the ground up a structure that was just, a number, an address, that you would enter and say, what the hell is this? You would realise from the inside that you were standing in something that had been fabricated. There were problems in that the Biennale didn’t want to let anything outside the city centre. There wasn’t much around in the way of vacant lots and I had looked at a few garage sites but it wouldn’t have looked so great building something in an old garage. Even before I’d got here, I’d started working on the idea of building a reptile house. I knew that the Botanical Gardens was a possibility but my idea of what the gardens would be like was more of a wilderness. The idea of building something there was good but there are always a lot of people there. We had a meeting with the Botanical Gardens and they were really into the idea. At the same time as scouting around for exterior locations I found this old shop in Orwell Street. I wasn’t that interested in an interior space. I had the idea fixed in my head that I was going to build outside but I found this place and I couldn’t resist it. I put it down as an option and we finally got around to having a look inside and it was pretty bloody good!
How much of the place changed?
MN: What I was trying to avoid was a big gallery space and building something inside it. Having done that at Tate Britain and at the ICA I wasn’t that interested. Building a freestanding structure was of more interest to me as a progression for my work. Whereas, what made Orwell Street so appealing, was that the drawings of the structures I’d made before seeing the place were almost the same as the actual location. The scale was almost the same 25-foot wide, 60 foot long with street frontage and two doors for an entrance and an exit, a ridiculous piece of graffiti and old signage peeling off the front. It’s a strange building as you don’t often get one story buildings in the centre of Sydney. And there was a great ambiguity about the building. If you looked at it you would wonder how much of it I had done and how much was already existing. Some of the workmen who helped build the piece wondered if we’d put the frontage on. We changed the tint of the glass and built the vitrines in the front windows.
Mike Nelson, 24a Orwell Street, installation detail, 2002. Biennale of Sydney.
Building a piece in a gallery and building a piece in a site-specific location like Orwell Street takes it a step away from a facsimile space.
MN: Yes, it makes it more potentially real. What I was interested in was the potential was to make a fake ready-made. In one sense, this space could already exist in this territory. For all intents and purposes it’s a fake – but it could be real. And vice a versa. It’s a fake ready made. I’ve used a pre-existing structure in a way where I might choose an object to furnish a piece. An object might have a certain resonance for a piece of work I was making and I might use that object within it. Whereas now, that goes into the structure that I was going to build. I’m applying a certain mindset that happens. I’ve tried to retain a certain aesthetic, atmosphere and a feel that was there already and enhance it with whatever I build into it.
When I ran into you that day you had two turnstiles propped up in the Biennale office. When you have your idea and location in place, do you go out and scout materials?
MN: I already knew I was going to build a reptile house and those turnstiles were kind of like an invitation only, special collection that you could only see in the heart of Kings Cross among the backpackers hostels, junkies and drunks. The place is full of the dispossessed, from the middle calls to the underclass. Backpackers are the middle class itinerants of choice as opposed to the underclass. The only Indigenous Australians I’ve seen have been here in Kings Cross.
The floor paintings in the Orwell Street installation is the kind of “Australiana” that you only get in places like Kings Cross.
MN: One has to be sensitive, especially being a Brit coming over here and making a work with that kind of iconography on the floor. It doesn’t seem to a reason to avoid it, that seems like a reason to go for it.
When you consider that a lot of the shops here are run by Japanese for Japanese tourists and English pubs for English backpackers, it fits in perfectly.
MN: The whole sense of a reptile house is of a place that you go when you’re a kid and if you looked into the vitrines and you couldn’t see the reptiles, it was more frightening.
There was something about those turnstiles that interested me is that although you didn’t use them, they were in the back room as part of a huge pile of junk. It was like almost a trick within a trick. I knew that those were meant to be part of the work but I was confused – was that still part of the work that back room behind the “members only” door?
MN: Yeah. The sense of the place as a private place, an invitation only space with a buzzer on the door, and as a public space with turnstiles was very different, so I left them out. It seemed more fake in a way. It was reiterating the sense of spectacle too much but as a part of the pile of junk out the back, you’ve got this half frame wall and a pile of junk, it seemed more apt. I wanted to suggest that the work wasn’t quite finished, that there was still more to come.
Mike Nelson, Quiver of Arrows, 2010
Mixed media, 10 1/2 x 36 x 35 feet.
I was reading back on some of your recent press – Art & Text and the Tate Magazine. The corridor theme has seemed to continue. You mentioned it was an emergent theme in your work.
MN: Yeah, the corridors are there by default, they are a formal device. I think this piece is moving away from the “corridor” effect.
What’s interesting about that space behind the vitrines is that obviously, you work has a lot of narrative clues to help build up clues for the viewer, but the corridors are quite abstract, quite blank. I find those spaces the most affecting.
MN: This piece is a lot more abstract than the earlier work. In a way it’s more akin to the work I did in Glasgow where I built a nightclub. There’s an overriding metaphor rather than a tangential narrative built up out of clues and reference points. This work is to be read as an entity than through the constituent bits and pieces.
That was my next question – you build up a narrative through the detritus, but the metaphorical implications of those kinds of spaces are quite intriguing.
MN: This is how this piece works. For the viewer turns up not knowing that much about it, it can be a very odd experience. They will go in and wonder if they are in the right place. Once you are in you are in and there’s no getting out because the door is on a buzzer so you’re stuck. The whole business of asking, what he’s done? Has he found it and opened it up and dressed it up? Did he do this or that? You pass through and that sense of what is the work is quite effective. You have to ask, is this real?
That was the intriguing thing about your piece. Around the corner from my house is a building with a large empty room and in it are some shopping trolleys. You start to ask yourself, is that a work of art or just some weird room?
MN: Surely, that’s what all art should do – effect your vision of reality. If art effects you then it is doing something very well. What is indigenous? Are these pariahs these reptiles? These are the kind of heavy-handed metaphors of local and world politics that I kind of intended but they weren’t meant to be the primary readings of what the work was about. I wanted people to experience it and for it to become ensconced into their memories. In a month’s time, the work will no longer exist. What you have seen won’t exist and it will pass into memory. You have to ask yourself when and how meaning permeates into the viewer’s mind. I’m a believer that it can be looked at as a certain thing at one point but later it becomes something else.
Mike Nelson, To The Memory of H.P. Lovecraft, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh.
Your work over the last few years has evolved. I was looking at the Lovecraft work and in a way that was a more dramatic narrative.
MN: The work was called To The Memory of HP Lovecraft which was the subtitle of a Borges short story called More Things where he emulated the style of HP Lovecraft. In the piece I was emulating both Borges and Lovecraft but flung into a white walled space. I rebuilt the space – the walls and the corridors – and attacked it as though a beast had ravaged through it. I like that piece. It was quite confronting and there was plenty of aggressive action in it. It took me weeks with an axe to chop it up. It was a small axe.
In reference to that work, are you moving into more realism now?
MN: I thought that this work would be more fantastical than HP Lovecraft but it’s ended up seemingly more realistic. The piece in the Tate was a warehouse where I stored my own works and that was super-realistic. The HP Lovecraft came at the end of a lot of fantastical work. The Amnesiacs work, the piece about a bike gang that had lost its memory. I went to make this work at Berrick-on-Tweed, a virtually deserted town on the England-Scottish border right on the North Sea. I wanted to make a work collecting pieces from along the shore-line, dead creatures, tin cans, old tires. Anything that was there. It was based on a JG Ballard idea of a lone scavenger collecting the detritus of the sea and that these pieces were a language thrown up by the ocean. It was also based on Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. I wanted to emulate what Ballard and Lem might have done by communicating political ideas through metaphorical and analogous forms. Dealing with past is such a complex issue and death is, in a way, such a cliched issue to deal with, words are not sufficient. What I invented was a gang called the Amnesiacs who had lost their memory. It was a kind of ricochet – you can have a memory of the life you had before this one event and now you have this other life that is somehow similar, somehow different. You have glimpses of your memory and remember how it was. It’s pertinent on a personal level but right at the end of Tory rule people were feeling particularly dispossessed. They moved to Copenhagen during the biker wars between the Banditos and the Hell’s Angles. I set up a headquarters for them in an old shop. I liked the fantastical idea that in Copenhagen the bikers acted more like the bikers in the US than the bikers in the US did. I liked the idea of a hypothetical biker gang that had no members and no bikes.
There was something very reminiscent of Ballard in your work, especially in the ICA piece.
MN: As a writer of short stories he’s great. Some of them are crap but you can skip on to the next one.
Abandoned car parks and empty resorts are the memory capitals of the western world.
MN: The most interesting thing about Ballard for me is the concept of people’s incarceration through their own choice.
From an interview with Mike Nelson, Sydney, 2002. The Fishbowl Bar, Kings Cross