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“Entry to the fabled TriBeCa loft where the artist and musician Rammellzee lived and worked, all but secluding himself in a thicket of cosmic paintings, militarized plastic sculpture and Samurai-like handmade costumes, was like initiation into a secret society in which graffiti, hip-hop, linguistics and science fiction were being fused into a strange new category of art. But Rammellzee opened the doors to this world more and more rarely before he died in 2010 at 49, and even stars tended to be star-struck by an invitation.

“I took George Clinton and Bootsy Collins to the Battle Station for the first time, and they left feeling like they’d just had a close encounter,” said the bassist and music producer Bill Laswell, who met Rammellzee in the early 1980s and remained one of the few people who saw him regularly.

“Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks the building on Laight Street that housed the Battle Station was sold to make way for luxury apartments, and Rammellzee and his wife, Carmela Zagari, were pushed out, relocated to a conventional, smaller place in Battery Park City. Almost 20 years’ worth of his obsessive artwork, enough to fill a large truck, went into a storage locker, where it remained unseen for years, in danger of being forgotten for good.

“But pieces of it are now starting to re-emerge, in a way that Rammellzee most likely would have approved of: in fighter formation. A bunkerlike, black-lighted re-creation of the Battle Station was one of the most talked-about pieces in “Art in the Streets,” a sprawling graffiti survey last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, organized by the museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, who as a New York dealer had courted Rammellzee for years.

The Suzanne Geiss Company, a new gallery in SoHo, will open its inaugural show by suspending, as if in flight, two complete sets of works that Rammellzee called “letter racers,” spacecraftlike sculptures representing the letters A to Z, built bricolage style from scraps of cast-off consumer goods like flip-flops, sunglasses, toy cars, cheap umbrellas, Bic pens and air-freshener tops.

“Rammellzee – his pharaonic name — which he formulated as a teenager, after leaving home in the projects in Far Rockaway, Queens, and later legally adopted — was not a name at all, he insisted, but a mathematical equation.

“His artwork, though he did show it in galleries, at least in the early years, was artwork only secondarily, he said. Its real purpose was to illustrate a deconstructionist-type dual philosophy, called Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, that imagined a world in which Roman letters would arm and liberate themselves, at his command, from the power structures of European language. He believed he had inherited his role as a kind of lexical commander in chief from medieval monks, whose literacy in a mostly illiterate world demonstrated the extraordinary power of words to shape reality.

“He felt that even now if you control the language, you control the discourse, you control the power,” said Henry Chalfant, a filmmaker and graffiti scholar who first met Rammellzee at a 1980 exhibition of graffiti work by Lee Quinones and Fred Brathwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy) at White Columns gallery in SoHo.

“The letter racers were in his conception totally functional, like models to demonstrate how the letters would work if they were ever to be mechanized and able to fly into battle,” Mr. Chalfant said.

“Rammellzee’s belief that his models could be used as templates for workable military vehicles was so deep, in fact, that he came to fear the government would stop him or forcibly enlist his talents. In his earlier years, though, he had a correspondence with the Defense Department, examples of which he showed Mr. Chalfant.

“In their responses the government thanked him for his proposals, and they said that if they ever needed him, they would get back in touch with him,” Mr. Chalfant said, adding as a swift and perhaps necessary second thought that while Rammellzee always operated “at a remove from present earthly reality,” he never lost touch with that reality. “He always functioned in a very practical way vis-à-vis his career and his work as he saw it. His philosophy was rigorously elaborated. And he worked very hard, right up to the end of his life.”

Text: Art Excavated From Battle Station Earth, New York Times, February 23, 2012.

Pic: Signoverture 1991, Color Letter Racers 1988, and White Letter Racers 1991

“Standing in front of the concrete blocks on a warm June morning, I found myself wondering if they were the ruins of a forgotten city – or maybe a fragment of this city’s forgotten history. The fractured masonry corner before me couldn’t truly be a ruin, though. It was perfectly crafted – too perfectly crafted. Its edges were precisely stepped and though it stood in the middle of City Hall Park, no vines or weeds had broken through the flawless mortar. What kind of ruin doesn’t age or weather? Yet there it was, as if it had always been there. In fact, when I looked at it, it seemed as if I couldn’t not remember it being there. But beyond that there was another feeling; something tugging at the edges of my consciousness, challenging me to look closer, to remember something else…”

Text & Image: The Ruins of New York That Wasn’t, Life Without Buildings.

“My relationship to JG Ballard had begun […] with our mutual interest in the work of the US artist Robert Smithson. In 1997, I tried to find Smithson’s famous 1970 earthwork, Spiral Jetty, in the Great Salt Lake of Utah. I had directions faxed to me from the Utah Arts Council, which I supposed had been written by Smithson himself. I only knew what I was looking for from what I could remember of art school lectures: the iconic aerial photograph of the basalt spiral formation unfurling into a lake. In the end, I never found it; it was either submerged at the time, or I wasn’t looking in the right place. But the journey had a marked impact on me, and I made a sound work about my attempt to find it. Ballard must have read about it, because he sent me a short text he had written on Smithson, for an exhibition catalogue…

“It was the writer, curator and artist Jeremy Millar who became convinced Smithson knew of Ballard’s short story, The Voices of Time, before building his jetty. All Smithson’s books had been listed after his death in a plane crash in 1973 – and The Voices of Time was among them. The story ends with the scientist Powers building a cement mandala or “gigantic cipher” in the dried-up bed of a salt lake in a place that feels, by description, to be on the very borders of civilisation: a cosmic clock counting down our human time. It is no surprise that it is a copy of The Voices of Time that lies beneath the hand of the sleeping man on the picnic rug in the opening scenes of Powers of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames’ classic 1977 film about the relative size of things in the universe.

“Smithson understood the prehistory of his site. Beneath the Great Salt Lake was, for some, the centre of an ancient universe, and his jetty could have been an elaborate means to bore down to get to it. As if understanding this, Ballard wrote in the catalogue text: “What cargo might have berthed at the Spiral Jetty?” He elaborated later to me in a letter: “My guess is that the cargo was a clock, of a very special kind. In their way, all clocks are labyrinths, and can be risky to enter.” The two men had a lot in common, and Ballard believed him to be the most important and most mysterious of postwar US artists. My interest in time, cosmic and human, future and past, as well as the analogue spooling of the now, has Ballard at its core…”

Text: Tacita Dean: The cosmic clock with Ballard at its core

Image: Tacita Dean, Aerial View of Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac. 16th September 1998.

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.
303 Gallery

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

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