Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words Mike Nelson Talks about His Recent Work

Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words Mike Nelson Talks about His Recent Work

Article excerpt

Last year I installed three big pieces between May and October: The Deliverance and the Patience at the Venice Biennale; The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent, my Turner Prize presentation at Tate Britain; and between these, Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted (titled after a quote from eleventh-century Assassins founder Hassan-i Sabbah), which opened at London's Institute of Contemporary Art in late September. I intended that installation as a harsh polemic. Less enjoyable and seductive than the other two, it's a complicated piece that I'm still working out for myself. In retrospect, it's proving very important to my practice--more so than the Tate project, a hermetic, introspective work that was, to some extent, the victim of its own success, so noisy and congested that viewers couldn't experience it as I'd intended.

My works require a certain suspension of disbelief; viewers have to accept the reality of the space they're entering. One reference point for me has been the films of Sergei Paradjanov: rich, ambient, nonlinear folk histories, series of tableaux that envelop you so that you comprehend them both analytically and intuitively. But the ICA installation wasn't quite like that; it was deliberately parodic and required conscious decoding. I converted the ground-floor corridor (a limbolike space connecting the museum's bookshop, gallery, and bar) into something like a dingy video arcade; the entrance to the lower gallery was a cross between a seedy gym and a torture chamber. I wanted to underline my sense of an awkward relationship between the ICA and its audience. In my experience, it's an unsympathetic place for visitors and exhibitors alike.

I also constructed a "reading room" of shoestring travel guides, a comment on the "typical" visitors the ICA presupposes--the "Lonely Planet generation," people who think they're going on unique journeys. This includes me, of course, and the preview card acknowledged my own inevitable involvement in the practice of cultural tourism. It shows me standing with a robed Buddhist monk, but it's a calculatedly ambiguous image: It might show Tibet or the Welsh Hills, a real monk or a friend in costume.

The show was prefaced by a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, who defined the Baroque as a form of self-parody. Borges comments that certain works can't be parodied because they are already self-parodic, and in retrospect I see that my piece reiterated what the ICA as an institution already did--does--to itself. But the project also parodied my own practice, in that it revisited a work I'd planned in 1993 but never made. I turned the ICA's upper galleries into "Gallery Lago," a "reconstruction" of an artist-run space where I'd planned to show a work called Untitled No. 22 (High Plains Drifter): a kind of emulation of Niele Toroni that involved painting the exhibition space red all over. The 1993 show was canceled a week prior to opening, but had it gone ahead, painting spaces red might have become my typical working practice (I'd numbered the piece to suggest, falsely, that it was part of an existing sequence).

The Clint Eastwood reference riffs on themes of self-parody and institutional critique: In a way, Eastwood's career is a sustained parody of a stereotypical persona; from the Sergio Leone films to Unforgiven, he returns in different guises as the silent avenger. …

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