Mike Nelson: Essex Street Market

By Wilson, Michael | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Mike Nelson: Essex Street Market


Wilson, Michael, Artforum International


The title of A Psychic Vacuum, 2007, British artist Mike Nelson's first large-scale project in the US, echoes that of Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum (1971). Lem's text is a collection of reviews of nonexistent books; Nelson's work might be described as resembling the set of an imaginary film. Revisiting the labyrinthine structure of his installation The Coral Reef, 2000, the Turner Prize-shortlisted artist here filled the interior of a long-disused building on Manhattan's Lower East Side with a suite of interconnected rooms containing various arrangements of locally sourced found objects. The highly atmospheric result was an effective meditation on "the presence of absence," the shadowy undercurrents of American belief, and the space between reality, representation, and replication.

Having negotiated the clamor of commissioning organization Creative Time's official welcome (there was a disclaimer to sign and copies of Nelson's cheekily titled book Magazine [2003] to peruse), visitors were ushered toward a small door in "Building D," one of four separate sites into which Essex Street Market was originally divided. Passing through it, they found themselves in what appeared to be the charred remains of a Chinese restaurant, greasy dishes and paper bags piled around the darkened room. It was unclear whether this was a lucky find or a constructed environment, and a similar ambiguity recurred throughout A Psychic Vacuum. The origin of any given part of the installation was decipherable, if at all, only through extremely close observation. While many of Nelson's interiors appear to have existed for years, their battered surfaces and abandoned feel suggesting heavy use followed by extended neglect, most are in fact the results of extensive research and meticulous construction. The artist refers to the necessity of suspending disbelief and surrendering to the work as one might to more conventional forms of fiction, but the narrative here is, by his own admission, so nonlinear and immersive that one very quickly ceases to think about the degree to which it appears "convincing"; it simply is. …

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