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The Expectation of Spectacle: an Interview with Mike Nelson

7 months ago

We interviewed the British artist Mike Nelson on the occasion of his monumental intervention at the OGR in Turin; a large wooden structure, leads into the space, resembling a large billboard or the screen of a drive-in, once beyond it visitors find themselves inside a dimly lit environment where, amid pressed rubble, there are about twenty parked cars, covered with dust and in complete abandon. Different epochs and genres collide within the installation: a recent past rubs against an almost archaeological dimension (or perhaps a near future?), the rubble on the floor reeks of precariousness, an ambiguity between a recent demolition, an in-progress apocalypse whilst hinting to the potential of reconstruction, together creating an overwhelming tone of expectation and suspense.

Lara Morrell: I’d like to start by asking you about the connection between “Untitled” (intimate sculpture for a public space) 2013* and the brand new work “L’atteso”, which are placed at odds with each other upon entering the space. How do they relate in terms of time of production, scale and concept?

Mike Nelson: In a sense they are completely separate works, if there is any relationship at all I thought it would work quite well considering the Title ‘intimate sculpture for a public space’, which I made for space in Vancouver back in 2013 and I think somehow reflects the relationship about what is public and what is private is quite interesting in this specific space. The relationship of the scale between the individual of the single figure and the entirety of the installation behind this glass wall— the idea of the vitrine, perhaps it is a nudge to look at it in this sense, through a window and then the cars themselves as vitrines. An archaeology of the contemporary of the near past.

*a sleeping bag placed on the ground, enclosed in a shrine, in memory of a friend and collaborator, Erlend Williamson, artist and passionate climber, who died more than twenty years ago while climbing in the Scottish Highlands.

L.M.: How did the idea for the show come about? Did you come across any complications working in a space such as the OGR, both in terms of its scale and being a relatively new institution?

M.N.: To be quite honest it was all a little complicated, there is a strange history to this exhibition which reflects the institution and how it works, the space I was originally given to work with was larger than this and this dividing vitrine wasn’t originally here, I was planning to build an elevated cast concrete road, at mid height level with road street lamps and crash barriers cast into it, so essentially a very dead pan, huge, minimal sculpture, that was what I was going forward with until the tragedy in Genova and then it looked exactly like the section of road which fell out, so obviously I didn’t want the work to read in relation to that, not just because it wasn’t my intent but I thought it could be deeply insensitive in regard to the people killed and their family and friends, so in August I had to somehow rethink how it was going to work in this space.

I’d come to this point of thinking about about a cast concrete road through a Keinholz piece from the early 70s called Five Car Stud, which was shown quite recently in Milan*, and I always thought it was interesting they way it used cars as a vehicle of illumination and in a way it seemed to me that lighting in here was important and ultimately really problematic fundamentally, an awkward aspect within it so in the sense I went back to this idea,

In terms of scale you have to take into account very practical considerations, how do you articulate a space like this and how do you articulate material and which makes an impact upon it and I think so often a space like this becomes in control of whatever is in it or it comes secondary in a sort of way, the work becomes secondary to the space. So I want back to the ideas of cars, as in way cars are becoming obsolete, at the point of obsoletion or the way they have been viewed through the twentieth century at least anyway…

L.M.: Tell me more about the car motif? Is there a nod to Turin and the automobile industry? Was there a particular criteria for the choice and epoch of car?

M.N.: I wanted the cars to be as unremarkable as possible, I didn’t want anything desirable or beautiful or anything which represented anything too extreme or covetable, things on a certain level of obsolescence, teetering on the edge of usefulness, rather like the building we are in to a certain point or the hardcore on the floor. They are all from the late nineties and early 2000s except for the Pandas and the Porsche from the 80s and early 90s.
Regarding the association with Turin it is not something I would overly pursue, but I think its something that is taken as given, ultimately and in a sense it is what this space was originally used for in regards to mending trains, in a way, in Britain at any rate, the trains disappeared as road usage demand and the idea of the individual and ones freedom as supposed to communal means of transport disappeared so in away these obsolete redundant objects are somehow representative of the end of an epoch, and this building represents the end of another and the hardcore and the floor which ultimately is crushed buildings, I suppose there is some kind of dark irony to the preciousness with which this building is now treated, I couldn’t even stick a screw in the wall, the irony is that what is on the floor are probably buildings that are equally interesting and beautiful, all from a similar era crushed up and scattered, so I think that idea about the entropic and things breaking down, this constant cycle is suggested in that material of the hardcore and ultimately in the cars themselves.

L.M.:I know that you yourself physically build the work yourself, often putting yourself in the boots of a builder rather than that of an artist, how integral is this ‘hands on’ approach to the work?

M.N.: When I let go of the control of something it always goes terribly wrong! Getting people to get things done how you want them to look is not easy, it’s like when you have work done at home and most of the time it’s really bad. I mean you try getting someone to build something like this (he says as we walk under a nine metre high wooden structure which nods uncommittedly to either a drive in screen or billboard) and them getting them to build it how you want it! You won’t! The technical team here at OGR were shocked at how precise we were, it is a simple structure but that simplicity is quite complicated to work out, we spent a long time looking for the right kind of timber, originally I was going to use old timber but couldn’t find one that was also strong and straight enough to make a structure this big, it is over nine metres high.

L.M.: Could you tell us a little more about what this structure might represent?

M.N.: Ultimately I didn’t want the structure to be specifically anything, I wanted it to be blank, reflecting an idea of expectation. When I was asked to do an exhibition, you become known for making particularly large works and so when someone has a large space they assume that you will make a large piece of work for their large space, so I suppose there is an expectation of what you might do, there is an expectation of spectacle in relation to my own work and also in relation to this space, I think that in many ways this was aspect that I found quite complicated and slightly irritating ultimately, so I think that’s what this is about, about something that is specifically related to the art world and to me in terms of my practice but also in terms of how that relates to the wider world ultimately, this sense of expectation and the idea of waiting.

L.M.: Hence the title, L’atteso?

M.N.: Exactly and I also wanted it to sound filmic.

L.M: Yes, I’ve heard that you were also inspired by Italian cinema in the making of this piece, especially Dario Argento’s Deep Red, set here in Turin…

M.N.: Well to begin with I was actually thinking more about Antonioni and the early films like from L’avventura, L’eclisse, Il Deserto Rosso and Blow Up, that sense of a mis-en-scene, that somehow suggests something that has happened or which is about to happen but has no answer, this idea of nothingness, in a way. The Dario Argento bit came in because I was thinking about nothingness in regard to Antonioni and thinking about the fear of the unseen in regard to Lovecraft and horror because I also think in the making of the exhibition horror has been at the back of my mind for a show here, just because I knew the show was going to be opened here on halloween and the day of the dead, I always like to coincide my shows with public festivals, particularly ones which revolve around such things! So I was thinking about the idea of the unseen in horror, then obviously Dario Argento is a product of Antonioni and well, thinking I’d been very clever, I then googled it, only to discover one of the few films I hadn’t seen, Profondo Rosso was set in Turin, which was his reaction to his irritation with Blow Up, hence his employing of David Hemmings, so yes that was kind of interesting, so I thought to channel a bit of that in Turin would be quite nice!

L.M.: So you have spoken so far about spectacle, could you tell me about the role of the individual or the spectator in the activation of the artwork?

M.N: In early works I was very interested how that aggravated the reading of work, I suppose in a way it is a filmic device to leave certain things open, to suck your own history into the mix of visual material. Ultimately here it is still a similar structure to that. Here I wanted to understand how much to control the more personal aspects in the interiors of the cars in regard to the actual scale of the work, because in many ways there are a lot of different languages, genres or oeuvres of art that have passed through this piece, even when we put the hardcore down, I must admit it was very pleasing because whilst your walking across it, I love this stuff, I’ve been walking across it every day and seeing the same bits of tyres, you know that sense of the Earth Room by Walter De Maria, in terms of lying this stuff down, then you have this strange big construction and the cars on top, you end up with this quite confused lineage of art history within it.

There is a certain amount of intimacy in the different objects although you can’t enter them, I mean I didn’t want people getting in and blowing horns and turning indicators on otherwise, if you don’t watch it, it becomes like a funfair! I’m more interested in the cars in their sculptural nature, these things that are still driving around on the streets…I see cars everywhere now.…if I’m perfectly honest I am getting a little sick of looking at cars, you become slightly obsessed after a while!

Lara Morrell

  • Mike Nelson, Mike Nelson, "L'Atteso", Installation view, OGR Turin, 2018
  • Mike Nelson, Mike Nelson, "L'Atteso", Installation view, OGR Turin, 2018
  • Mike Nelson, Mike Nelson, "L'Atteso", Installation view, OGR Turin, 2018
  • Mike Nelson Mike Nelson
  • Edward Kienholz, Five Car Stud, 1969–72 © Delfino Sisto Legnani Studio Edward Kienholz, Five Car Stud, 1969–72 © Delfino Sisto Legnani Studio

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