Mike Nelson I Impostor
Mike Nelson
I, Impostor
Installation view, Venice Biennale May 2011

To coincide with Mike Nelson representing Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale of Art, Tate curator Clarrie Wallis talks to the artist about his extraordinary installation The Coral Reef, currently on display at Tate Britain

Clarrie Wallis
How did the idea for The Coral Reef came about?

Mike Nelson
It came about from repeatedly walking past a mini-cab office around the corner from where I was living in Balham. The aesthetic was interesting because of the makeshift way such spaces were built and then inhabited. There’d be only a few objects or posters, but through them you could both recognise that these people were quite transient in terms of what they were doing there and also get an idea of what their identity was. These spaces were always spaces which were a front for something else; you would get a glimpse into a back room or of a door that led somewhere, that put you somewhere else.

Clarrie Wallis
A façade?

Mike Nelson
Yes. So there was the idea of a sequential series of rooms which were all receptions that never led to anything.

Clarrie Wallis
And the title?

Mike Nelson
The Coral Reef
for me was indicative of a complex but fragile structure of belief systems that exist below the surface of a prevalent ideological structure, of capitalism. In a sense, the sequence of receptions areas are all representative of a different structure of belief. So after the fake art gallery reception, you then step into a room behind a grilled wall as if you were at the back of a mini-cab office with an Islamic identity.

Clarrie Wallis
In Naked Lunch William Burroughs depicts a place called Interzone: a place between other places and states of mind. There is a feeling of such places in much of your work. Cutting up, splicing together, fragmentation and editing have the effect of upsetting a sense of place and identity leading to a place of dead ends.

Mike Nelson
There is certainly a relationship with montage in this way, yes. An understanding of how the jump cut works, in terms of Burroughs, is accurate and the sister piece to The Coral Reef, The Deliverance and the Patience 2001, was in a certain respect based on Burroughs’s book Cities of the Red Night in as much as the way of reading the book and experiencing my work invites a similar degree of immersion.

Clarrie Wallis
Literature and films have clearly been very influential on your practice.

Mike Nelson
In my late 20s, I came across Soviet science fiction through an essay on the use of science fiction in the Soviet Union as a way of bypassing censorship. The essay made reference to Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky Brothers and of course I’d seen Tarkovsky’s films Stalker and Solaris. I found some of the elements that I particularly enjoyed within those films were brought out much more within the books. Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers (the book on which Stalker is loosely based) is a case in point especially as it really was written not like a serious piece of literature, but more in the style of a pot boiler, or a detective story; somehow the ideas inherent within it were just so much heavier than the form might have suggested. What had originally brought me to these books was the fact that they could talk about the human condition within the Soviet Union to both their own people, but also to the outside world.

In one of the most memorable passages in Roadside Picnic the sites of alien visitation have been fenced off by the Government whilst the university departments look into objects recovered from the area. These are retrieved by illegal ‘Stalkers’: people who work as bounty hunters, collecting things that are often indescribable. Academic papers are written about these visitations. They try to work out why the aliens came here and what this might mean. What are the messages they are trying to send us? At one point, one of the investigative scientists surmises, ‘Well, sometimes I think it’s just like a roadside picnic; they just stopped here momentarily on their way to somewhere else and they had their picnic, left their rubbish and carried on.’ In terms of the idea of objects and what they might mean, that very much formed my thinking.

Clarrie Wallis
Most of your references are from books or cinema, all of which are plot driven. However the effect of your installations seems rather different.

Mike Nelson
It’s far more sculptural, less prescribed and more solid. A film set is actually very flimsy and made purely for a camera, which is very different to what’s seen by a filmgoer and what’s experienced by someone visiting one of my works. If you touch or open a door and then let it close they have a certain weight and feel; it’s a very different thing ultimately. And you’re encased within it as opposed to in a set that’s constantly open. It’s not theatrical in that sense.

Clarrie Wallis
In the past you’ve mentioned Ed Kienholz and Paul Thek as being formative influences on your practice.

Mike Nelson
In terms of work, Paul Thek has had far more impact. Kienholz was one of those artists I came across very early on in the 1980s whereas Thek is somebody I came to later, and it had a direct affinity with some work I’d been making that I didn’t know about in 1996. It was just one of those moments when you find somebody who makes work that has a certain relationship to what you’ve just done.

Clarrie Wallis
Is your approach informed by an idea of tableaux?

Mike Nelson
Yes, and I think this is something that is misunderstood: there is a formality to the work that to me is quite beautiful if you can use such a word. I always think of it like a good book: the equation of a literary structure with a spatial structure. You have your narrative structure or plot, within which you coerce and express meaning through the prose or formality. Ultimately, I think that prose is as important, if not more important, than anything because in the end you can have a great idea, but if it isn’t written well people won’t empathise with it.

Clarrie Wallis
So how personal is the selection of the objects? What drives you to choose them?

Mike Nelson
I look for a particular type of object or thing to articulate different types of space. Certain objects and materials have a power or imbued knowingness to their own history. One object like that can articulate a whole space. Again, we have to talk about the idea of intuition or instinct in terms of making sculpture.

Clarrie Wallis
With The Coral Reef the viewer is both in the work but also there’s the sense of looking at the different objects within each room and feeling like you’re slightly outside it, trying to piece together the clues of overlapping narratives.

Mike Nelson
One of the motivations behind The Coral Reef was the prevalence of video installation through the 1990s. People could spend more time watching a video work than looking at an object. People didn’t look at objects for very long, which I found frustrating. So to make a work that entrapped you and forced you to spend time within it was important to me.

Clarrie Wallis
But The Coral Reef also has a really strong sense of atmosphere, of foreboding.

Mike Nelson
I think the closest thing I’ve read in terms of an explanation of that sort of narrative as opposed to a clear linear narrative is H.P. Lovecraft’s writing on horror and the supernatural. In the same way, the films of Sergei Parajanov have no linear narrative but instead are constructed as a series of tableaux: you watch them and they wash over you. You somehow get a sense of what is going on but in a very different way to a traditional western sense of narrative. Similarly entering into The Coral Reef allows you to forget that you are looking at art and to pass through it in a mental state that is focused on the meditative, subconscious reading of the work, one that acknowledges the possibility of re-reading from memory at a later date.

Clarrie Wallis
Within your work there is often the feeling of time and space being ‘out of joint’. There is also a sense of being caught up in a place where a copy no longer refers to an original, or where an image may no longer have any direct relationship with the outside world. This reminds me of Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Mike Nelson
Yes, that was an influence. In terms of the feel of the space, the role of the empathy test in that book is key. Even the androids themselves don’t know if they’re human or not, and the only way they and the humans can find out is to do an empathy test on them. That was constantly in my mind when I was making the work. When a fly somehow finds its way into a room or a series of rooms in The Coral Reef that have been built and are all new and fake, and you know they’re fake, there’s a strange moment when the status of the fly is put into question. How real can it be – or how fake?

Clarrie Wallis
Like the toad in the story that is in fact artificial.

Mike Nelson
Yes, it is a very odd experience.

Clarrie Wallis
The Coral Reef
raises questions about individual and cultural standpoints and systems of belief. You always seem to be attracted to people or places that exist outside of the mainstream.

Mike Nelson
If you think what The Coral Reef structure purported to offer you and then ultimately did to you, it offers you these different receptions that presumably then would lead to something beyond. Each reception is indicative of a different belief structure. All these different belief structures – whether mainstream or non-mainstream religions, or to do with drug- or alcohol-induced states – encourage some idea of escape. If you look at the picture of the charging horse in the room of the heroin user, it really is quite a joy to behold the sense of freedom that you see in these horses on these wild plains. Ultimately, however, this kind of picture was always kept and displayed in the houses of the most dispossessed and in the most economically challenged areas. In the end, ideas of escape lead to entrapment, which The Coral Reef ultimately does to you as well. You become entrapped within the labyrinth of corridors and rooms while trying to find your way. But, of course, you’re also trapped by the prevalent structure that sits above you. So it’s probably a relatively bleak vision of the world but in terms of the different belief structures – the loners, the outlaws – perhaps it seems that these are the only things you can really cling to in terms of a hope. It’s all to do with belief.

Clarrie Wallis
In hindsight it seems like a strangely accurate portrait of the late 20th century.

Mike Nelson
That’s exactly when it was made. I spent the last few months of 1999 making the work at Matt’s for it to open in January 2000. I look back now and I still am quite surprised at its accuracy as a sort of litmus test for the world at that point, but one which perhaps wasn’t going to become quite so recognised until a year and a bit later, with 9/11 and subsequent events. I think the fact that the doubled room is the Islamic mini-cab room made that very overt. I’ve been making work that dealt with middle-eastern, Islamic countries since the late 1980s.

Clarrie Wallis
Can I ask you about A Psychic Vacuum 2007, your work in the abandoned market in New York’s Lower East Side – was it a return to The Coral Reef?

Mike Nelson
It was a reaction too, I suppose. This was the first public piece I made in New York and its impetus was very much like my reaction to the mini-cab offices of London. When I went to New York, and particularly the Lower East Side, I was struck by the prevalence of psychic booths and tattoo parlours when placed alongside the idea of a city reacting to the loss of something very tangible, the very visible part of the skyline just disappearing. The vacuum that was left after the loss of the World Trade Center seemed almost to trigger a desire to find meaning elsewhere: perhaps even in the advice of psychics or perhaps by covering oneself in markings and tattoos of esoteric beliefs. In certain respects this seems akin to the 1980s idea of the modern primitive and that desire to connect oneself to something that really might mean something within a developed capitalist world. I travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to America to make a work which somehow flipped the idea of The Coral Reef, where instead of there being a metaphorical ocean surface of sea, I replaced it with a physical, actual sea of sand that buried all of the rooms and structures that lay beneath it. Instead of being indicative of these fledgling belief structures, it’s not fledgling at all; it shows how subsets of belief within any city at that time were being replaced with psychics and alternative belief structures.

Clarrie Wallis
So, do you feel that there is a performative aspect to your work?

Mike Nelson
It was a big issue when I was making Trading Station Alpha CMa 1996, my first show at Matt’s Gallery, which paved the way for The Coral Reef. I became very aware then that the work was performative in terms of a lot of the actions around it and the making of it. I often used to think of it in terms of performances in the 1970s – especially those of Mike Kelley – and the meanings held by the detritus that would be left behind. The meanings that could be gained from these objects were in a sense charged by the performance. I found that interesting. There is the sense of someone having spent time, and I think that’s very difficult to replicate. I’ve touched everything within these shows and that’s still apparent within the work. This goes back to the idea of intuition and instinct. If you set out with an idea of what you want to draw out, to understand what you’re trying to make, to empathise and make sense of something, and you have a clear structure within which to do that then there’s a lot of play that can go on within. There is instinct there but it’s a very informed instinct because you’re working within the parameters that you set for yourself already.