Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, UK
The ticket booth is closed. Posters from a sci-fi film cover the kiosk window, faded despite the gloomy light. Through a set of dirty glass doors a thickly carpeted, softly lit octagonal foyer suggests an airlock or acclimatization chamber, hinting at an over-oxygenated delirium beyond. Three more doors lead from here. To the left, the door handles seem jammed. Straight ahead, the exit is also locked. Turning right, the doors open easily into the dim light of a pristine gallery. Here I stand on the threshold of an Interzone – built, administered and run by Mike Nelson for the purpose of playfully speculating on the gravest of matters.
A brief topographical description: Triple Bluff Canyon (2004) was one work divided into three viewing experiences, each of them built with Nelson’s characteristic attention to the details of decay and disrepair. As you left the deserted cinema foyer, its bare chipboard and timber exoskeleton was revealed. Upstairs was a recreation of Nelson’s old home studio. Books littered the workbench, and junk shop curiosities filled the shelves. A bundle of mysterious packages, labelled in Arabic with an image of a silhouetted mosque, sat atop one towering pile of objects. Projected onto the gallery wall was a video of US conspiracy theorist and driving licence forger Jordan Maxwell giving his ‘Basic Slide Lecture’, an explanation of the occult symbolism he sees in government and corporate logos: Exxon’s double cross, all-seeing eyes on dollar bills, the rising sun of the new world order in Shell’s logo, the pentagram that forms the Pentagon. In a third space a rickety-looking timber corridor was engulfed in yellow sand. At the end of the passage a wooden shack could be reached via a battered door, its roof propped up by a metal joist as sand swamped the chamber. Back down the corridor, returning through the cinema foyer and up another set of stairs, suddenly you had an overview: the wooden room was indeed part of a shed – a re-creation of Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970). Vast dunes piled up around the gallery walls, smothering the structure. Oilcans, bearing logos discussed by Maxwell in his slide presentation, lay in one of the woodshed’s alcoves. No natural light entered the gallery, just the stark electric whiteness of the museum track lights.
Nelson’s installations are arenas for speculative games about where our popular notions of power structures – of overlords and underdogs, governments and underground resistance – come from. The artist’s twilight zone methodology folds swathes of references back on themselves. It’s a nervous system constantly firing pulses of information – allusions to historical moments, nods to literary or cinematic sources – making intertextual leaps of logic with almost the same degree of autistic lucidity as the paranoid Maxwell. Nelson’s work delights in an ebullient over-coding. Take, for example, Earthworks, sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss’ 1965 novel. Smithson took it as the title of a show in 1968. Partially Buried Woodshed was built on Kent State University campus in 1970. Kent State students were massacred by National Guardsmen that year. Protest, government heavy-handedness and conspiracy: Maxwell’s theories connect a secret world government to freemasonry and the occult, via clues in the geometry of corporate signage. The logos of oil companies; recent conflicts in the Middle East; Vietnam. The desert – sand. Sand buries the woodshed, a monument to student protest. Sand crystals. Geometry – we’re back to Smithson again, to crystalline ‘dynamic’ geometry. The Crystal World (1966), by J.G. Ballard. Science fiction. Back to Aldiss. I feel dizzy.
Like a paranoiac, Nelson discerns patterns everywhere. To believe in the idea of the ‘underground’ – real or fictional – lends a kind of hope, just as for some people the idea of an industrial–military complex secretly directing world events along occult, Masonic lines makes sense of the iniquities and brutalities of the world. It is tantamount to believing in horoscopes or God: acts of faith that relinquish any notion of individual agency to fatalism.
Yet what does it mean to be unable to read the references in Nelson’s labyrinths, not to have membership of the same ‘Boy’s Own’ library? I am usually deeply suspicious of an art that rests on the surface of referentiality, yet the grip of Nelson’s illusions holds fast. Pleasure and symbolism here have multivalent functions, articulating deeply stacked strata of experience that cannot always be distilled or conveyed on a flow chart. His interest in literary subversives, counter-cultural radicals and revolutionary politics is as intrigued by their power as a cultural shorthand as it is by the details of their work. What it means, for example, to be interested in William S. Burroughs is not always the same as what it means to possess knowledge of his work. It’s hard to believe in Nelson’s sculptures (they are too sensitive to their own spectacular nature for that), and in this sense his work is about the efficacy of genre – describing its uses, its effects; an immersive experiment to see what happens on the liminal threshold between fantasy and reality. Attempting to suspend disbelief temporarily, as Nelson’s impressive theatrics encourage, lifts barriers to otherwise inaccessible paths of connection. Today’s struggles are often characterized by conflicting loyalties to nation states and spiritual belief. Nelson offers citizenship of an unnamed country, an open door to a place where any resemblance to persons or places known may or may not be coincidental.