in Critic's Guides | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

Ideal Syllabus: Mike Nelson

In an ongoing series, frieze asks an artist, curator or writer to list the books that have influenced them

in Critic's Guides | 01 APR 10

William Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night (Picador, London, 1982; first published in 1981).

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights
(Penguin Classics, London, 1973, translated by N.J. Darwood; first published in 1882 as The Book of The Thousand and One Nights; first mentioned c.940 AD in Ibn al-Nadim’s catalogue of books in Baghdad)

A meandering meta-fiction that blends history, folk tales and fantasy from the Near and Middle East. Stories start and never seem to finish, whilst detours and asides are explored and characters cross over and intermingle. The stories negate a traditional Western linear narrative; an atmosphere is created from something not definable by categories such as geography, culture or time. I find the book’s use of repetition, immersion and half-truths intoxicating, as I do the countries the stories come from.

Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands
(Penguin Classics, London, 1984; first published 1959)

Like Richard Burton, who translated Tales from The Thousand and One Nights into English in 1885, Wilfred Thesiger was an Englishman obsessed with travel to foreign places. This account of his journey with the Bedu (the desert-dwelling nomads of Arabia, the Negev and the Sinai) across the desert in the Arabian Peninsula known as Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter) in the 1940s, is a tale of a man out of step with what he was expected to be, and yet at the end of a lineage of similar types – a man on the brink of extinction. The incredible efforts Thesiger made to live with, talk to and understand the people with whom he travelled – sometimes for years on end – were underpinned by failure and loneliness, which agitated the awkward contradictions inherent to his situation.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘There Are More Things’
(Published in The Book of Sand, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1977, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Alastair Reid)

A short story in the style of H.P. Lovecraft that concerns a strange inhabitant of the former home of the protagonist’s uncle. One night, the nephew finds himself in the house and discovers that modifications have been made to it that make no sense – not until, that is, he is confronted with what cannot be described. Rather than building a story that leads to an ending that explains everything, Jorge Luis Borges condenses the ethos of Lovecraft – the fear of the unknown – using a narrative style of open-ended, constructed atmospheres.

Richard Brautigan, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western
(Picador, London, 1976; first published 1974)

Richard Brautigan mixes up genres in this visionary poetic gem of pathos and absurd comedy. This is just one book of many I could have chosen by Brautigan, but its subtitle says it all.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
(Penguin Classics, London, 2007; first published 1902)

The structure of the narrative is simple – a journey along a river – but the ever-building sense of darkness is made palpable through Joseph Conrad’s layers of dense prose. Paragraphs could be expanded into short stories as the strata of description buries you ever-more deeply in the diaspora of the Belgian Congo. A description of a steamship randomly bombarding the dense vegetation of the jungle in an attempt to quell the crew’s fear of the unseen natives is a fitting image for us today; it’s a scene that Francis Ford Coppola used in Apocalypse Now (1979), his Vietnam-based reworking of the story.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic
(Gollancz, London, 2007; first published in English in 1977; first published in Russian in 1972)

Stalker (1979), the film which Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted from this book, could be seen as a fitting counterpoint to Apocalypse Now. However, Roadside Picnic is written in a lowbrow fictional/crime thriller genre quite at odds with the artful poetic vision of Tarkovsky, and doesn’t compare with the dense prose of Conrad. The story revolves around a series of sites on Earth that have been visited by entities from another planet, and the desire of governments and their institutional bodies to decode the possible reason they came to earth through the detritus they have left behind. Ultimately, they realize that what the aliens left behind is simply the remnants of a picnic that contains no hidden meaning. An existential Soviet-era allegory which communicates on many different levels in clear, accessible language.

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris
(Faber & Faber, London, 2008; first published 1970)

Stanislaw Lem is the writer who has probably influenced me more than any other, in ways that expand and develop as I return again and again to his writings. Solaris is Lem’s masterpiece. This tale of the eponymous planet – a single gigantic organism that penetrates deeply into the subconscious of those who visit it, and then transforms their memories into hallucinations – is made even more disturbing by the apparitions’ inability to comprehend their state of (non)existence. Reading this book makes you feel what it is like to be human both on an individual level and in relation to the apparatus we have constructed to live within.

Stanislaw Lem, A Perfect Vacuum
(Harvest/HBJ, New York, 1979, translated by Michael Kandel; first published in Polish in 1971)

A review of non-existent books with a first chapter that is a review of itself, A Perfect Vacuum argues that it’s simply a short story in an anthology of short stories. Contrary to the poetic nature of Solaris, Lem shows his many abilities in A Perfect Vacuum, employing parody and critical analysis (both literary and scientific), all which is delivered with a dry sense of humour. Obviously indebted to his myriad sources (including Jorge Luis Borges, Fyodor Dostoevsky and James Joyce), the mental dexterity and irreverence of this book should allow Lem to rank alongside the authors he pays homage to; one suspects that he might have been considered as highly as they were if he hadn’t been categorized as a writer of science fiction.

Hakim Bey, T.A.Z. (Temporary Autonomous Zone)
(Autonomedia, Brooklyn, New York, 1991)

Anarchic writings from the mid-1980s written like someone shooting straight from the hip. I wish I’d read it when it came out instead of trying to read what I thought I should.

William Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night
(Picador, London, 1982; first published 1981)

Two plots run concurrently through different genres and moments in history, interlinked through time travel. Beautifully written, once you loosen your grip on expectations of a coherent narrative, Cities of the Red Night is a totally immersive reading experience. The ‘invocation’ at the beginning is as good a piece of poetry as I’ve ever read, while the ‘Fore’, concerning Captain Mission and his doomed colony of Libertatia on 18th-century Madagascar, is incredible and underpins the thinking in Bey’s T.A.Z.

Franz Kafka, ‘The Burrow’
(Published in The Complete Stories, Schocken Books, New York, 1971)

An unfinished story about a creature that digs a system of tunnels beneath the earth in which it can exist in peace. The more elaborate the burrow becomes, the greater the creature’s paranoid fear of discovery. Everything escalates to the point where the creature hides in the outside world to watch over the concealed entrance, waiting for the imagined intruders. A state of being that can be equated to all humanity, whatever they do, and whatever system they do it in.

J.G. Ballard, The Crystal World
(Harper Perennial, London, 2008; first published 1966)

This has stayed with me longer than any other of J.G. Ballard’s books. His description of a journey to an interior landscape that crystallizes and alters time has remained a constant revelation for me about the intangible elements of life, and has fuelled my thinking and work ever since.

Mike Nelson is a British artist who lives and works in London, UK. ‘Quiver of Arrows’, his exhibition at 303 Gallery, New York, runs until 10 April. His work is also included in ‘Contemplating the Void’, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which runs until 28 April, and ‘Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside and Out’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which runs until 30 May. Recent solo shows include ‘Triptych’, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, Ireland; ‘The Caves of Misplaced Geometry’, Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, Italy; and ‘Kristus och Judas: a Structural Conceit (A Performance in Three Parts)’, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.