BY David Barrett in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Mike Nelson

BY David Barrett in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

Berwick is England's most northerly town, bordering Scotland on the Northumbrian coast. It's about as remote as you can get in this country, and consequently it has a history of having to look after itself. The colossal defensive walls - the Berwick Ramparts - are testament to this, and within these coastal ramparts stands an old military gymnasium, now a gallery. This long hut is the last building before the North Sea, and its welcome is about as warm as the water: the sign on the door tells us nothing, save that we should close it behind us. But even this notice is somewhat redundant since a heavy bundle of fisherman's weights makes it difficult enough even to open the door, let alone forget to shut it. When the door closes itself behind us, a sense of vulnerability overcomes us while our eyes adjust to the heavy gloom within.

As an introduction, this is off-putting, especially when we find that what we have stepped into is in fact a chicken-wire cage, forcing us to duck through a second doorway in order to explore the gallery proper. There are no lightbulbs. What natural light there is filters in through the yellowing newspapers that cover the windows. The space is filled with banged-together cages. And the cages in turn are filled with things. All sorts of things. Things that Mike Nelson has trawled up from the local beaches over the last six months, worked on, accumulated. We can enter the cages for closer inspection: it's all detritus, trash - washed-up and weathered. Some is of natural origin, like the driftwood, feathers and bones. Other items are man-made: bottles, books and traffic cones. But the boundaries between the two worlds have become indistinct, for Nelson treats all materials with equal - and ultimately disturbing - interest. Pollution becomes the natural state.

The artist proclaims himself to be the 'Master of Reality'. Perhaps this is because he thinks he is giving it to us straight: brutally predicting an apocalyptic future (assuming we continue to abuse the environment). His 'realism', then, comes from the fact that his raw materials are locally found objects and his mediation minimal. This is perhaps intended to lend a factual element to his message, a message that suggests that not everything will come up smelling of roses.

But there is more to presenting an objective reality than simply displaying real objects. What Nelson has actually done is to construct a kind of den where his fantasies can possess the discarded, homeless materials, inhabiting their empty shells like spirits. The closer to 'reality' Nelson gets, the further into a deranged fantasy he recedes. This is artist as enchanter, and the overriding atmosphere is close to that of Iain Banks' novel The Wasp Factory (1990), with Nelson as Frank Cauldhame, constructing his own black art of rituals and totems. The local flotsam and jetsam is transformed into power-objects, and a psychological claustrophobia fills the air. Solitude may invite superstitious invention, but it can also bring a kind of fevered material poetry, and this is Nelson's speciality.

These dark enchantments prevent the work from being simply a mundane, earnest preaching, investing the ecological message with a rare kind of mythology that owes more to witchcraft than the vaguely optimistic spirituality in which much ecology is wrapped. Nelson, it is safe to say, is definitely beyond such fluffy thinking; in his work an obsessive, pagan religiosity abounds - the papered windows become stained-glass, but which deity do they celebrate? For whom do the mock-bonfires with flames of orange traffic-cone plastic burn? Who will animate the golem-creatures that have found their forms in biological and consumer trash? Nelson's elaborate zoo is not about the science of ecology, but about an ancient superstition of which ecology is a modern manifestation.

There is a theory, propounded by Chomsky, that the Natural Sciences reflect certain procedures of the human brain in its comprehension of stimuli. Nelson seems to suggest that ecology has deep roots too. Certainly the fear that we mustn't work against nature is ancient and recurrent: it is, after all, only Modern Western society that has consistently reviled nature. Our aberrant belief that the earth is something to walk all over rather than merely on, is possibly coming to an end. Perhaps ecology is our version of a deep fear. This is why Nelson's gothic, bad-dream work is both a radical break from, and a return to, tradition.