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Issue 111

Mike Nelson's Labyrinth of Concrete

The artist is taking over New York's Building D on Essex Street Market, with his new installations that resemble a horror story

BY Kristin M. Jones in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 01 NOV 07

Although it was closed to the public for 13 years, Building D of New York’s Essex Street Market wasn’t entirely unoccupied. While busy creating A Psychic Vacuum (2007), an ambitious site-specific project co-organized by Creative Time, Mike Nelson discovered a garret sectioned into cubby holes, apparently for some uncertain illicit activity. He placed an item left there – a torn half of a US map someone had crudely but touchingly completed with a black marker – in a room with a knife, a fake human skull and a portrait of the Kennedys under cracked glass. Elsewhere in a ‘real’ space, an abandoned Chinese restaurant played a more crucial role as an authentically grimy portal into A Psychic Vacuum’s elaborate fiction, recalling the book to which the title alludes, Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971), whose first chapter is an introduction to reviews of non-existent books.

Mike Nelson, 'A Psychic Vacuum', 2007, installation view. Courtesy: Creative Time; photograph: Charlie Samuels

Entering the labyrinthine installation through a nondescript door on bustling Delancey Street, visitors encountered benches and tables, dishware, MSG vats and a golden Lucky Cat – all furry with dust and ancient grease. Beyond lay a waiting area bedecked with tattoo designs, followed by a warren of corridors, rooms, locked doors and blind alleys where ad hoc voodoo shrines and cluttered hideouts proliferated. A freezer-like space held crumpled beer cans and a glittery snowflake dangling from a menacing hook. Everywhere grim fixtures, scuffed trim and carefully calibrated ceiling heights helped set a scene redolent of cellars stuffed to the gills with rusted metal, mildewed wood and assorted detritus.

Just when escape seemed nearly possible, a room mimicking another that had already been passed through created a sense of déjà vu and entrapment. Then a cavernous area littered with tyres and motor-cycle helmets (ghosts of Scorpio Rising?) led into an interstitial space containing an enlarger and photographs hanging in ruddy gloom. Nelson has deployed the dark-room motif to various ends. Mirror Infill’s photo lab at the 2006 Frieze Art Fair documented the hectic commercial environment surrounding it. There was a degree of ‘Situationist psycho-geography’ in Nelson’s Margate installation of 2005, which incorporated depictions of the town’s physical terrain. Nelson often shoots the photos, but in A Psychic Vacuum he hung found photographs of star and cruciform shapes, producing a reflection at once anxious and opaque.

Mike Nelson, 'A Psychic Vacuum', 2007, installation view. Courtesy: Creative Time; photograph: Charlie Samuels

Monsters lurked in this labyrinth, of course. A cul-de-sac at the end of a green hallway contained a strait-jacket and baseball bats; elsewhere a maniacally clicking ceiling fan kept watch over a bloodstained American flag and scattered bones. Details were chilling, such as a scrawled symbol like the one used by the Zodiac killer, hidden in graffiti by a dive bar’s phone and 1971 calendar. In general, the socio-political context of the 1960s–’70s overlapped with the present to potent effect. (Perhaps this has a generational aspect – Nelson may be British, but he could have been tapping into my own hazy memories of Vietnam, not to mention the JFK portrait that used to hang in my great-grandmother’s hallway, above a burning votive.) Throughout, one had the sense of following someone or something only recently vanished. Eventually, after cycling through spaces more than once, one had the nagging feeling of being – in Borgesian fashion – close on one’s own trail. It was like finding an old diary and wondering about the person and actions described within. Did I kneel before this cobbled-together shrine? Drink from flag-emblazoned cups with war buds in a streamer-festooned dive bar? Pore over Psychic Discoveries Beyond the Iron Curtain at a skuzzy work-table beneath a talismanic bundle of wishbones? Collect military cards? Commit an unspeakable crime in some hidden, airless space?

A dramatic conclusion awaited the persistent wanderer – a massive sand dune, and the realization that the labyrinth lay underneath it. In A Psychic Vacuum Nelson aimed for a kind of reversal of his pivotal Coral Reef (2000), a pre-9/11 installation he now sees as prescient. Here the sand was emblematic of a power shift from an economic to an ideological structure and drew on ‘all of the connotations of sand […] the visibility it has at the moment.’ One thought of Iraq, Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), time and oblivion.

Mike Nelson, 'A Psychic Vacuum', 2007, installation view. Courtesy: Creative Time; photograph: Charlie Samuels

In his essay ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ (1952) the legendary New York reporter Joseph Mitchell, who trailed local characters from junk collectors to gypsy con-artists, recounted how he helped an acquaintance break into a building’s long-inaccessible upper floors. When they confront ancient furniture and apocalyptic ephemera, it shades into a horror story. Phillip Lopate has written of the essay that ‘the décor of decay […] has echoes of Poe and Hawthorne. There is a Gothic sensibility as well in the claustrophobic, obsessive accumulation of detail – or the rats that leap out of drawers, “snarling”.’ Nelson didn’t draw directly on the market’s history, but his fascination with downtown Manhattan’s storefront clairvoyants – he notes an unusual amount of such supernatural activity here, suggesting a powerful need for belief outside mainstream religion – recalls Mitchell’s burrowing into Gothamites’ esoteric obsessions. In this he seems to have divined something essential about New York and its ghosts.

Main image: Mike Nelson, 'A Psychic Vacuum', 2007, installation view. Courtesy: Creative Time; photograph: Charlie Samuels

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.