I visited The Asset Strippers by Mike Nelson at Tate Britain.
'Mike Nelson has transformed the heart of Tate Britain into somewhere between a sculpture court and an asset strippers’ warehouse, carefully selecting objects from a past world, the post-war Britain that framed his childhood. Nelson’s project has been informed by the Duveen Galleries’ origins as the first purpose-built sculpture galleries in England, intended to rival the sculpture court at the British Museum and the V&A’s cast room, turning the neo-classical galleries into a warehouse of monuments to a lost era and the vision of society it represented.'
I was contacted by Heloise Laurie who is writing her PhD at Paris University. She asked for my recollections my experience of an earlier exhibition by Mike Nelson entitled 'The Coral Reef', which I had seen back in 2011.
Do you remember how you first heard about this work and what led you to visit it?
I first heard about Mike Nelson and his work back in 1999 when was I studying Fine Art in Portsmouth University, UK between 1997-2000. As part of the course, practicing artists would visit our University each week to talk about themselves and their work. One of those artists was Mike Nelson. During his artists talk he talked about his early career, inspirations and his work- including installations he had been working on. One in particular was Agent Dickson at The Red Star Hotel- an installation at Hales Gallery, London 1995. It was a kind of space shuttle built from stacked boxes; inside of which was a 'cabin' a small cramped room with a hammock, a painting, some crash helmets, tin post and pans, books. The visual impact of this work - in a red-lit room made quite an impression on me. His discussed his work- which blended fact and fiction- along with slides. It really inspired me - so I actively sought out his work. I saw The Coral Reef for the first time at Matt's Gallery, London back in 2000. At that time Matts Gallery was located on Copperfield Road, London. I think it was the first time The Coral Reef was exhibited. I saw a listing for the exhibition in Time Out. It was the first time I had visited Matt's Gallery also.
According to your recollection, how long was your visit of " The Coral Reef " ?
I visited the gallery on my own and I remember vividly the work and I wondered about The Coral Reef for several hours.
Were there many people that day in the artwork? Did you have to wait to enter or did you feel that you could not go at your own pace inside the work?
When I visited The Coral Reef installation at that time, in the afternoon -the installation was empty! I was fully immersed in the work, on my own, allowed to wonder about the rooms freely. At that time Mike Nelson was not as well known as he has now become.
At the entrance of " The Coral Reef ", was it necessary to sign a discharge of responsibility in case of accident or were you advised to be careful or not to touch the elements of the artwork?
At the entrance I signed in, but for the Matts Gallery mailing list. I don't think I signed anything else.
Were there any « guards » in the different rooms of the artwork ?
As far as I remember, there were no guards.
According to your recollection, how would you describe your physical attitude in the artwork?
The installation was a labyrinth made of interconnecting reception rooms- perhaps 20 or so, each with their own light source, each room built with furniture, and remnants of a former occupant. Doors had to be pulled open, some were badly fixed, and some were heavy. It was cold. The Coral Reef was immediately fully immersive.
From your recollection, how would you describe your feelings in " The Coral Reef "? Would you say that your feelings evolved during the visit ?
The rooms were convincingly built and they were fabricated well. I had never visited Matts Gallery before, so I wasn't even sure initially where the Coral Reef began and the gallery ended. I initially thought that the contents of the rooms were the work, and the rooms formed the gallery. From my initial exploration of the first room, to the last- my feelings changed.
Do you have tactile, sonorous, olfactory memories of the artwork?
My memories of the work are quite vivid and detailed. I remember the smell of the installation. Chipboard, paint, as if the whole had been hurriedly built, and very recently. The smell of plaster, and dust. The doors creaked when opened, the floor was uneven, and dusty. The light in some rooms was dim, in some TV screens flickered. I felt uneasy, and unsure about what I was supposed to do, and where I could go.
Do you remember how you could move from one level to another or from one room to another? Would you say that there were strange passages ? ( If yes, can you describe them a little ?)
Most of the rooms were on the same level, interconnected by a door, or corridor. Some doors were heavy and slammed shut, others were thin, some had windows, some solid wood. The corridors were small, cramped. The corridors and rooms were very different to each other, some painted different colours. The interiors were varied I felt as if it were a three dimensional sculptural collage.
Do you particularly remember one or more moments?
I remember the experience. From first entering the gallery wondering room after room to exiting, and buying the accompanying exhibition book Extinction Beckons. It was like visiting a closed but expansive film set. I remember TV screens, altars, sleeping bags, masks, bike helmets- and the overall feeling that the rooms had been very recently occupied. I felt uneasy.
Was it easy to find a place in the work? Did you feel like knowing where to go or did you feel like you were wandering?
I definitely felt I was wandering. I was lost both physically and mentally, metaphorically. As I explored the rooms many questions arose in my mind. Was I allowed to wonder? Why would someone build this? What were these rooms? What did they mean? Is this wall part of the gallery? Is this reception part of the gallery? Could Mike Nelson have really built all these rooms within the gallery space? What is the significance of the items on the room? Is this installation finished? Am I alone? Am I being watched?
I unfortunately did not have the chance to visit this artwork. Would there be anything you could tell me that only visitors could perceive?
As you wander through the rooms you feel like you are going in circles. When you come to the last reception room, which you are sure is the entrance- as it appears the same reception room as you remember, you leave. But instead of the gallery door you expect, it is actually another room, and you find yourself in a kind of storeroom, with scaffold and paint pots. It looks like the remnants of materials used to build The Coral Reef. It is disorientating. It is definitely not the way you came in.
This 'trick' of The Coral Reef is wholly impressive. I was amazed, and horrified. After the realisation of the identcal rooms I re-explored The Coral Reef with more vigour. I realised that you don't actually walk in circles. I re-examined each of the rooms, and the first and last reception rooms. The only indication that the first reception room entered was any different to the last reception room- was the date circled on a wall calendar is different. You might not have noticed this.Without prior knowledge that the first and last rooms are different is important. The moment you realise cannot be expressed in words or pictures, You really have to experience it first hand.
From your recollection, when you left the artwork and you were back in the museum space or in the street, what was your feeling?
I felt I was witness to a trick, but an impressive trick that I enjoyed. The scale of the work was impressive.
Anything else you think it's important to say about this artwork?
The work has many layers, and it is best to see the work without knowing too much about it beforehand.
If you were to explain to a friend what this work is about, what would you tell them?
I would say very little about the work itself- especially if they were going to see it for the first time. The power of the work comes from the uncertainty- and initial immersion, the surprise. Conceptually I thought the rooms were interconnected reception rooms from different countries. I think I would say The Coral Reef is an installation; a blend of fact and fiction, rooted in literature.
Did you like this experience? Did you (or do you have since then) comparable artistic experiences?
I enjoyed the experience. It was transformative for me as an artist. I have never seen work that has come close to the grand trick of seeing this Mike Nelsons Coral Reef at Matts Gallery that first time. I did see The Coral Reef again when it was at Tate Britain in 2011, but the work was quite different- and it was busy with people. It seemed smaller, and my experience was diminished by its location, my familiarity of the concept and the sound of other people in the space. I think I was extremely lucky to see The Coral Reef at Matts Gallery beforehand.
Have you seen any other works of this artist? If yes, what did you think of it?
I saw A Forgotten Kingdom, (ICA, 2001) and Triple Bluff Canyon (Oxford, 2004), and was impressed, but the work made less of an impact.
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