Mike Nelson in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
MN: Untitled No. 22 (High Plains Drifter), which is the first piece I was meant to make when I left my MA at Chelsea in ‘93, which I never made because the whole show was pulled a week before it was meant to open. It was in a space in Ladbroke Grove. Strangely, it was with Martin Creed, Jaki Irvine, John Isaacs and me. The whole plan was there, and I was gonna make this piece, a sort of homage to [Niele] Toroni, but instead of formal brushstrokes repeated, it was a gesture repeated, based on a low-fiction reference point, High Plains Drifter, where they get all the townsfolk to paint the whole town into a living hell, red. In terms of the piece, in terms of parody, it was laced in with reference to George Bush’s bombing of Afghanistan, or the Second Gulf War had happened, or the more recent bombings of Iraq, that whole idea of the avenging hero revisiting the father’s territory, so then a parody of a politician’s life. So there’s a sort of layering running through that came out of this Borges-like statement in this preface he wrote.
NH: The book, was that less important to you than the actual physical piece you built?
MN: Well, it’s a different thing. It’s a piece of sorts, I suppose. It was always a piece conceived to accompany an exhibition. The budget to do a catalogue with the ICA wasn’t very large, so it was a matter of thinking about what I could actually do that would be of interest in itself. To cover the work that I’d made since the last book I’d made in 2000, which would do justice to big pieces like The Coral Reed or the Venice piece The Deliverance and the Patience,—there was no way really that you could have done that on that sort of budget. So what I thought would be more interesting would be to make something as an intermediary text-based work, that would both inform the imagery in the work that people have experienced before, which were illustrated in the Extinction Beckons book, and illustrate the work which I had made subsequently and would make in the future. That came out with the book Magazine, which is purely imagery, a big thick one. In terms of the structure of that book, the central pages are like A Forgotten Kingdom, our precursor to this book, in that it gives you no idea of which piece is which. Obviously, with this type of work, there is the potential for the annexation in memory of real experience, into—
NH: You mean triggering memories that are associative?
MN: Yeah, but also in terms of when you come to actually recollect a piece, you’re not completely aware of what you’ve seen. Maybe you’ve visited a bar in the States somewhere, or a bar in South London, or a pool hall, or been to a mini cabs late one night, slightly drunk, you now remember that as being part of an exhibition that you’ve seen, you’ve annexed real space into the work. There was the potential for doing that in there, but to be quite honest there were so many images and so many works, just to fit into this book. I had to still edit it down to being quite slim to what it could have been. Originally, it was going to be five-hundred pages and it’s now three-hundred-and-thirty. But, in a sense, this is to emulate how this work might exist in memory.
NH: Do you think about the difference between the physical and the book-form? This is images of your own work, which obviously will have associative triggers of people’s recollection of seeing your work, which in turn might remind them of what your work actually reminds them of in the first place. I assume you believe that you can do that a lot more effectively by physically building the space than you can do in a book?
MN: Yeah, yeah, a book is a book, which is something different. This book was commissioned by Bookworks, which does artists’ books. It’s not a catalogue. I hope that somebody will make a decent catalogue one day, and they—, I don’t have to do anything, they just take the information and they chronologically organise the work, and give each work its autonomy, and lead you through as clearly as they can with a work like this. But for me this is something which is, in a way, is rather like the structure of the Turner Prize piece, in that that piece was a warehouse which stored every item that went to construct The Coral Reef in 2000, so in a sense it was a piece which was built to emulate the piece which it was storing. The structure it was based on was that alchemy symbol of the ouroboros serpent. The big corridor that swept round the outside and provided the walls to the warehouse was like the serpent that wraps itself around. It’s a joke on the idea of rebirth, and alchemy, this piece that’s storing itself. The whole thing was slightly tongue-in-cheek, as was the title, the ridiculous title I gave it.
NH: Why make it tongue-in-cheek?
MN: Well, it’s the Turner Prize. How else can you make a new work without making reference to that? The Coral Reef was the exhibition that I was nominated for the Turner Prize on, but it was outside of the remit for that year, so it was never mentioned. It seemed kind-of funny to build a warehouse to store it in. Especially because half the journalists just thought that they’d given me a bit of warehouse, they didn’t realise the whole thing was fabricated.
NH: Did anyone actually believe that when they wrote—?
MN: Yeah, I read reviews where they said they’d given me a bit of warehouse. But to be quite honest I think there were only one or two reviews I read that actually realised it was The Coral Reef that was stored in there. Somebody from The Observer complained that the piece had been ‘ruined by the addition of an Islamic calendar with the word ‘Ramadan’ on.’ After September 11th for some reason they thought this was distasteful. Of course, this calendar had to exist in this piece because this calendar was in The Coral Reef, which, if she’d read the essay, was there to be told. In a way the structure is mythologising a piece, and at the same time demythologising by showing its deconstructed base parts,—sheets at the back, painted plastic board, and all the rather sad, sorry props that went into the construction of it. But at the same time it’s building a narrative of its own. Conceptually, it was quite neat, but again it was rather ambitious of me to imagine that the journalism around the Turner Prize would actually be interested in that, because of course they’re not—. It was naive of me, in a way.
NH: Just a hundred words—
MN: Exactly,—about all the pieces. At the same time, it is slightly demoralising when they say all I’ve made is ‘a dusty corridor,’ and that’s all. I do think that Martin was either very fortuitous in his choice of work,—but also I think that the nature of his practice was fortuitous in terms of the Turner Prize,—or he was incredibly canny about the whole thing. I think it was probably a combination of all three. To make a work that is only the sum of its title is perfect.
NH: It was also perfect because—
MN: It got lots of backs up. It got a lot of press.
NH: The people who pretend to get annoyed about the Turner Prize obviously don’t really give a shit about art, they don’t really get annoyed, they just pretend to get annoyed because they have to write something about it that day. So it was perfect because it got them annoyed, and then it gives the Turner Prize the illusion that it’s somehow still supporting some kind of fictional avant-garde – it’s an invented avant-garde making some ridiculous shocks that aren’t really shocking.
MN: And even though it is just the lights going on and off, and there are people that wouldn’t understand the idiosyncrasies in terms of art-historical precedents, and people up in arms about it,—they still wanna come and see it! Which is funny! He did it in Camden Art Centre earlier that year, but with a text piece and a sound piece all in the same gallery, and I must admit I actually preferred it much more then, as a work, as an artist looking at somebody’s work. That was an excellent show actually, that he did in Camden. It was much more generous and much more enjoyable. There was a text on the wall that,—obviously when you’re trying to read it the lights are going off every—, then there was a sound piece that came on,—it was a really nice show. I thought that was a better show. But in terms of eyeing up a prize—.
NH: When did you first start making work in this recognisable form, installations that have this narrative content?
MN: Around ‘94. Just after my MA, yeah. I did a few shows in ‘94, three shows in a couple of months, one in Leeds, one in Liverpool, and one in Glasgow, and the show I did in Glasgow was quite different from the other two. The one in Glasgow was in Transmission gallery. Simon Starling and Martin Boyce, who were on the board then, invited me up to do this one week project, which was going to be a show but also a performative event at the same time. I’ve never been particularly keen on performing myself, so I decided to make the whole show a performative event that was also a sculptural show at the same time, and what I did was turn the gallery into a charity shop. Fortuitously, the word ‘Transmission’ and ‘Charity Shop’ are the same length, and on the corner – it’s on the corner of Trongate and Kings Street in Glasgow – I had a banner made up with the same typeface, so it became ‘Transmission Charity Shop.’ I put an advert in the local Evening Herald under the charity section advertising a ‘charity shop’, in inverted commas, so there was a different kind of clientele encouraged into the space. Inside the space, I didn’t have junk or second-hand clothes like charity shops have here, but I bought a tent from a company called Monoflex that provided tents for Oxfam, at the time they were sending to Rwanda and Kurdistan, and constructed it. You had to weigh it down at the edges with earth or whatever, and I took rubble from the building-site next-door. Big tent, it sleeps sixteen. And I took the gallery office from the back-room and brought it down to the main space. So, in a sense, the word ‘Charity Shop’ became both the title for a sculpture show – if the sculpture’s thought to be the tent – and the title for a shop. Inside the tent was nothing. Hypothetically you could come in, cut out the middle-man in terms of buying junk, go straight to the tent, buy the tent, buy this art. Of course you’d pay more than Oxfam, because I’d be taking a cut on top, so morally it’s quite dubious. [Laughs] And then hypothetically send it to a disaster situation of your choice. No, nobody bought it, unfortunately! [Laughs] My profile was a little low. But there was also a stack of books from Oxfam on plastic sheeting, which could be bought as well. Somebody did buy one of those.
NH: So there was a charity shop element, as well, some commerce.
MN: Oh, yeah, you could buy the tent and you could buy the book.
NH: No one was going to buy the tent, right? How much was it?
MN: Well, it just depends on your, I can’t remember what the price was now, I think I paid a hundred quid for it, so I probably put another hundred on top.
NH: So it wasn’t unbelievably expensive.
MN: No, no, somebody could buy it. I wasn’t going to make it completely outside of—. If you get a steady flow of customers, you’re making a markup of a hundred quid on each one, and be helping the sick and needy in the world,—who could complain? [Laughs] But it was very amoral,—the whole thing. I just signed each book and charged a couple of quid on the top of each one. It was just an Oxfam catalogue, but it was a seductive book,—black and white, lots of pictures of tents, plastic, how to fold things over. It was basically a catalogue to the object, if the tent was to be thought of as the object. It was also a functioning manual as to how to use it. The whole thing was very ambiguous. At the same time, I did these other two shows. I suppose the one in Liverpool is probably the most easily explainable. It was the first time I used the narrative structure, where I made something I called a hybrid script, where I’d take a reference to a real political situation, a reference to the space where the piece was built, and a reference to a fictional other, and from that I’d make this script. At the time, it was built in the top floor of a warehouse, overlooking the Mersey in Liverpool, at the time of the Cuban-Haitian ‘rafter’ refugee crisis, and I titled the piece Taylor after Charlton Heston’s character in Planet of the Apes. The piece was a raft, built out of old oil-drums. These shows had to be built on nothing. There’s no money at all, so you’re trying to pick up a few old oil-drums for a couple of quid each, and an old tent from a car-boot sale, and these old pallet-tops. The piece was built around this column in the space. I suppose the sense was you could potentially kind-of access the script from the object, but to all intents and purposes your script—, it allowed a certain space to the imagination of the viewer to make a hybrid of my script with their own. In terms of the charity shop piece, that demanded of you to read it in a very linear trajectory, and you’d have to want to do that. Conceptually, it was a clever piece, though visually it wasn’t particularly seductive to the viewer. Again, it’s all around that argument of when a work is read,—whether it’s read at the point of time that you experience it, or whether it’s potentially read afterwards, or whether the ‘primary’ reading is the most important reading of the work, or whether its position in the subconscious is of any importance. I suppose I decided this was more interesting, at this point in time, than the desire for people to read work in a very strict linear fashion.
NH: So you are implicitly saying that people don’t just make a single reading at the time they consume it, but that people’s memories do—
MN: If it’s any good, yeah. But also things are read third-hand, both through memory, but also through re-reading, or perhaps through reading other works, texts, films, essays, etc. In terms of the art world, the idiosyncrasies of a work often aren’t understood until later on. You might have no understanding of the context at the time, at a certain stage of your life, a certain reference to a film, or a sensation from a book you might not know, but then you might experience that or acknowledge that at another point in your life, and you might not even be aware that then you have a better understanding of this work, that it’s actually informed your understanding of that experience you’ve experienced later in life. It does have an effect, I like to think. I’d be a fool not to believe any of this, in terms of what I do, because it’s a lot of effort to build these things, then to destroy them. When I was in college, if anybody ever mentioned the word ‘intuition’ you’d have been laughed out of the college.
NH: Is that both in Chelsea and Reading?
MN: More Reading, actually, it was more heavy on the theory there around that sort of time. I suppose in a sense my later work is a reinvestment of sorts in that territory of intuition. Especially in terms of working in narrative or fiction, where obviously there’s characters involved, I think if you can set out a sort of territory in which you’re trying to work, and a goal you’re trying to achieve, you’ve got a clear idea of the ambitions for that sort of work, then to allow some sort of slack for the intuitive, in terms of how to manifest that work, is a good thing, I’ve found. I suppose that’s a re-finding of confidence, to try—
NH: The problem with the theory is that it depends on pretty fundamental views about human nature, and whether it exists, and if it does what it is.
MN: I did that piece in ‘95, Agent Dixon at the Red Star Hotel at the Hales Gallery. They had the kitchen upstairs, and the chef saw all the shows come and go, and he was obviously a bit bemused as to what it was all about. He came down, and I’d made this piece, and he said it was the only piece he’d ever liked! He said it was because ‘it was human,’ which I thought was really nice. It’s one of the contrary elements between the text of Solaris and Tarkovsky’s film, and the translation makes it more complicated; in one it says ‘Man’ on the door, and in the other it says ‘Human.’ It’s always slightly confused me, as to whether it’s actually relevant, or if it’s just a slip of the translator’s, to switch it from the book. The book is absolutely stunning. It’s by Lem, who I’m a great fan of. The film is brilliant, as well. I wasn’t such a fan of Tarkovsky, actually. Well, I was, because two of my favourite texts are books that were made into films by Tarkovsky. He always rather subjectivised the texts. These were lo-fi, science-fiction, B-movie sort-of novels, but with social and political allegory overlaid, which I liked, especially at the time. I always liked that sort of structure, and it’s one that informed a lot of work, especially through the Nineties. So then with Tarkovsky, the reference constantly to his own life and his own experience used to irritate me slightly. But now I’m much more open to it.
NH: So, the raft piece was the first– it was an object, yeah, but with the idea of the script that went with it?
MN: Yeah. I’d say the mental process, even though it was relatively basic, it’s similar to the one that might have been applied to The Coral Reef, whereas instead of being an object, it’s now an environment. There’s also a connection between the charity shop piece and The Coral Reef, although rather than the viewer coming with their own history with which to read the work, you’re physically forcing them to construct the work, in terms of the passage they take, and the way they experience something within the big labyrinthine-type pieces, so it’s a doubling of the complexity of that sort of structure.
NH: What were you doing before, in contrast, what was your MA show?
MN: My MA show was a staging of the reconstruction of the southern palace of Babylon. There’s pictures in the Extinctions Beckon book. That has a relationship to the floorplans of the large labyrinthine pieces, in a sense. It’s a section of the Southern Palace, to scale and on compass readings of the actual Southern Palace in modern-day Iraq. I was interested in the regime that was in power at that time, which is no longer, and their manipulation of cultural heritage. Saddam Hussein had set up a policy to rebuild the Southern Palace, and there was some rebuilding, and it had breeze-blocks. I always thought it was kind-of funny, in a sick sort of way. Most of that stuff had been rebuilt because it’d all been pinched and rebuilt in Berlin.
NH: Obviously it has political connotations because of what it is, but did you think of it as a political piece?
MN: Yeah, I think so. Not in a banner-waving way, but the slightly amoral historical complexities of history and the, let’s face it, the subsequent realisation that there is no clear truth to any given situation. The idea of showing a staging of the reconstruction of the South Palace of Babylon, in a Western showing space, in a potentially anthropological manner, when Western archaeologists are up in arms and disgusted by the insensitivity that he’s using in its reconstruction, when their very history is part of the reason why most of it is having to be reconstructed, seemed quite humorous to me. If you take that on, into parallel social or political situations, in terms of Iraq or any other given cultural regime, then it has ramifications within that. Now if you look at the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ business it even has pertinence on that, I think.
NH: Has your work become less political over time, in the sense that you’re referring to?
MN: I think these pieces were more dogmatic. I didn’t ever set out to be political, in the sense of I’ve got some sort of—
NH: Where you’re making a moral judgement of the world. It’s more that you’re physically highlighting—, through physical means highlighting the fluid nature of the relationship between power and truth.
MN: Yeah,—the contradictions,—the fluid nature of history and meaning. That’s what I’ve always intended to do.
NH: Except with things like the ICA, it’s not about those big narratives of politics and stuff,—isn’t it a more poetic, individual exploration of how an individual relates to the world?
MN: I think it always has been, actually. I’ve always had an obsession with the Middle-East,—since quite early. On my BA I had quite an obsession,—I was like a sort-of tin-pot exoticist.
NH: Have you been there?
MN: Yeah, quite a bit. And that interest is very subjective. It just so happens now that that subjective interest is very pertinent in terms of history, which was really of very little interest to most other people at the time when I was dealing with, other than to be beaten over the head with The Third Text in the late Eighties, and told ‘You can’t do that, you white imperialist.’ So, you’re right in saying these works are the interface between an individual and his conception of the world. At times that’s pertinent politically, and at other times it might just be poetic, and other times it might just fail, but one hopes that these specific works can relate more successfully in different territories.
NH: Were you influenced a lot by Kabakov?
MN: Yeah, I would say Kabakov when I was on my MA, even though I think the structure of Kabakov’s work is quite different. Obviously stuff like the building of rooms is very influential upon me.
NH: Who were you influenced by? Were there lots of people who directly influenced your work, or indirectly?
MN: I’d say Kabakov, Kienholz, for both what to do and what not to do, Paul Thek, particularly, and earlier Fischli & Weiss work, the more sculptural work and the sort of tricks they play.
NH: When you started out there weren’t many people who made installations in that way, were there?
MN: No. There still aren’t that many, to be quite honest. Robert Wilson, I suppose Paul Thek used to. A lot of them used to! But at the moment now—? But it’s quite a difficult thing to do, in terms of actually being able to try and achieve that, with the art world and the way it functions now. In America I think it must be very difficult, because it’s so market driven. Without a means to an end, nobody’s going to fund it really.
NH: How do you store your work? What’s happened to The Coral Reef now? Are all the main pieces stored somewhere?
MH: All the main pieces are stored, yeah. There’s a few reasons why I store it. One: somebody might want to buy it one day, you never know! [Laughs] I could do with the money. Secondly: I’ve got a plan to build a big project somewhere, which will be a permanent project, which is a studio that’s aware of its own studio-ness. It would be a combination of a rebuilding of a piece I never built in ‘93, with a warehouse that stores itself, along with a piece I made in ‘98 which is a studio apparatus for Camden Art Centre, an introductory structure, which mimics a wordplay game called ‘Future Linguistics’ that Lem writes about in one book where he predicts the future of the world by morphing and producing new words. I distorted this to something called ‘Future Objectics.’ So ‘future linguistics’ is using language to predict the future of the world, but on a more subjective level using the rhetoric of my past work, it’s reference and formal features, and rebuilding it and meshing it with older work to predict its own future of its own making. I did something like this in Camden in ‘98, when the structure did work. Of course, the whole thing’s a bit of a joke in a sense, because I’m in control. But it actually did work, strangely enough! Sometimes it’s nice to have some help with making your future. It's a studio apparatus, so I keep it for that. A load of it’s in a basement in the East End. A load of it’s up in the Henry Moore, which I’ve got to move in the next two weeks, some is in a barn in Yorkshire, some stuck in a room somewhere in Glasgow. It’s a lot of stuff. Generally I don’t keep the stuff that can be bought new again, just the old stuff. One piece can take two seven-and-a-half lorry-loads, which is a lot of stuff!
NH: What’s the plan for the Oxford one?
MN: I’ve got six weeks to build in there, I’m just trying to find a studio to pre-build some sections of it.
NH: Do you know already what it’s going to be?
MN: I have some idea, yeah. A year-and-a-half ago I had a very clear idea of what I was going to build, which potentially may play some part still, but I’m not completely sure that it will. It’s always difficult, when you’re making a new show, you have to talk about it in terms of what’s going to be printed, you have to write down what you’re going to make. I think that can end up being a dull thing to read. I won’t tell you exactly what I’m going to do, because that could change. In a way, what I had problems with, with this one, was deciding on what to do. I had a lot of different ideas, and one made a lot of sense early on, which was an idea to do a cinema, but then you have this time to think as to whether you want to do that, and how it’s actually going to work, and whether it’s interesting enough, and whether it’s an interesting enough idea to actually commit so much time and effort into actually doing it. In the end I deem to be led to this territory, which I think is quite interesting. The last three shows I’ve done have all been in quite unusual spaces. In Sydney, I rebuilt a reptile house in the style of the actual building I occupied. They all looked like found spaces, but I’d built them to resemble things that could be found. In San Francisco, I rebuilt this 1954 GMC bus. It was outside, just parked on the street, but the whole thing was ripped out and rebuilt, a whole fictional interior built, with a staircase and a top floor. Then the Istanbul piece was built inside this caravanserai. So to come back to the art gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, for me it was quite difficult deciding on what’s interesting to try and articulate within the context of this space. In the end, I’ve started to pursue a certain sort of argument around—, it’s becoming almost a narrative,—but more like a narrative of a fictionalised critical essay, almost like an essay that Smithson would write, but one that is referential to that genre of work. I’m interested in a relationship between land-art, magic and alchemy, and geometry, but through my own territory.
NH: What’s your relationship to land-art, just in terms of what you actually like? Do you like land-art and what it stood for?
MN: I was never a huge fan. It’s a funny thing because I’m a great fan of Smithson in terms of his interests, but in terms of what he actually made, I’m reasonably interested, but I don’t think that would work without his writings, and would never be as important in terms of artists now without his writings. I wouldn’t have said he was top of my list in terms of works, but in terms of—
NH: For you here it’s what it represents and what it’s symbolic of.
MN: Yeah. And if you think back to the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, to me it was a space that was very strong in terms of showing that generation of artists in more experiential, quasi-museum-type settings. So it seems like a perfect territory.
NH: A lot of the time, in narrative terms, your works are referential to the space they’re built in. That seems to me to suggest that you’re not that interested in the option to create narrative environments that work on the same level as a fictional book, where it doesn’t matter what space you’re in, you’re creating the environment where these different stories might emerge as you go through the piece. But the fact that you’re referential about the space, that’s something that isn’t within the normal scope of writing fiction.
MN: Yeah, you don’t have to go to a certain building or space to read a certain book.
NH: Are you interested in creating a fictional environment which has nothing to do with the place it’s in, and telling stories that have nothing to do with the structures that surround art, and in fact telling stories that have nothing to with art at all? Your ICA one, I think people – certainly some – walked through that without thinking about the ICA, and just picked up on the different elements that are within that.
MN: Again, it comes back to that idea of level of reading. When I talk about what I’ve done, I talk about it in a very straightforward way, I think, as to where I was coming from to make these works. This often negates the phenomenological experience of actually passing through certain spaces. But these are things that aren’t so interesting to talk about. Well, they are, but they’re more interesting to experience than they are to talk about. Kabakov – obviously a huge figure – always thought this was a difference, and his constructed spaces were constructed to tell a narrative very clearly. There’s a punchline. And the actual construction of the space often isn’t that important, in terms of its atmospherics, as long as it triggers a few associations, that’s okay, whereas a lot of mine are quite reliant on a sense of space and the feeling within it.
NH: There’s no punchline?
MN: Yeah, they don’t lead you to a conclusion, or at least they don’t lead you to one pervading conclusion. It’s a bit like Lovecraft and his writing on the supernatural in literature, and the lack of importance of a clear dominating narrative, but instead replacing it with a semblance of atmospherics, vignettes that build up something emotive. I think there's certainly a relevance of that to what I do.
NH: What’s the point of creating them in a gallery? [Laughs]
MN: Well obviously that argument’s a bit dead, isn’t it? [Laughs] Carl Andre, or Duchamp before, have done away with that! That was incredibly heavily imbued with meaning. That was a phenomenological experience, to actually walk from one reception to another, to another, to another, to find a doubled one, to find yourself lost. So it doesn’t even warrant that question in the first place, in a sense. I know how you’re asking the question because of they way you’re saying it, but it’s a bit of a dumb question these days, isn’t it?
NH: I think it’s good to ask those, even if they’re silly questions.
MN: Well, I suppose we’re not talking in the art media, are we? We’re talking for a wider crowd. I’d say it’s rather like in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, when they’re done away with mechanical androids and have replaced them with biological androids, and the only way you can tell the difference between them and a human being is a test called an ‘empathy test,’ and there’s that sense of twisted empathy, which can be very heightened, that’s obviously being manipulated when you’re in a space that’s been replicated, when your eyes tell you one thing and your mind tells you another, which I think is quite interesting.
NH: It heightens the experience because it’s in a gallery. It’s like a film made physical.
MN: Even the other pieces where they’re in existing spaces. I’d say the Sydney one was the most complicated. This really brought that whole thing home. I took on this building, which was a low-level, one-story building – sixty by thirty foot – in the Kings Cross area. It’s full of junkies, prostitutes and backpackers. It was an old travel-agent, with pseudo-hippy aboriginal drawings on the floor and hippy murals on the walls and then rag-rolled everywhere else, disgusting, red-yellow blue – ah, a horrible place! But then we rebuilt it with the same aesthetic, into a reptile house, completely, centimetres-thick glass, everything. I think the audience in Australia found it really difficult. What on earth was it? They couldn’t understand why they’d been brought to this.
NH: Does that ever bother you? The kind of art you make is basically strange for a lot of people, I think, unless you’re versed in contemporary art.
MN: Well, on the whole, in the past, the general public have been quite generous to me, or they’ve felt that I’ve been quite generous to them. The general public has actually enjoyed my work, more so than—
NH: It’s more approachable than a jug in a museum, you mean?
MN: Yeah, to some extent. They can empathise with it, it’s human, they can understand.
NH: Very familiar in a sense, because it’s like a condensed film set.
MN: Yeah. And also a lot of the time they can applaud, especially within a gallery, the craft within it. I think in Sydney, because you couldn’t tell that it’d been built, one reviewer said it was the most indulgent piece in the whole biennial. He thought I’d just found it, and opened it up and put a few things in there, a sort-of backhanded compliment in a way. [Laughs] The fact that it was really on the street, and it was the whole building annexed into the work, I think it was quite a leap of faith for a lot of people to make.
NH: So it doesn’t bother you, in the sense that actually quite a lot of the time the public, once they make the initial understanding that this is a piece of art, do understand it, and can engage with it in some useful and meaningful way?
MN: On the whole, unless they’re very antagonistic, it’s relatively interesting for them. With the successful labyrinthine pieces I’ve made, or at least the ones I think are better, the experience is akin to the pact you make with a writer when you read their book, and you’re sitting on your sofa reading Conrad, and you’re not really heading for the heart of darkness, and yet you agree at some point to engage with that myth. You enter into this piece in a gallery, you go into this falsified space, and then at some point you either do or don’t agree to play along. I think in terms of the reading of installation or sculpture, because it is quite sculptural in terms of the objects, and the way they’re positioned, they’re not just dirty scrappy rooms that are badly thrown together, to me it’s very considered, formally as well, in terms of colour and light. It’s a very involved business to decide on the order of tens of thousands of objects, every piece of wood, every piece of plaster-board, every door-stop, light-switch, socket. You know that it’s false, but you engage. In terms of the sculptural object, it allows—, it actually stops an immediate reading of the work. It almost slows down the whole reading, just through default, you become lost within it, and you’re constantly being staggered as you move through it. It makes the audience so much more captive. Part of this is the labyrinthine structure that makes you captive, whereas you could just dismiss an object.
NH: We said the difference with Kabakov is that Kabakov makes things that have a more clear narrative direction, and yours are much more open. How open are they, and how open are they intended to be, in terms of what you think someone would feel walking through it.
MN: I like to think, and as we were talking earlier about the intuitive, and the fact you have a certain idea that you’re trying to achieve, you set off with, it’s not like a clear sort of ‘Oh, I understand!’ It’s a sensation of it, a sensation of what somebody’s trying to achieve. So, it’s important that somebody achieves some element of this, but obviously sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
NH: Would you describe it as poetry through physical means, or embodied?
MN: I’d like to think it’s poetic, but I’d never lay a claim to it.
NH: You operate much more like a poet than a novelist, because there’s no clear narrative, it’s fragmentary, it’s more about sensation and feel. I’m not trying to get you to say ‘I am a poet’! But—? Have you been asked that a lot?
MN: I welcome the—. No I’ve not been asked that. It’s nice to think that your work is poetic, but it’s certainly not a title you’d ever want to give to it yourself, just because of the very nature of the—, y’know! [Laughs] The obvious reason. But it is something that I would respect in a person’s work. Perhaps the very fact that you don’t set out to be poetic is a reason why you might be. People wouldn’t readily describe Tarkovsky as poetic, but it is poetic.