Tag Archives: Mike Nelson

After visiting ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ (see previous post) I notice that Alain de Botton

has come out with some thoughts on this theme, in the characteristically lazy thought patterns of the right wing philosopher. It is all here: the thunderous definition of the norms of his peers as ‘common sense’, as axiomatic truths. Truths that are the unsubstantiated opinions of a particular subset of self-regarding British society. The traditionalist demands for a paternalistic set of beliefs given, like Moses’ tablets, down to the undeserving heathen. One tires of the Oxbridge educated using their highly trained ability to construct arguments with little meaningful research, so confident in their command of process that they ignore the content bit. De Botton turns a feeble search for contemporary spirituality into a tired, and embarrassingly ill-informed attack on ‘Modern Art’

“The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture.”

This is such piffle it is difficult to know where to start, Let us put to one side for the moment one underlying theme here; the impossible idea that art is ‘autonomous’, that contemporary art has no relationship, intentional or inferred, to the world that it reflects and tries to represent; hermeneutics anyone? The vagueness of the pejorative terms ‘modern museums’ and ‘modernist aesthetics’ is equally ludicrous and impossible to define, do we assume Modernism begins when? 1850/ 1863/ 1907?

Has he been to either tate recently, noticed the thematic hang, and seen the numberless hordes of students and schoolchildren being put through their paces?

“And what is the mood of this grid?” as I saw a group of primary school children being asked in front of a Whiteread drawing.They were busy doing Key Stage Three National Curriculum Art and Design I expect:

“They learn to appreciate and value images and artefacts across times and cultures, and to understand the contexts in which they were made. In art, craft and design, pupils reflect critically on their own and other people’s work, judging quality, value and meaning.”

What can de Botton mean by ‘instrumental approach to culture’

“To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?”

Think of the big shows on in London in the last year or so:

Gerhard Richter or Pipilotti Rist. Just walk round Mike Nelson’s installation: ‘The Coral Reef’, Alain and tell me that this is not art with an informing imperative, with points to make about our approaches to art, society and emotional response. Has he been to Grayson’s installation at the British Museum?

What none of this art does though, is didactic, single issue tub thumping, neither does the presentation follow such banalities. Each of the shows above, laid out a clear range of possible ways for the viewer to understand them, from the purely canonical and chronological via contemporary thought, right through to the overtly emotional response. After seeing these shows we had a fair idea what the artist was about, what the curators thought the artist was about and what we, the viewers, thought it was all about (not always the same thing)

“Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution. Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: “Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like”; “Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage”; “Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar”. The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself. Instead of challenging instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.”

Does De Botton genuinely believe that Christian art is consistently “simple at the level of its’ purpose.” Has he ever looked at it?

Parmigianino: 'Madonna and Child with St John The Baptist and St Jerome', 1527. oil on canvas

At the Mannerist art in, say, the National Gallery, at the very curious knowing figure of the young Christ striding away from his mother in Parmigianino’s Madonna and Child with St Jerome? Or, think of the curiosities involved in Leonardo’s iconographically radical composition for ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, including for the first time, the figure of the very young John the Baptist.

Leonardo da Vinci: 'The Virgin of the Rocks', 1491--9/ 1506-8. oil on canvas

Or what about the relationships depicted in Leonardo’s ‘Madonna and Child with St Anne,

Leonardo da Vinci: 'The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist', 1499-1500, charcoal and chalk on paper

complex and oddly frightening, a great deal more than maternal tenderness going on here, and certainly not an image that anyone would recommend for a mother and baby workshop.

Very few of the thousands of other Madonna and Childs that litter Western art contain tenderness by the way, the premonition of pain and sorrow perhaps, the weight of the future, the glory of redemption occasionally; very little about tenderness. Equally, the iconographic intention of most Last Suppers is to reinforce the lessons of the Eucharist and the Semitic qualities of Judas, usually by painting a lot of slightly bored looking young men (one with darker skin and a hooked nose), a large amount of tablecloth and an awful lot of legs.

It might be worth pointing out again the role of context here; context at the time of making and now, and to consider how we appreciate that change in context. Look at for example, the art produced in direct response to the Council of Trent (the Catholic Church’s attempt to visually upstage insurgent Protestantism in the late 16th Century) if you want art that was designed to be consistently simple in message.

Santa di Tito: 'The Vision of St Thomas Aquinas', 1593, oil on canvas

Apart from being dull, it is still incomprehensible, visual language and iconography changes over time: in how it is depicted and how it is understood. De Botton seems to want an art that is utterly static; autocratic icons.

I have taught the History of Western Art for many years, it is rare for the Christian message to be obvious to contemporary viewers. ‘Who was Judas?” I get asked that sort of question quite often and in nominally Christian educational establishments. Yet somehow or another, we live in a world of considerable emotional literacy, think of the nuances of our responses to reality TV, to soaps and to 24 hour news. A world which has lost the basic Christian narrative, has also also lost the multilayered complexity of Christian imagery. My point is that the complexity of art is still apparent to students, although the didactic Christian message does not come across unless it is explained, didacticism it is not necessarily inherent in an image.

To give another example. I have shown Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (the earlier one in the National Gallery) to most age ranges.

Caravaggio: 'The Supper at Emmaus', 1601, oil on canvas

Very few identify the central figure, even fewer know the story. It is by the way, the sudden re-discovery of Christ alive after the crucifixion and disappearance of the body. We see the instant realisation of the risen Christ/ mankind’s redemption in the gestures and faces of the two disciples, possibly Cleopas and Peter. They recognise Christ from his gesture, first seen of course at the Last Supper, or rather seen in paintings of the Last Supper by artists and viewers of art. Art is a language, it uses particular forms in particular groupings that comment simultaneously on the portrayed narrative and the process of portrayal. Ie art has always been about art,

Look at the role of light in this work, the brightly lit fruit still life in the foreground is also a vanitas piece

Caravaggio: 'The Supper at Emmaus' 1601, oil on canvas detail

(see the rot in the grapes and apple) think of what that might be about in such a story, and why the dark shadow underneath as the bowl appears to fall through the picture plane into our laps. Or, notice the cast shadow of the innkeeper that makes a halo over Christ, but why a black halo? All this without mentioning the role of the artist himself. Many, many layers of meaning going on here. Show this image to people under 30 or so, they usually assume that the central figure is female. But armed with a few other images of Caravaggio’s self portraiture and you can guarantee some fascinating insights into the public portrayal of the self, and some very skilful unpicking of the vast range of themes on offer. Even to the extent that one small boy explained that this was a painting about fishing, and therefore, boasting.

“See that man on the right, with his arms stretched out, he’s telling the others that he caught a fish and it was thiiiis big!”

In fact, I find that students find more complexity and relevance in contemporary art than they do in paintings ”about men in dresses waving their arms about”. Tracey Emin’s ‘Bed’, although ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’ usually strikes a closer chord.

Hirst: 'Mother and Child Divided' 1993, multi media

Or, more obviously Hirst’s ‘Mother and Child Divided’ (a new Madonna and Child perhaps), parent and offspring forever divided from each other and themselves

The simplicity that de Botton is after is a chimera; it has never been there, it only exists in propaganda, advertising posters and the lazy minds of paternalistic ‘philosophers’. We live in an ambiguous world and have done since the collapse of feudalism, the rise of capitalism and the art that reflected it. Art is ambiguity; that is why it is interesting.

I think I have to go and lie down in a darkened room now, perhaps I’ll re-read Lucy Lippard’s ‘Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object’ to calm me down; it’s awfully good you know.

Lucy Lippard 'Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object. 1966-72'

Mike Nelson: British Pavilion: ‘I, Impostor’

Is Mike Nelson’s installation a convincing space? Yes, completely. Is it a narrative space, a pictorial space? Quite…almost.

What follows is a series of thoughts about this installation; a continuing discussion about pictorial space. Based around art seen in Venice and then in Rome. I have put them together as they developed. 

 From the outside the British Pavilion at this years Biennale is unchanged. Inside, a winding set of narrow corridors and small rooms getting increasingly shabby as you find the central courtyard.

This installation is based on the Han, those vast decrepit caravanserais you find in the souks in Turkey, Istanbul in particular. More specifically the Bűyűk Valide Han, the 17th century building that Nelson used for an installation during the Istanbul Biennial of 2003; that connection is important to Nelson, but by no means obvious as you wander the rooms. There are clues, darkrooms (traditional wet printing, red lit rooms) photos hanging up to dry and offices with the same photos of Turkish textile factories, and receipts in Turkish. In one particularly poignant juxtaposition there is an old gridded plan for cloth patterns ruled out, next to it, blocking out the window, is a plastic printed bag with Fenerbahce, the Istanbul based football club. As you might expect with Mike Nelson the level of craft and commitment is total, this is not a set it is utterly convincing; there are no real traces of the pre-existing shape/ spaces of the British Pavilion. Several storeys have been built into the original single storey building, even an inaccessible, but visible cellar full of old bottles and yet more junk. Rickety wooden stairs, low ceilinged sleeping spaces with a few sacks thrown down as a mattress.

But, this work doesn’t have the menace of ‘Coral Reef’ for example, ( there is less fear of getting lost, trapped or just stuck.. Our journey in ‘I, Impostor’ is more anthropological than investigative, more iconographic than detective work is needed to situate yourself. The dark rooms and sheets of black and white photos are intriguing, but it all seems self explanatory. Especially if, as I have just done, you have come from the Iraqi Pavilion further down Via Garibaldi. The Iraqi work is a series of small rooms in a collapsing warehouse/ work space and contains art considering power, entropy, decay and the politics of water. Nelson’s fictive decay/ collapse containing traditional trades- like textiles- holds up very well against the real thing you can see here, but it does dull the originality a little.


So does I’ Impostor fit into a wider view? Ignore for the moment the tradition of Romantic/ Expressionist personal response, which seems increasingly absent and just creates awkwardness when encountered these days. What we are looking at across this, and any other contemporary show, are essays on structures; essays in a range of languages, predominantly visual. These essays all contribute to a discourse, a discussion that has been going on since when? Duchamp? Malevitch’s Black Square? Demoiselles d’Avignon?

The discourse this year seems to be changing focus. Many of the works talk about memory, collective memory in particular. This theme was built into art from the start. Think of the Greek myth on the origins of art (Pliny’s story of the Corinthian Maid). That is, the girl using a burnt stick to draw around the shadow of her lover, to remember him before he goes off to war.

Joseph Wright of Derby: 'The Corinthian Maid', 1782. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.


This old story still encapsulates much of the 2011 Biennale; narrative features throughout. How might the possibilities inherent in that tale be teased out to describe what is on show now in Venice?

The role of individual memory: the lover to be left behind, the story of the couple, the drawing in charcoal, ie art that retells a particular situation. Love and, we are at night, presumably sex. Although, unlike the last Biennale, there seemed very little sex this time.

The role of collective memory: a story that has become shared and then archetypal, stories about loss feature heavily. Of water rights in the Iraqi Pavilion for example.

The role of Power, the portrayed lover is off to fight, presumably someone else’s war. The effect of the behaviour of the powerful and how it affects the powerless. Imagery that speaks truth unto power, this was one of the most ‘political’ Biennales I have seen.

The role of light, in creating form in two dimensional imagery.  “Giotto put the light back into art” Vasari said, describing the all important role of light in creating form. Apart from describing the illusion of form on a two dimensional surface, Chiaroscuro (and of course linear perspective) developed Renaissance art that demanded intelligence and perception to make and to understand; to ‘read’ this new space. The Corinthian Maid draws round a shadow, the result is self-evidently artificial, it is after all just a scrubby black line on a wall. But think how that line, that shape, encloses space and creates something with enormous conceptual/ perceptual depth: pictorial space. The title of this years Biennale is ‘Illuminations’, in the light of experience, Rimbaud and Benjamin are supposed to stalk the shows, I would suggest it is something older. Video and film are still here of course, and better than I remember, certainly far more watchable and, unusually for art, plot driven, ie narrative again. The key work is the astonishing, and more powerful every time I see a part of it, Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (see earlier posts), in the Arsenale.

Depth behind the picture plane is conceptual as much as it is mathematical, the way that space is organised by the artist tells us something. Alberti wrote in Della Pittura (1434) that studio textbook for the Early Renaissance: ‘I like to see someone in the ‘historia’ who tells the spectators what is going on…by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them” (page 78 in the Penguin edition). As Robert Hughes points out in his recent (not very good, Hibbert is still much better) book on Rome, Alberti’s perspective is a tool of empathy. In Nelson we might walk around the illusory space with our legs rather than our eyes, but it is still an empathetic process.

To be continued

Mike Nelson defines himself as a sculptor, “I make sculpture, but sculpture that you walk inside”.

After many galleries, many museums and watching so many people in so many galleries, some thoughts are starting to repeat themselves. Classical statuary, since Praxiteles if not before, was designed to be seen in the round, ie no framing picture plane to establish the illusion.

This begs the question: why does the Renaissance visual conception still dominate our way of seeing? I.e. the picture plane as a window and the conceptual space that develops autonomy. “First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen” (Alberti: Della Pittura”, page 54 Penguin Edition). The stimuli from Roman sculpture and ruin was all the visual information Alberti, Brunelleschi et al had to go on, why then construct a perceptual world view that is so firmly planimetric?

Why try to recreate Apelles when all you have to go on is text, the desperately dull Pliny for example.

Certainly Brunelleschi’s fiddling about with mirrors and images in the doorway of Santa Maria della Fiore in Florence made a two dimensional process in which forms could appear to be fully modeled in three dimensions. Unlike Praxiteles’ Doryphorus though, you can’t walk around Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’ (the first Renaissance ‘hole in the wall’ painting on the nave of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

Those early Renaissance artists came from craft studios that could turn out work in any media you wanted. If it was permanence the Lenzi’s wanted when they commissioned Masaccio, a three dimensional marble object would have had greater physical impact and lasted longer than a fresco. Was there in 15th century Florence, such a significant cultural hierarchy that prioritized the two dimensional? No, not really. So, why the power of illusory space? Why not the real thing?

The planimetric view is now the DNA of our vision, the camera, the TV the film the computer screen, the phone screen all depend on “a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject … is to be seen”

You might say that theatre in the round is the exception rather than the rule, but the proscenium arch, like the Albertian window is always with us. Had it not been so, no doubt the digital miracle workers of our age Jonathan Ive for example, the Lumière Brothers and Daguerre before him, would have been able to work out how to create images out of three dimensional light that we could walk around, as Praxiteles had conceived. 

What caused the change in perceptual world view that gave us Brunelleschi/ Alberti/ Masaccio and onward? I can only put it down to the increasing ubiquity of the book, that flat surface which can present the reader with a limitless, autonomous conceptual space. Which begs the next question; will the E Reader and the hyperlink presage a new change? If artists are supposed to be gifted with foresight, this years Biennale thought not.

The introductory book to Mike Nelson’s Installation presents different forms of space: the political spaces of the ‘Free Pirates’ in Madagascar, notiosn of anarchic (in the proper sense of the word) temporary autonomous zones free from hierarchical state interference. Fantasies much loved by graphic novelists and cyberpunks, Nelson has referenced Jules Verne and this sort of thing before.

In the book, Dan Cameron (‘Memories of Trespassing’) points out that Venice is an equally artificial space. What was once the meeting of East and West, a liminal space at the edge of empires is now an artificial reconstruction of the past. An artificiality based on gondoliers, repeated samples of Vivaldi, imported food from southern Italy like pasta and pizza and imported goods from the Far East like fake Prada and Raybans.

The constructed space that is now Venice, sells fake luxury as hard as it can to the vast queues that shuffle from San Marco to the Rialto to Accademia and back to San Marco, hot tired and presumably satiated. Does this Venice have anything to do with the Biennale? Middle aged men in black linen muttering about entropy and fierce women with short black hair and red heels discussing the positioning of practice; they wouldn’t be seen dead in the queue to buy a David genitalia apron in the market; what news on the Rialto indeed.

Dan Cameron says that “Whilst not actually hostile, Mike Nelson’s spaces do emanate an essential unfamiliarity” and I think that was the essential problem with this show, it was not that unfamiliar and it wasn’t that difficult to work out the layout, it was relatively predictable. The lighting was very even, it didn’t smell of anything and every room had young English people acting as curators/ guards looking at their I Pads and happy to talk to you about the show and which art school they are studying at.

The thrill had gone. Was the show clearly better in it’s first incarnation in the Han itself in Istanbul, when the photos referred to the buildings you would have walked past to get there? Nelson says that he not only re-constructed the Istanbul piece but he also reconstructed the Han that surrounded that first work; putting a Biennial inside a Bienalle he calls it. A fascinating idea, does it quite work, is it convincing?

“Venice occupies a semi-haunted space where an aggressive commercial empire once flourished”. This could also describe the reconstructed Han that Nelson presents. As Cameron points out, it is now Istanbul that is commercially prosperous whereas Venice is a sinking Disneyland. The relationship between Istanbul/ Constantinople and Venice is still very strong, the looted treasures of the 4th Crusade in the 13th Century (the largely Venetian inspired sacking of Constantinople) are still on show throughout the city; the horses of San Marco for example. But this seems slightly beside the point when walking the fictive corridors of ‘I, Impostor’.

To end this discussion, does all this musing on art in Rome have anything to do with Nelson and, going further back in these posts, does it have anything to do with Rubens and Het Steen? Can I make the connections? Well do you know, I think I can.

Starting with Nelson, what makes him interesting and what makes him stand out for the new generation of artists? It is the combination of narrative, conceptual clarity and high craft; integrity and sophisticated understanding of the possibilities of ‘pictorial space’.

He is very clear, rightly so, that he is not building a stage set, a set for something to happen in front of. This is art space, art space that you walk into. Therefore it can contain all the conceptual implications you might wish to bring. We ‘read’ it in the same way we ‘read’  a painting, we walk round the spaces in the same way our eyes walk round the space behind the open window of a painting.

The difference is that the crucial relationship to the picture plane of all illusory objects/ gestural marks/ colour fields etc in a painting is tangible, measurable almost. Whereas in a Nelson, that picture plane is conceptual, embodied in our consistent recourse to narrative, i.e. the relationship of one form to another through time/ space and causal relationship. One is actual, the other conceptual; in essence (in artworld) the same.

And Het Steen? Het Steen is all about the house, an illusory object in pictorial space in conceptual space, the house of the successful artist. The lights are on, we have walked out of the house to admire it, or we are perhaps approaching it for the first time. The House is a series of spaces we will encounter that have a series of potential narratives, each vital to the artist. Our conceptual route to them and through them is equally vital to our understanding of the work, hence the emphasis on paths and journeys in the painted landscape.