Mike Nelson by Chris Chang

Matter, mythology, and metaphysical pelts.

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Gang of Seven, 2013, installation view at 303 Gallery, New York (2015). Photo by John Berens. All images courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York; Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; Matt’s Gallery, London; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin.

Visitors to Mike Nelson’s installation at 303 Gallery, on view earlier this year, had a chance to meet the Gang of Seven, an array of sculptural assemblages made out of debris culled from the Pacific Northwest coastline. To understand the Gang—and to further enhance their aesthetic power—one needs to delve into the mythologies that Nelson has been building over the years. Luckily, he was more than happy to discuss his alternate universe, but reader take warning: it is a strange place indeed.

Chris Chang I believe there are at least two major “gangs” at play throughout your work. The first, the Amnesiacs, have been loosely described as a phantom bike gang. The second, the Gang of Seven, are nomadic beachcombers who have spiritual, if not genetic, ties to the Group of Seven—that is, the Canadian artists’ collective [active 1920–33] who made a persuasive case for a specifically Canadian brand of landscape painting. I think the answer to my question is “no,” but I will ask it anyway, in the hope that you will elaborate: Are the two gangs discrete entities?

Mike Nelson There is only one organized gang of sorts here—the Amnesiacs—Gang of Sevenis a work built with them. There is also a body of work called Amnesiac Shrine that alludes to flashbacks more art historically informed. Gang of Seven relates to an earlier incarnation of the Amnesiacs more directly referential to the ideas within Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and tied to the death of Erlend Williamson [Nelson’s longtime friend and collaborator, who fell to his death in 1996 while climbing in the Scottish Highlands].

CC What do you mean by “built with them”?

MN The Amnesiacs, as a fictional ensemble, would assist me in the making of the Amnesiac Shrine works throughout the 2000s. Somehow that thinking has carried on with this work, whereas back in the ’90s, it was the Amnesiacs alone who were purported to have made the work.

CC The title of your new book, Amnesiac Hide, feels appropriately mysterious: Are you referring to metaphysical pelts, i.e., skins traded by or removed from the bodies of your phantom bike gang? Or, do the words allude to some sort of therapeutic maneuver—a mental health act of forgetting? The cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, who has written a terrific essay for the book, says the title is a “trap.” Is that a fair statement?

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Quiver of Arrows, 2010, installation view at The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada (2014). Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

MN Naming a book or exhibition that tries to make sense of a group of work is quite difficult. It is a trap of sorts in itself. Amnesiac Hide works in several ways: as a rhetorical question, as an order or action, and as a noun. As a question it reiterates your sense of mystery and confusion. Coupled with the idea of the actual action of an Amnesiac hiding, it becomes quite absurd: where would an Amnesiac choose to hide? Why would they? How long would it be until the purpose of their concealment would be lost to all? It’s a cruel joke of sorts. As a noun it refers to the pelts or skins of the Amnesiacs. It also refers to a construction made to conceal oneself whilst watching or shooting a form of prey—often used by hunters or bird watchers. In the context of the book and show, this could have referred to Quiver of Arrows [Nelson’s 2010 installation comprised of four interlinked Airstream trailers]. However, the hide looks internally as well as externally, and circles back on itself in an act of paranoid self-surveillance, rather like the cosmonauts in the space station in Solaris. In this respect, the work acts in allegorical terms similar to the novel and the film, but with regard to another empire—the United States. Quiver of Arrows was not a completely negative vision, melancholy yes, but really the arrows point to missed potential that can and does exist within North America, and probably couldn’t anywhere else. So, in a sense, it is a trap, in the words of Jack Black’s autobiography from the turn of the last century: “You can’t win.” Much of my work has dealt with entrapment and the dichotomy between it and escape.

CC Your sculptures would probably fit quite easily, albeit deceptively, within an “outsider art” show. That term, for you, is a definite misnomer. The synonym, “outlier,” feels much better.

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Gang of Seven, 2013, detail. Photo by John Berens.

MN Yes, “outlier” seems a pertinent term, especially in regard to its acceptance or even encouragement of error. Of course, this is not outsider art, but perhaps some of the impulses are similar. Certainly, in the first incarnation of the Amnesiacs, the disclaimer structure was created to provide a space where I could express myself within a delineated concept—perhaps a channeled intuition akin to method acting.

CC Hebdige’s text parallels strategies in your work. I now believe, thanks to his essay, that Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Mike Nelson are Donald Rumsfeld’s worse nightmare. Hebdige quotes Rumsfeld circa 2002: “Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected.” Isn’t an inversion of that statement basically your modus operandi?

MN Yes. To some extent the unseen and the unknown have been the Anglo-American narratives of choice for so long—from Poe through Lovecraft to King. However, I suspect the politicians use this narrative to their own ends, and I would argue that it’s possibly the reverse. I could cite the way that the Soviet Union was swiftly exchanged for the Islamic world. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would work well as a metaphor, also.

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Eighty Circles through Canada (the last possessions of an Orcadian mountain man), 2013, detail of 35mm slide projection. Photo by Mike Nelson.

CC Why is fiction—particularly science fiction—so much more fertile for you than, say, theory? Or is that my misperception? I am, of course, curious what in recent fiction excites you.

MN I think I had a realization after college that a lot of theory is actually already in fiction, especially speculative fiction, and in a far more playful and enjoyable way than actual theoretical texts. It also occurred to me that artists who devoured theory would often illustrate it with their art. Whereas when I read theory, I wanted to be making the art that the theoreticians would want to use to illustrate their ideas. I think that, like many artists of my generation and before, I was not academically clever, but occupied myself with a more visual or material world in response. There’s an intelligence residing in matter, movement, and looking that isn’t easily articulated in words, but could be seen as akin to them, to words, in terms of its possibilities of expression or understanding. I feel the same in regard to music or mathematics.

CC Since seeing your show, I’ve caught myself perceiving what I would call Mike Nelson-like moments of two very distinct kinds: 1) Finding myself standing before real-world objects, or in real-world environments that remind me of your work. 2) Observing completely false/fabricated environments that remind me of your work, like in films or on television. For an example of the first type, the day after seeing your show I had coincidently booked a two-hour tour of the Brooklyn Army Terminal. A large chunk of the complex is deserted, with odd remnants of former inhabitants. For an example of the second type, I was half-watching a British crime drama. The story had something to do with a disturbed man living in a yurt that he had built for shelter. I could easily imagine finding that yurt in the 303 Gallery. In your work, how important is this balance between the found object/environment and the fabricated? Or is it more correct to say that everything is fabricated?

MN Everything is not fabricated. I think you are right to pick up on the balance between the real and the unreal. The fading in and out of reality creates fissures that agitate our own sense of existence in the world. This, coupled with a socio-historical or political concern, complicates both aspects, emulating the sliding in and out of focus from the material itself—at one point teetering on a hallucinogenic clarity, like a glimpsed truth of that point hidden to the viewer, and back again to the base matter of this world.

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Eighty Circles through Canada (the last possessions of an Orcadian mountain man), 2013, installation view at CAG, Vancouver, Canada (2013). Photo by Scott Massey.

CC I have scavenged a few words from recent reviews: “dark,” “foreboding,” “abject,” “abandoned,” “flotsam and jetsam,” “melancholy,” “eerie,” “ghosts,” “post-apocalyptic,” “ecological disaster,” “detritus,” and “seedy.” I understand these reactions. But I also find the Gang of Seven sculptures quite playful. And I think that Eighty Circles Throughout Canada—even given the tragic backstory—is transcendent, edenic, and uplifting. Am I nuts?

MN No, not at all. I find people’s fixation with these aspects in regard to the work a little strange or one-dimensional. I hope the works do have an element of transcendence that is uplifting. They are not negative. The desire of the press to read the work in Venice as an extremists’ lair was indicative of the media’s willful misreading of such cultural signifiers. Ultimately, it suggested a community of industrial workshops housed in a seventeenth century caravanaserai. 

CC This is probably a too gauche question best left for the gallery—but I’m curious: What is the future plan for the Gang? It’s an ongoing project, correct? Are collectors allowed to break it up?

MN In terms of it being ongoing, I’m sure there will be future incarnations, but I suspect the gang will only change subtly according to different circumstances and spaces it inhabits. Gang of Seven is one piece, so it cannot be broken apart.

Chris Chang is a contributing editor at BOMB. His interviews have appeared in the “Sightlines” and “Five Points” columns in Art in America, and he was on the editorial staff at Film Comment from 2001 to 2011.

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