OXFORD: Modern Art Oxford
Mike Nelson: Triple Bluff Canyon
The US is mired in an unpopular war, no one trusts the White House, yesterday’s buoyant optimism is today’s cynicism – the parallels between the 1970s and now are there for the taking. Thankfully, in evoking the American West of the ’70s, Mike Nelson’s tense, rich new exhibition avoided such allusions. Instead he illustrated its Gothic, claustrophobic heart – his perennial subject. His was the West that failed: a landscape of hidden nuclear testing sites, polluted soil, paranoia and rife self-armament.
The exhibition’s title, ‘Triple Bluff Canyon’, is
translated literally into three chapters depicting the disillusionment of
the West. Nelson wove the show’s various strands together with a confident
evocation of mood but perhaps an overabundance of examples. Fake crumbling
cinemas and abandoned movie sets portrayed the dissolution of the American
dream; a re-creation of a Smithson work suggested the industrial wasteland
he worked to reclaim. An allusion to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, and
its inspiration, the Soviet science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, supplied
the ominous Cold War atmosphere; rotting oil barrels brought to mind
Upstairs, Nelson made a life-size model of his South London studio in an old Victorian front room. The work was inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, St Jerome in his Study (1514), which shows the saint in a moment of divine inspiration bending over his desk. Nelson crammed the dilapidated replica with anything peculiar and everything odd: carved wooden masks, faded, out-of-print paperbacks, dusty and decapitated Virgin Marys. Projected on the gallery wall was a scratchy video of conspiracy theorist Jordan Maxwell, which Nelson found in a San Francisco thrift store. Patiently but semi-audibly, Maxwell explained the connections between the pyramid on the US dollar bill, the linked double Xs of the Exxon logo and the symbols of the Ku Klux Klan. The room groaned under the weight of his delusions.
In the next room was a reconstruction of Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) – one of Nelson’s best pieces to date. Approached by two entrances, the first allowed access to the inside, while the second led to a vantage point where the shack appeared distant, half-buried in sand. In January 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, Smithson poured 20 tonnes of soil onto an abandoned woodshed until the structure’s central beam collapsed. Some months later, members of the US National Guard opened fire on students protesting against the Vietnam War. Four were killed, and the event is often credited with bringing opposition to the war out of the province of students and hippies and into the mainstream. In retrospect, Smithson’s artwork prophetically staged the feat of the protest movement – an eventual collapse effected by the pure accumulation of weight. Originally conceived of as temporary, the work was left at Smithson’s request as a permanent memorial on the campus.
Nelson revisits the Smithson piece to examine it from the inside. A long corridor, like that of a mining shaft, led through a heap of sand into the dark, rickety old shack. Inside, sand seeped through the cracks in the walls, and oil barrels lay rusting on their sides. Claustrophobia and oppression were palpable, as was the sense of trespassing in another’s imagination.
Like much immediately powerful work, Nelson’s commentary unravels somewhat upon scrutiny. By bringing the viewer into the interior of the Smithson work, Nelson does not offer a perspective on how the essence of an earthwork changes when installed within a gallery, for example, nor does he explore the contradictions between a work of entropy (such as Smithson’s) and one that is stable and manmade (such as his own). Instead, it is the mood that Nelson strives after – what it feels like to stand within a structure that has collapsed; what it is to stand inside the moment when America’s belief in its righteousness caved in. Similarly, Nelson’s re-creation of the shed sets up a correspondence, if one were to follow the logic, between St Jerome, the medieval scholar who translated the Bible into Latin, Nelson, the Turner Prize nominee, and Maxwell, the conspiracy theorist. What the three have to do with one another – the religious madness of the artist, perhaps, or the subjectivity of what counts as meaningful – is not, however, Nelson’s point. What interests him is the pure feeling evoked by clutter and chaos against a background of isolation.
The overabundance and confusion of the narratives in Nelson’s work is not necessarily a negative. Rather than teasing out the connections between, say, postmodernist theory and American imperialism – as Thomas Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman (2001), to which this show has been compared, invites one to do – the viewer is left free to bask in pure ambience. There is something majestic and monumental in a ruined illusion, which Nelson’s exhibition, indulgently, decadently, conveys.