JJ Charlesworth

writing on art, culture, politics

Mike Nelson at the Hayward Gallery

Mike Nelson’s claustrophobic installations broke new ground two decades ago, long before “immersive” exhibitions became urban leisure-time staples. This overdue survey of the British artist’s career revisits and remodels his key works, and is dominated by the extraordinary, Hayward Gallery-filling The Deliverance and the Patience (2001). It’s a monstrous, jerry-built labyrinth of dingy rooms, full of grubby decorations that hint at other cultures, transience and anxiety: a bare office counter, a travel bureau advertising cheap flights to Lagos and Singapore, a makeshift prayer-room, and even a grungy bar into which you might have wandered in 1970s Amsterdam.

The effect is both compelling and disconcerting; you’re in a gallery, and you’re also a thousand miles away, in someone else’s life, in some other time. With no sight of the Hayward’s concrete walls and polished floors to frame the experience, you’re trapped inside a prism of global modern life, which speaks quietly of cultural divisions between East and West, and the history of war, trade and migration.

It’s a subtle politics that Nelson, twice nominated for the Turner Prize, steadily weaves between fact and fiction. The show’s entrance is through a gloomy red-lit store-room, racks piled with bric-a-brac and architectural salvage. It’s the leftovers of I, Impostor, Nelson’s installation for the British Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, which pitched art aficionados into the dusty interiors of a historic Istanbul inn – here reduced to components, reminding us of the artist’s role as a storyteller. But another chunk of that work, an antique photographer’s darkroom, is re-made in the bowels of this show’s most dramatic piece, a reimagining of the American artist Robert Smithson’s 1970 land-art piece Partially Buried Woodshed, the woodshed here buried under a sand dune strewn with oil barrels.

This interest in where exactly art and life diverge means that Nelson’s installations, full of opaque literary and art-historical references, resist being mere entertainment. His more recent works have moved on from the “immersive” interiors: The Asset Strippers (2019), for example, is made from industrial machinery salvaged from bankrupt British companies. Its components are not unlovely as sculptural forms, but their dysfunction makes them sad monuments to deindustrialisation, and an oblique criticism of the creative economy in which they’re now exhibited. 

The most perplexing works here involve a reconstruction of Nelson’s studio in the front room of his terraced house, chock-full of artistic paraphernalia, which looks out onto other works in which concrete-cast heads hang within a lattice of welded rebar, and a chicken-wire enclosure of bizarre post-apocalyptic figures made from junk. With its gently self-mocking title – we’ll all be gone soon! – Extinction Beckons is suffused with the sense of how fleeting an artist’s contribution is in the vastness of human history.