I am meeting British artist Mike Nelson (1967), a “biennale veteran”, whose sculptures and installations have reverenced such substantial exhibitions as Venice Biennale (2011), Tate Triennial (2009), São Paulo Biennale (2004), Istanbul Biennale (2003), Sydney Biennale (2002), and the list could go on and on. But this time Mike is in Sweden, where his literally ground-breaking exhibition, “408 tons of imperfect geometry”, is due to open at Malmö Konsthall on Friday, August 17, 2012.
Our conversation takes place in the evening, after Mike has finished the day’s work of constructing the exposition, which involves pouring cement into skilfully crafted wooden moulds and arranging the solidified pieces (weighing 70kg each) into “imperfect” geometric shapes. By the time we meet, he looks worn-out and tired, which is not how you expect to see an internationally documented artist. He prepares a pot of tea, apologising that a saucer has replaced the lid and, exclaiming that he “can really feel his back”, slips into the chair across from me. As soon as the first question arises, however, the weary look disappears and Mike, with his messy hair and quick-witted observations, strangely resembles a mad-scientist.
What is this project about, from your perspective?
I decided to work with the idea of a transparency of a process, a way of reading a work in a visceral, physical manner. “408 tons of imperfect geometry” is pretty much a description of what it attempts to be – a working-out of a load bearing on the floor with the structure upon it, which is cast like a net. The imperfect geometry - it’s something that tries to achieve almost meditative perfection and yet, it fails; it feels strangely apt to our times. That’s actually an idea from quite a long time ago and has certain similarities to a drawing from 2005. At first, it was going to be concrete sculptures, but when I started making drawings for the space, working out the load-bearing, I realised that actually, a geometric design would work far better because you can control it. If you build one sculpture, it sits in one place, which is not very feasible. But if you really want to bring the building up to a point of it’s maximum capacity, it’s much easier to work that out if you cast out a net, like a pattern.
If you have seen a few of my shows, it’s not a familiar way of working for me, but I suppose I have to consider the context and the time in which I’m making it in. In a way, when Jacob [Jacob Fabricius, Direcor of Malmö Konsthall] asked me to do it, I wanted to create something as an impression of the Konsthall. In a formal sense, this space is incredibly beautiful. Whenever I’ve seen it before, it’s always been partitioned, but it seemed like the last space I’d want to disappear. Even though I’m quite well-known for building spaces, which re-build spaces to an extent that you can’t recognise them, here I felt an overwhelming desire not to do that.
I make a lot of different types of work. The ones in the most visible places in the last 10 or 15 years have always been much more elaborate and convoluted. The piece in Venice last year was quite overpowering in terms of the disparate nature of different objects and materials. I had to consider everything. Every object was found from somewhere. It became absurdly complicated in my head - all the different materials as well as the narratives and sub-stories. This time I was keen to erase my own trajectory, to make the work as reference-less as possible, with the most minimal amount of materials. Of course, you cannot avoid reference, but normally, it’s a convoluted sort of narrative, underpinned by other narratives - some literary or cinematic reference, or a political situation, or a social situation. I suppose I was keen to make a work which was not directly referencing any of those things. Sometimes I have a fear that by referencing definite notions, you annex a certain power of something, but anything I’m emptying here is the space; the architecture exists already. The only reference made is the pattern, which did originate from somewhere. To most people, I would imagine, it has certain association to Islamic architecture and esoteric belief structures, but for me, it actually is an Islamic pattern from a window.
I usually look at the space and turn up for however long with my tools; I make little drawings and then I build it. I don’t have the time to sit in a studio thinking. I don’t have a studio, for a start…
Is it then a surprise to you as well – what comes out of it?
To some degree - yes, but usually it’s quite close to it. I feel slight frustration that people don’t actually look at art anymore. It becomes something to talk about, somewhere to meet. To circulate around it seems more important than looking, or being within it. Partly that’s why I built The Coral Reef years ago – because I was frustrated with people’s obsession with video art in the 1990’s, the fact that they always walked past the sculptures to the next video station. They were so used to watching television and films. They couldn’t be bothered to look at sculptures because somehow, it was too much effort. I think it’s the internet – information technology is proceeding somehow. It changed the way everybody looks and behaves, and it’s really hard. I obviously use it because I have to, but I was not born into that generation. I’m probably the last generation like that. It’s something that younger people don’t even think about. It just is. I don’t want to do it – to go and sit in front of the computer. I have no interest sitting there reading or going on Google to surf the web. But here I am talking to an internet website… (laughs) I do look at it, but it’s not something that I would do for pleasure. Ever. The work here [at Malmö Konsthall] is quite austere. In a way, it’s quite tough, but at the same time, it’s incredibly beautiful to look at. I certainly think so. But that’s only when you look at it – if you spend time with it. Whether people will… I don’t know.
When creating an artwork, do you think about how the audience will perceive it?
Of course I am thinking about how a person might respond to something. I’m thinking about a relation of different levels. There are different levels of audience. Artists should always remember that there are also those who don’t know much about contemporary art, or of the history of the artist that they are looking at. Predominantly, I am quite happy if a piece can work on a primary, experiential, non-logical level. But then there are other layers for the complexity, for those who know a little more history to it. It’s rather like a novel or a piece of writing, I suppose.
Are you interested in human psychology?
The more architectural structures are quite psychologically charged in terms of how they draw your emotions, your senses, your memories, just through colour, smell, space or the way they lead you through. In recent years I’ve been reading a book on the philosophy of neuroscience, which is about phantom limbs, alien hand syndrome etc., and I think it is quite relative to those works. They are somehow very relevant. Obviously, within these works lays a narrative, underpinning what might be called “the more conceptual side”, but then there is “a psychological side” to it as well. Sometimes it’s like a drug-induced moment, where the sense of reality and unreality simultaneously overtakes you. I remember building The Coral Reef years ago and realising that I’m building a space that never existed before - it’s built for the viewer, for the people to enter and exist within it. That’s a strange sensation. A fly came in while I was working on it, and the reality of the fly against this unreality of the space created a very abnormal experience. It did remind me of Philip K. Dick writing about androids – biologically made and physically indistinguishable from humans that don’t even realise they are androids. They are living matter, yet the only way you can test what they actually are is through empathy. To have an empathetic relationship to a space; I think it’s quite interesting and something that is quite relevant to works such as The Coral Reef. Of course, the world is far more complex than we could ever understand. We don’t know what everybody else is seeing and how they are perceiving it. It’s a curious idea. Drugs, religion, and sleep deprivation – they can give you these strange moments, which to some people might seem like clarity. It might be madness for everyone else.
People who have visited your exhibitions have often described the experience as entertaining. Do you think that art should be entertaining?
No, I don’t think it really matters whether it is or isn’t. It would worry me if entertainment became the primary reason for people visiting them, or the primary reason for me making them. I’d really be quite sad about that. But if it is a by-product… What is entertainment anyway? People’s entertainment is quite varied in terms of what they do in the world. But the way you say “entertaining” suggests that it’s entertaining on a sort of light, enjoyable level of pleasure; something you do in-between more serious things. Hopefully, it’s not a primary function of what I’m doing; otherwise I’d go and make television or other light entertainment. No, it’s not a prerequisite of art - to make entertainment; even though I’m not the one to define what entertainment might be. People have some very strange ideas of entertainment.
How would you have wanted the audience to describe it?
I don’t think I would describe how somebody should describe it. It’s not really for me to do that, but I would hope that they take something slightly more meaningful from it than sheer entertainment. Even though, again, they are not mutually exclusive – entertaining and meaning. It’s kind of complicated, isn’t it? Some of the best films ever made are entertaining, but they are also meaningful, they leave you with something other than entertainment.
Does it put pressure upon an artist to always have to come up with new ideas, new projects, new experiences for themselves and the viewer?
I don’t know. I think it’s an issue in terms of the way the artists work these days. Obviously, you could say that being an artist is like sitting in front of a computer and saying “I like that” and then you print it out and send it to a fabricator. If you did it blindfolded and then sent it out to a fabricator, there would always be something new. It could be a way of working. I think my work always has a certain resemblance of what I do to it because I am very much involved in a physical side of it. It is important to me. It’s important to many artists. Of course, sometimes the artist is conceptually driven to a point where they shouldn’t be involved in it, but I always think that you still need to recognise that artist’s work within each piece. Over the years, I’ve actually been in group shows where I can recognise the hand of the fabricator more than that of the artist (laughs). That was a case in Great Britain in the late 1990s, early 2000’s. Which is a very strange situation to have. I tend to make something new each time. I’ve never done a retrospective.
What happens to your works after the exhibition has closed?
Don’t know. It’s a mixture. Sometimes we store them and sometimes – throw them away.
Would it even be possible to make a retrospective?
Yeah, you could rebuild them. From the big builds, like the Venice, I often save all the old stuff – doors, objects and furniture, but I would have to rebuild it, which isn’t that great. It’s a bit depressing sometimes – having to rebuild something. It’s quite a strange territory.
Well, it’s revisiting. If you have built something 10 years ago and then you have to spend 5 or 6 weeks rebuilding it, it’s always hard by association, movement and action. Being back in the space that you haven’t been in for 10 years, but you’ve built before; it somehow comes back. It's interesting. It’s like a strange doubling. It’s quite susceptible – to think about the past. It just agitates that. If you rebuild part of your past in physical terms and occupy it for 5 weeks, it’s quite hard.
There was a really odd moment, which was actually quite pleasurable. I’d lived in a house in South London for 12 years. I was really happy in this house, which was also probably the only time I had a studio… but it was already falling down. We rented it from a Bangladeshi doctor who lived in Bangladesh. He used to come once a year to check if we had paid the rent. He was really nice and it was really cheap. It probably allowed me, more than anything else, to carry on being an artist. Getting cheap rent in London is rather difficult. This was a Victorian terrace house, and even though it wasn’t very big, it was full of stuff. At one point, I had to move from there, which I felt rather sad about. Later, I rebuilt that room for Modern Art Oxford (2004) and Tate Triennial (2009). I had kept the whole room with all of the stuff, drawings on the wall and a fireplace (laughs). When I rebuilt it in 2009, I had moved out of that house 5 years before, but it was quite a strange experience – to find myself standing back in this room, looking just how I had left it in 2004. With works that deal with associative memories of a space, it's quite odd to double that sense of memory by having to rebuild it. Obviously, in some of the works I use doubling quite a lot, but sometimes it feels almost like a cruel trick – forcing me to build them again (laughs). I’m starting to think that’s what my life’s like. I must have done something terrible to have to keep doing these things.
I read that you aren’t keen on visiting your artworks after they’ve been installed.
I’m not very keen, no; especially with works like Coral Reef. Somehow, when you are inside them, it just feels wrong if there are other people in there. Obviously, it’s very nice to be in these spaces by yourself, but it would be very difficult to do that for the visitors, in terms of allowing one person in at a time. I find that very tough. It’s a compromise. It feels very precious. At the same time, that’s how I would want to experience it and, of course, I do (laughs). I am there just by myself. Why would I want to go back when there is anyone else in? Who was that, who used to dress up as a security guard and sit in the exhibitions just to watch the people? (laughs) That’s a good idea, but often, my artworks are not in spaces which have security guards. Of course, now you can’t avoid having your face splattered all over the internet. Years ago you could be quite anonymous.
You couldn’t be anonymous today. You are a “biennale veteran”.
There are plenty of them. It’s not just me.
Does it make you popular?
At the moment, I’d say, no. I’d say the opposite. You wouldn’t be coming out with that comment if I was popular (laughs). It’s a slightly barbed description. It’s derogatory. The art world is very susceptible to fashion – academic fashions, visual fashions, obsessions with certain artists, building up certain artists, knocking down certain artists. There is a side to the art world that is very much constructed in that way. Yes, I’ve done a lot of biennales, but that’s because of the way I work. I make work that’s often related to where it’s sited. I’m prepared to go spend the time making the work on site, which is kind of attractive for a biennale. Also, biennales tends to have a budget which can cope with that, more so than other spaces. Biennales are often using areas which are not art spaces and have a longer lead-time, in terms of being able to build and make an exhibition. In most galleries, you only have two weeks turnaround. That’s on a practical level. I suppose I’ve done quite a few biennales, but plenty of people have, if you look at the roster. I think, possibly, I’ve been quite visible in a lot of biennales because I’ve made big projects. I think, perhaps, there is an antagonism towards that now. The nature of the world and how it’s shifting – the orientation of the world is financial and therefore its power base, in terms of the art world, is shifting.
What do you mean by that?
The recent financial events of the West are heralding a recession hereto unknown. Even if people are making references to the 1930’s, it is still much more forward than that. It seemed that a long period of austerity would eventually pay off, and that the financial stability of the West would return; whereas now, I’m not too sure.
In terms of the contemporary art market, auction statistics from London and New York are close to what they were at the best of times. Of course, that is only the visible part of the market.
There are lots of very rich people in the world. I’ve only worked with commercial galleries for 5 or 6 years. In terms of the commercial world, the selling world, I am relatively naïve to it, although I have seen enough of it over the years. It’s not just rich people that invest in their personal collections. It’s also what they invest in and what the state invests in… it’s their visible power within contemporary visual art. I suppose it’s a lot more complicated than when I was at art college years ago. I was quite naïve and it was quite a naïve time in many ways. Britain was fully funded in terms of education - when you went to the university or art college, you didn’t have to pay. Anybody could go, from any background. People could get in if they had what was called “talent” in those days. I don’t know what they would call it these days. Predominantly everyone was British, but art schools now are strange environments… everybody is from everywhere. If you have to pay tens of thousands of pounds to study, choosing art is a bit of a long-shot. Those who go to British art schools are from wealthy backgrounds. People with their MBA’s, their third postgraduate course around the world; they believe their luck will be in somewhere. The art world now is so incredibly large. It’s just a huge piece of machinery, but I can’t complain because it ultimately keeps me in a job (laughs). I probably wouldn’t have been in this position 15 years ago.
What is your relationship with commercial galleries?
I’ve worked with a gallery in London since the mid 1990’s. It represents artists and is state-funded. I’d say it’s more like an artists' cooperative run by a very strong figure; he’s very interesting and very good to work with. But in the end, he doesn’t do art fairs, he doesn’t court collectors and meet collectors. I’ve had quite a few approaches from galleries over the years, but I never did anything about it, I just carried on doing the shows and avoiding the issue – the commercial gallery issue - partly because everything in the world is a currency of some sorts. With one, you just exchange it for another. With art and money, it ultimately erodes some element of freedom as to why you are doing it. I guess it depends on what you ultimately want out of art. If you want lots of money, if that’s what freedom is to you, you potentially might be able to have it. But if it’s not desperately what you want, if you don’t want loads of money, you have to be careful with the galleries because they can turn what was once a passion into a job. Still, you have to keep doing what you do and you have to somehow negotiate the structures of the world you live in, the country that you live in and the state you live in. Commercial galleries are a huge part of that. I suppose I got to my late 30’s and it seemed that you couldn’t really go beyond a certain point in the art world. In fact, you would actually get to a certain point and then disappear without being sustained by that structure. I still hold by that, in a way. On one level, obviously you are competing with artists that are represented by these huge commercial galleries which can offer to fund a catalogue, or partly fund a show, especially when you get into America. Often, collectors are partly funding the big organisations with the state. We would all like to believe that they have no control or influence upon those institutions that they are on the board of, or lending their collections to, but it would be naïve to believe that that’s the case.
In terms of actually making a living and carrying on doing what you want to do, there comes a point when you do need to engage with galleries and there are some really good ones. I work with Matt’s Gallery (London), 303 Gallery (New York) and Galleria Franco Noero (Turin). They do some really strange things that you wouldn’t believe a commercial gallery would want to do. They are very passionate about what they do, but they are watching the books as well. I can’t say that I’ve been overly lucrative for them, financially. They probably put as much money into me as I’ve made selling through them. So far, it’s been quite a generous relationship, on the whole, with them. But the commercial world – yeah, bite off as much as you want, as much as you need.
Have any of the world-renowned gallery “brands” asked you to become their artist?
Yes, years ago there was some interest. I don’t know. We all might do things that we say we won’t, but at the moment, I find it better to have a relationship with somebody over a long period of time.