On ViewHayward Gallery
February 22–May 7, 2023
With its haunting architectural environments and found-object tableaux, Mike Nelson’s first museum survey, Extinction Beckons, feels like an abandoned settlement—one once inhabited by outlaws, migrants, and cargo-cult scavengers. In twelve works made between 1996 and 2023, the exhibition illuminates the 55-year-old British artist’s shift from experiential installations to discrete sculptures, as well as the self-cannibalizing imaginative processes he has invented to give his vision its uncanny psychological and political layers.
As the exhibition’s title—an objet trouvé taken from a sticker the artist found on a motorcycle helmet—portends, the histories it conjures are of decline and desperation. Yet the mystery and madness pervading all of Nelson’s creations give them antic and subversive power.
For his thoroughly detailed representations of alternative realities, Nelson is often compared to artists like Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, and Paul Thek. With several notable exceptions, however, works by these artists tend to be only visually accessible, like museum dioramas or period rooms. In Nelson’s walk-in environments there are no barriers. Being free to explore their contents up close is thrilling.
The Deliverance and The Patience (2001), a labyrinthine collection of rooms and corridors, showcases Nelson’s fascination with physical and psychic structures. It is named after a 1609 shipwreck that stranded sailors and passengers bound for Virginia on Bermuda. Before building the vessels named in the work’s title to continue their journey, these castaways attempted to create a utopian alternative to the colonial economy they were destined to serve. Resounding with the creaks and slams of its dozens of doors, Nelson’s cramped, dingy spaces are filled with signs of exploitation and alienation: coin-operated telephones, sweatshop workstations, and crumpled sleeping bags. At the same time, spaces offering escape also abound. A travel agency, a shrine to an unknown religion, and a Marxist bar decorated with a poster quoting Bertolt Brecht all appear. Like a sailing ship, the installation is equipped with a crow’s nest of sorts. Viewers can climb stairs to peer over junk-stacked rafters down onto the queue to enter the work—a Brechtian moment allowing us to dispassionately consider the mesmerizing realm below, which, Nelson and others have noted, invariably merges with its viewers’ own memories.
Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed) (2004), updates Robert Smithson’s seminal piece of Land Art, Partially Buried Woodshed (1970). The original, a small storage building at Kent State University that was covered with earth, took on a political dimension when four students there were killed by the National Guard during a Vietnam War protest. Nelson covers his shed in tons of sand and places empty oil barrels inside it, displacing an accidental confluence of the conceptual and critical onto a more contemporary age of energy conflicts.
In another space, a pendant to this work, Triple Bluff Canyon (the projection room) (2004) consists of a full-scale replica of the front room of the house in which Nelson lived and worked after art school. Projected out of the open back of the memento-and-book-cluttered space, a garbled 1993 video by American conspiracy theorist Jordan Maxwell gives this contemplative space a disturbing undertone—something like an update of Salvador Dali’s paranoiac-critical method for the era of late-stage capitalism.
On the Hayward’s second floor, The Asset Strippers (2019) presents large industrial and agricultural machines on high tool-cabinet and shop-table plinths as monumental sculptures. These powerful, elegant devices commemorate a lost industrial world in which Nelson’s ancestors, skilled laborers in now-vanished textile factories in Britain’s Midlands, were able to make a dignified living.
Finally, a group of large-scale sculptures illuminate the strategies Nelson has invented to drive his creative process. Housed in a wood and chicken-wire cage, The Amnesiacs (1996–ongoing) features the regalia and enigmatic bricolage constructions of a fictional biker gang of the same name. Mourning the death of a close friend and the loss of their shared memories, Nelson imagined a group of veterans struggling to understand their confusing PTSD flashbacks. He conceived of them divining messages in the things he collected as a way to liberate his own search for ways to use them.
Made at a German institution, Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Münster – A Thematic Instalment Observing the Calendrical Celebration of its Inception: Introduction; towards a linear understanding of notoriety, power, and their interconnectedness; futureobjecs (misspelt); mysterious island* *see introduction or Barothic shift (2014) is a three-dimensional “cloud” made of wire-grid and rebar planes that intersect at right angles. Embedded within it are components from previous works, including dozens of cast-concrete heads. It is a manifestation of Nelson’s concepts of the “futureobject,” a process by which past projects are spliced together to “predict” future works, and the “Studio Apparatus,” a condition in which the studio becomes an amalgam of the warehouse, the site of production, and the network of all the tangible and intangible elements of the artist’s work over time.
Science fiction, which the artist discovered in art school, is one of Nelson’s primary inspirations. His “futureobjects” and “studio apparatus” emerge from the work of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, who treated words the way Nelson treats objects: as things to be recombined in ways that allow us to envision new horizons. Sci-fi’s Soviet expressions particularly interest him because of the ways they displace social criticism onto other worlds to escape censorship and didacticism. The novel Nelson says has most influenced his art is Roadside Picnic (1972), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. In this story, which Andrei Tarkovsky adapted for his legendary film Stalker (1979), explorers illegally infiltrate the “Zone,” an eerie and dangerous realm infused with alien intelligence, to gain esoteric knowledge. Exploring Extinction Beckons feels like a similar adventure.