Nathan Coley, “You Imagine What You Desire” (2014) (all photos by Nigel Green)

BRIGHTON, UK — Brighton Festival and HOUSE 2015 have put up their headline artist in a hotel notable for its design and feng shui. But when I meet Nathan Coley in the space-age bar here, he appears more keen to discuss Brighton’s historic buildings. The former Turner Prize nominee has just flown in from Glasgow for a fundraising talk, and brings five works with him, displayed across two sites: an 11th century church and a 19th century Regency-style townhouse. In both cases, he is chiefly interested in the way his sculpture changes and is changed by its surroundings.

Inside the ancient church of Saint Nicholas a towering piece of illuminated text reads: “You imagine what you desire.” The words, made from fairground lights, shine out in the gloom, thanks to a rig of builders’ scaffold that holds up the letters on a steel frame. Coley has in the past made seven or eight of these pithy statement pieces.

“Increasingly, I find it very difficult to come up with the next one,” says the Scot, who might here be showing a Calvinist preference for word over image. “I’ve got a notebook full of things, writings, quotations, things people have said and when I’m really looking for the next one I can never find it.” Other one-liners include: “There will be no miracles here” and “A place beyond belief.” But the risk is, one supposes, that each new statement must break new ground while remaining consistent with the oeuvre.

“It’s a crazy business model,” he says. But the artist acknowledges that this challenge has its flipside. “In a sense it’s been quite good because it’s meant that I haven’t made all that many and it means that the people who want the next one still want the next one.” It also means he can concentrate on moving his existing works around the art world.

Nathan Coley, “Roy Walsh meets Patrick Magee” (2015) (click to enlarge)

Brighton Festival and HOUSE 2015 are not the first to host this piece; that honor went to the Sydney Biennale. “How do we read ‘You imagine what you desire’ in a high Anglican Christian church in England? And what’s the difference between that and it being on the front facade of a contemporary art museum in Australia?” Coley asks.

“I want to interrogate how the text works by showing it in other contexts, breaking it away from where it was originally conceived for,” he continues and, with rehearsed formula, he adds: “The sculpture changes the context and the context changes the sculpture.” This new sacred location is an unlikely place for a quote by atheist George Bernard Shaw.

“They have a kind of gravitas in terms of what they say,” says Coley of his lit-up texts. “Yet the language that they say it to you in is a little bit seedy, a little bit dirty, like the gypsies have come to town and I love that contrast.”

So the effect of those fairground bulbs is quite different to the many glowing tubes of neon you find in contemporary art. “I was very conscious, of course, of the long history, through conceptualism, of artists using neon,” says Coley, “and I knew that I really didn’t want to fall into that whole discourse.”

Not far from city center church is the Regency Townhouse, a reminder that Brighton has former glories. But the work inside this period building, a collection titled Portraits of Dissension, will also remind you of one of the seaside town’s darkest days. On October 12 1984, a long-delay time bomb tore through the Grand Hotel, as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) attempted to settle scores with the conservative party, who were in town for a party conference.

“It was quite shocking,” recalls Coley. “I was 17, living at home. It was the year before I would go to Glasgow School of Art and, importantly, it’s the pre-digital age. So the news that the bomb had happened was only recounted to everybody the next morning. No 24-hour news, no digital streaming of any information.”

Perhaps in response to the weight and gravity of news pre-internet, Coley has made his response to this event in bronze. His miniature sculpture of the Grand Hotel is named for bomb-maker Patrick Magee, and the false name under which he checked in, Roy Walsh. Now viewers can but look upon a model façade of the hotel, split at its center into a gaping maw. There are some three or four dozen carefully rendered shards of debris. And you wonder how anyone could survive this. One half expects tiny people to be trapped in that dark metal rubble.

“I thought long and hard about why it should be bronze,” says the artist. “And I thought it should be bronze, because it’s an enduring material. We have an association with bronze as being the material of the public sculpture.” The other chosen material is bamboo for the frame, a material which quotes the oriental influence of Brighton Pavilion — the city’s best known landmark, built in the 18th century for the pleasure of the Prince Regent.

Nathan Coley, “Paul” (2015)

“I want to be really careful about how I talk about the sculpture,” Coley continues. “Is it a memorial? Is it a celebration? Is it an echo? Is it fixed? Is it the truth, telling the truth about what happened? Is it a facsimile? Is it a reflection on it? And I don’t know what it is.”

These almost rhetorical questions are characteristic of an artist who makes political work which reveals nothing of his politics.

His position on faith is also open to question. On the first floor of the house is a plywood model of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. One side of the building has been removed to house half a dozen smaller models of St Paul’s, along with a small library of books about resistance. We are reminded that this iconic church has become the focus for the capital’s Occupy movement.

“I have a love/hate relationship with St Paul’s Cathedral,” says Coley, who is still amazed by the scale and the cost of this architecture, “built to the glory of God.” At the same time, he has reservations about the result — “I think it’s rather ugly and rather grotesque.” He is also critical of recent events regarding the protestors who camped on the steps here:

“To the Church’s shame, instead of opening the doors and letting them in, they evicted them, so I think that’s fascinating,” says Coley. But he is quick to qualify this observation, with a measure of critical neutrality: “I’m not saying I’m actively pro the Occupy Movement or against it, in the same way I’m not pro or against Christianity”.

Just to recap, Coley has introduced atheist sentiment in a church, rendered a bombed hotel in bronze, and deconstructed a cathedral. So his relationship with the built environment is, to say the least, complicated. The artist says: “It used to be said that … architecture was a manifestation of ideas that you could tell a culture’s values and aspirations by what it built.”

Nathan Coley, “Parade Sculptures” (2015)

But the artist is keen on a radical theory that puts an end to all that. “Some historians say that when Gutenberg invented the printing press, this was the death of architecture,” he points out. As the printed word allowed for a more portable transmission of cultural values, shock-and-awe church building became redundant. “The invention of print and, of course, the printing of God’s word in Gutenberg’s bible, killed the architecture of the church.”

“Isn’t that fascinating?” asks Coley with the enthusiast’s gift for making one’s particular field seem like the most interesting in the world. As for the most interesting thing in town right now, his work throws up three or four contenders from the local architecture, viewed in the context of his transformative art, of course.

Nathan Coley’s You Imagine What You Desire and Portraits of Dissension will be on display at St. Nicholas of Myra (Church Street, Brighton, East Sussex) and the Regency Town House (13 Brunswick Square, Hove, East Sussex) through May 24 2015. See festival websites for directions and opening times.

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared in Nature, a volume in the series Documents...