LONDON — I have managed to keep Art and Life in entirely separate boxes until yesterday. Here’s what happened.
I was due to cover a show called Extinction Beckons at the Hayward Gallery. That doomster title had really got me going. Then, almost immediately, things started to go wrong. The bus I’d expected to take to the South Bank Centre vanished from the digital screen at the bus stop, as if it had always been a phantom of my imagination. So I took a different one, which dropped me off beneath the unbending statue of Abe Lincoln in Parliament Square, on the north side of the Thames. Twenty minutes later, having footslogged over Westminster Bridge against what seemed like most of the rest of suffering humanity, I was there, late and frazzled, at the Hayward Gallery.
Oddly, that part-shredded state of mind seemed, on reflection later, to have been the right one for the occasion.
Mike Nelson, the artist on view, specializes in immersive installations. They exist to unnerve you, make you feel that most things could go awry if you only let them. The first one felt like a kind of lumber room of this and that, all bathed in an eerie red light. Long corridors of stuff. Many offcuts of wood and bits of pallets stacked in heaps on shelves, or against the wall, like tombstones resting their backs for a century or more of further reflection.
That red light really picks at your nerves.
Then you’re out, blinking into the light, breathing steadily again, and staring across quite an expanse of empty space toward the next one. This is a long wall of wood, with a single (unmarked) door to enter it. No, I can’t go in, I’m told, by the employee who is waiting for me to open it, because too many people are in there already.
Too many! I thought I was practically the only person in the building. Not so. They’d all been swallowed up immersively. So I decide to walk along the exterior of the wall, turn a corner, and look for another door, which I find. Now almost all Nelson’s doors are makeshift affairs, often very old, scavenged from here and there. As is this one. I yank it open.
You can’t come in this way, a (different) employee tells me, because this is the exit, the finishing point of your journey. Well, this door’s unmarked, I reply, and anyway I didn’t think there were any rules to this game. She softens when I smile, painfully.
I enter into a very small room, which opens off to another room, which opens off to another room, etc. One of these rooms is kitted out like a makeshift bar with a counter, except that there are displays of sea paintings on the walls and a model ship. Another has a mirror to enable you to check your hair. Yet another has Persian rugs to step on, gingerly, and could be a dingy shrine of sorts. It’s all guesswork, of course. Occasionally I find I am occupying the same space as a couple of other people, which feels rather unpleasant, as if we are all eavesdropping on each other.
As I walk around, I find myself thinking back to various shows I saw maybe 20 years ago or more at the Pompidou Centre in Paris or the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt by the likes of John Bock and others, which consisted of this kind of pranksterish stuff — you spot a bit of a decrepit room at the corner of a well-made gallery, but you can’t enter it because the wall has part fallen in. So you lean over the red cord that keeps you safe from harm, and reflect upon all the rubbish that is cluttering your own attic.
As I find myself thinking about the life and slow death of conceptual art, and whether I mind that this stuff I’m wandering through today totally lacks visual allure, I spot a man about my own age who has slipped in from a door I hadn’t even spotted.
All fine? I ask him. He looks anxious.
I don’t know where I’m going, he replies. But not blithely.
If I knew where I was going myself, I might even offer to help him.
Mike Nelson: Extinction Beckons continues at the Hayward Gallery (Belvedere Road, London, England) through May 7. The exhibition was curated by Yung Ma with assistant curator Katie Guggenheim and curatorial assistant Anusha Mistry.
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