Internationally acclaimed artist Mike Nelson returns to the North East with Hybrid Scripts, a solo show at Sunderland’s Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.
The twice-Turner Prize nominee is renowned for his large-scale installations of relic-like structures that deftly weave real and fictitious histories.
Drawing on science fiction, counterculture and dark political histories, Nelson invites viewers to enter spaces assembled from everyday objects and personal belongings. He signposts a decaying humanity by suggesting that life itself has become extinct in his alternate realities.
Nelson first came to prominence with The Coral Reef (2000), a labyrinth installation at Matt’s Gallery in London that led attendees through a maze of 15 eerily empty rooms with all the trappings of recent occupation.
Northern Gallery‘s Hybrid Scripts reassembles two of Nelson’s acclaimed earlier works, Taylor (1994) and Lionheart (1997), both of which reflect on migration, trade and Britain’s colonialist past.
Taylor takes its name from George Taylor, a marooned astronaut from the film Planet of the Apes, a story of humanity and extinction. The sculpture, a raft assembled from oil drums, palettes and a canvas tent, also refers to the Cuban ‘rafter crisis’ of the 90s, and to the eighteenth-century Liverpool warehouse where it was first exhibited, a place once at the centre of the British slave trade.
Taylor’s references to journeys – whether forceful or exploratory – mirror those of its co-star, Lionheart. A ‘drifter’s camp’ inspired by and made from the detritus of the former Soviet Union, Lionheart takes its name from the imperialist Richard the Lionheart, the twelfth-century King of England and crusade commander.
In 1997, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Nelson was witnessing the new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. This migration brought with it trade, reopening routes that had been dormant for decades, allowing for the import and sale of Communist relics. Nelson constructed Lionheart’s encampment out of these relics and discarded materials, alongside objects of Britain’s colonialist past.
Nelson represented Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, and alongside The Coral Reef, is renowned for his major sculptural installations The Asset Strippers (2019) and Triple Bluff Canyon (2004).
Celebrated for their scale, Nelson’s installations hold a charged presence. They’re weighty beings that we anthropomorphize to counteract the glaring omission of what we’d ordinarily expect to see in rooms and camps – people.
By dealing in debris and relics, the great irony that Nelson illustrates is how our growing compulsion to memorialize and archive the past correlates to societal and natural world collapse in the digital era. We are creating mausoleums of human activity for future ‘viewers’ to explore.