Thursday, October 13, 2016

at artforum.com: on Mike Nelson's "Tools That See" at neugerriemschneider

At first, the objects in the eight vitrines on view in Mike Nelson’s current exhibition appear to be souvenirs from an unsellable intervention—titled Space That Saw (Platform for a Performance in Two Parts)—that took place in 2012 in a derelict former variety theater a block away from the gallery. That installation—remarkable for its utter refusal to reveal its nature as an artwork—was more like a found site, or a haunted theater silently worked upon, reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut-open houses. In the artist’s current show, the work is metaphysically titled Tools That See (The Possessions of a Thief) 1986–2005, 1986–2005. There’s a formal repetition here, and what seems to be a reconciliation with the materiality of art: Each of the eight vitrines is a rectangular composition of what the handyman sees—to turn Nelson’s title around—and in fact, what he uses.
Largely unremarkable worn wooden floorboards are topped with tools arranged with the attention of ikebana. The aesthetics here might be an homage to an unseen laborer: his low-seated bench, dirty work gloves, a set of handsaws piled as if in a game of pick-up sticks. It isn’t until you notice the heavy concrete base of each of these works that their contrition becomes clear. Nelson gives them that almighty quality that connotes luxury in an object: heaviness. By putting them on such pedestals he elevates leftovers from those 2012 pieces into lamentations for a now-demolished building-cum-artwork, a victim of gentrification. With an air of haunted sarcophagi, they’re pristinely guarded, although they seem to turn up their noses at the world of shiny new things.

(More on Mike Nelson's amazing Space That Saw, 2012, below this post)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

on Mike Nelson in Berlin, 2012, unpublished

The presence of absence, or the absence of presence, I cannot decide. The mantra has been running through my head since “seeing” (the first verb that comes into my head) the Mike Nelson piece at neugerriemschneider.

It’s difficult to write a review when the most basic words become prescriptive roadblocks. To call it “seeing” is troublesome. To call it an “installation” sounds old-fashioned, at this point, and to call it a “piece” is too dimished. To call it an “experience,” though broad in scope, to be sure, is not enough. It is not a happening but a place where something has happened, an experience, yes, as all art is, but rather it’s an experience of a place where something has been experienced. And it’s not even “at” neugerriemschneider, but rather “at” an off-space (two rather) on Gartenstrasse, a street nearby, though it is more “is” than “at” if you can follow my train of thought (unpacked: it’s more about what it does than where it takes place).

Let me just say it from the get-go: without resorting to hyperbole, I think Mike Nelson is making some of the most significant work of our time. It’s incisive. One of the few salient examples of negative dialectics (pardon the pompousness) to be witnessed in the past twenty years of art I’ve seen in Berlin.

There’s a comeback feeling to it. After having suffered the stress and strain of not knowing where to go with anything, it seems that Nelson’s work provides an exit out of “where to” and an entry into “where now.”

What are its claims? There’s an intensity in its subtlety, the hushed quiet that makes you listen harder, and a nothingness on view that makes you look elsewhere. But that’s not it.

There is something about Nelson’s work that is freed from the textual. You don’t need to read the press release to get into his head. There are no historical references that need to be spelled out in specific in order to have your antennae feel out the piece. There is no “painted word.”

Skeptics would say that there’s not enough artifice in it. Indeed the skeptic in me asks where can it (art) all go… after Mike Nelson?

Let’s sort out the mental baggage here. When you witness a Mike Nelson piece, you catch yourself making detours of consciousness: what was done by the artist and what was found? What is craft and what is readymade? What is uncovered, what is revealed, what is constructed, what is created (engendered, the art writer likes to say)? Falling back on the structure of thought, the exposure of an unearthed phobia and attraction at the same time. An aesthetic field under stress…

There’s the fun park element, which is not to be missed. The natural erosion of the building’s exterior, the erosion of the interior, a place that’s been sealed off, where the micro could work on the macro without the intervention of human artifice, where human neglect has allowed nature to do all of the active destruction. The hole in the ground, gated over, the place where the Gimp resides. There’s the open door to the man’s toilet, the strange markings on the wall, the staircase which is blocked by a wall of chicken wire and a locked door with an anachronistic padlock.

There’s the temptation to call it, this so-called installation, the workshop of a mad man. Indeed, one can peep through a window into a workshop, and mounting the stairs to the next floor, a theater. Everything has been abandoned, and the workshop only recently put into use. (One surmises, of course, that Nelson used it). But even in the banality of this reality, there’s a covert element: the workshop is viewed through a broken window, a pane of glass removed from a door. Its nemesis is this element of theatricality, perhaps. […]

April Lamm

(A draft completed in October 2012, unpublished)