Friday, 25 November 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 3, Nathan Coley

Some Context
If we look at the news today, what are the most striking political acts? In Britain we have the spectre of the 30 November Strike (which could be the biggest since the General Strike of 1926). We also have the ongoing occupation at St Paul's by the Occupy the London Stock Exchange movement. To pay for the bankers' bail out, we are told, we need to make cuts. These cuts come in many forms and will affect public spaces as we lose libraries, parks have to shut earlier and so on. This means that the public pay the bankers for their mistakes, the public lose their jobs (huge public sector cuts) and the public lose public spaces. The London Stock Exchange was not occupied because it is on land privately owned by the City of London Corporation. This makes a mockery of David Cameron's statement "I don't quite see why the freedom to demonstrate has to include the freedom to pitch a tent almost anywhere you want to in London." The point is they can't pitch a tent anywhere in London, public spaces are ever diminishing.  The protesters are then attacked for not staying the night (allegedly only 20% of tents are occupied at night time) "it's OK to protest, as long as you suffer!"  But when protesters do "fully" occupy they are branded as extremists or, as in the Dale Farm case, "professional protesters".  So, what do you do when you occupy a place like St Paul's?  Occupations of the type are notoriously well organised.  A bank account has been set up and is thousands of pounds in credit.  Sypathetic businesses provide food and drink.  Sanitation and health and safety issues are resolved.  There is even a "Tent City University" set up with a revolving programme of visiting speakers and workshops.  The onus though, is not so much on the visiting speaker but on a place where public debate can occur - often with no facilitation, just an open forum.  It is in the context that I began to think of Nathan Coley.

Tresspass and Loiter, 2011
Coley directly tackles such issues.  In his 2011 exhibition Appearances he "touches on themes surrounding institutionalised space vs public space, architecture and theology" (Haunch of Venison).  For this exhibition Coley made four spaces which he describes as the gallery, the church and the school or university - all of which come off a central plaza or public square.  These type of spaces share common themes: they are places where we gather to think and look, and where we are looked at.  Just how effective replicating such spaces, as thin poured concrete platforms situated in a gallery, is debatable.  As the show took place in Melbourne, I never saw it.  Perhaps the key lies in the text piece Tresspass and Loiter.  As with his other text pieces Tresspass and Loiter plays with power and authority.  It reminds us just how often we are encouraged to move along and I can imagine it elicits a kind of guilty pleasure when the viewer climbs up onto the concrete platforms: just as you're not supposed to touch the artwork, you are reminded that you don't belong in such spaces either.  The plazas remind us of minimalist sculpture but also serve as plinths holding, for example, a model church. Upon entering this plaza presumably one is supposed to reconsider the power of church as they tower above it.  In fact, these enigmatic structures also serve as plinths for a contemplation of the social congregating spaces of cities and people (ACCA, 2011).  The exhibition also features a hilarious video piece entitled Another Lecture which takes the form of a Power Point presentation narrated by an "architect".  In reality it shows disused spaces and makes us consider what as a society we have/haven't done to them. 

In an interview with the Tate, as part of his 2007 Turner Prize nomination, Coley  tells us he is interested in how we, as a society and as individuals, use architecture and space to articulate what we believe in.  Put simply, what your house looks like says a lot about you.  This, he says, has drawn him to religious and political themes.  He also talks about a space for ideas and public space.  His work Annihilated Confessions consists of three photographs of confession boxes which have been nearly completely covered in spray paint - in an act of what he calls censorship or "muting".  Coley is critical of the notion of formal confession and being absolved of sin after spending ten minutes in such a space.  He sees this as dangerous (hence the annihilation of them) and, more interestingly, outdated.  Coley wants these works to open up a debate about where confession exists now, in today's society of baring all on reality television or internet blogs and social media.  This draws interesting parallels between what is sometimes conveyed as narcissism and confession.  Another work from his Turner Prize show There Will be No More Miracles Here is directly critical of monarchy, and in particular how the monarchy sees itself in relation to God.  It also purports to draw to our attention the fact that our actions have consequences and that to rely on God or another person to change your circumstances is futile.  Coley is clear though that “I’m not someone who makes work about religion, I make work about how our values illustrate themselves in public or private space. The work deals with how architecture can symbolize the community’s beliefs. I’ve long been interested in how we occupy space.” (ACCA). 
I don't have another land, 2002

If there were any doubt to Coley's credentials as a political artist we need only look back to earlier works such as I Don’t Have Another Land (2002) which is a replica of the modernist Marks and Spencer building bombed by the IRA in 1996.  Only once the building was destroyed did the people of Manchester realise what it meant to them as a landmark.  The title is taken from an Israeli folksong but reminds me more of the current situation of the displaced Palestinians.  I Don't Have Another Land reminds us of the temporality of buildings and the human need to identify with a place. 

I started this post by asking what the most striking political acts are in the news today.  My answers were both examples taken from Britain.  As I write Tahrir Square is once again occupied on a grand scale.  Events in Egypt cannot be seen in isolation though.  Egypt's revolution came as a result of Tunisia's and Libya followed in what has been called the Arab Spring (not the spring failed in Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia - the North African Spring doesn't have the same ring though).  Nathan Coley's work has an indirect link to the Arab Spring through his piece Lockerbie Evidence for which he created a replica of the witness box.  The witness box, "a veneered piece of sovereign Scottish territory constructed on Dutch soil to try a Libyan secret agent" (Frieze).  "Political sensitivities meant the trial was held in a specially constructed court, legally in Scotland, but geographically in the Netherlands" (Tate). Coley was court artist in residence for the trial. Strangely, all pictures of the Lockerbie Witness Box have disappeared from the internet - even the image to the front cover of Coley's book has gone.  Strange. 

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