February 2017_by Federica Tattoli
Nathan Coley is interested in the idea of ‘public’ space, and his practice explores the ways in which architecture becomes invested — and reinvested — with meaning. Across a range of media Coley investigates what the built environment reveals about the people it surrounds and how social and individual responses to it are in turn culturally conditioned. Using the readymade as a means to take from and re-place in the world, Coley addresses the ritual forms we use to articulate our beliefs. Whether highlighting in illuminated letters the five ‘rights of man’ under Islam, or deconstructing Shaker furniture, his work frequently turns the specific into the general, thereby testing its function as a form of social representation.
“We were in Paris, and had just finished lunch when my brother messaged me to ask if I had heard the news, about the fire. I got back to him saying that wasn’t something to joke about. He sent me a link to it on BBC news, and the terrible images were in my hand.
I sat in shock, with tears in my eyes, at the sight of the flames ripping through the roof, and thick black smoke engulfing that so familiar building. How could this be happening? We couldn’t stop looking. It was irresistible, compulsive. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the image was its inevitability — unbearable and unbelievable but also as if foretold.”
To prepare this interview I open my Mac, type your name on Google, and begin looking at images… some of them so famous, then I go to your website start looking your production from 1997 to 2015. Looking at the works and reading some text, one captured my attention, the text you used for ‘Roy Walsh meets Patrick Magee’. I really like that work and I would like to start the conversation from that text…
Interesting that you thought you would find the start on the web, and not in the gallery, that you are attracted to words of mine rather than objects made from me. Google is of course a very particular way of researching. Would you phoning me have generated different answers to your questions I wonder, or us speaking in the gallery surrounded by work?
You wrote “It’s interesting when nowhere becomes somewhere. Dallas, Brighton, Lockerbie. When non-descript places become the centre of the world for a few news cycles.” Could you explain this further? Regarding “Tate Modern on Fire” - the work you show at Parafin - is it the same kind of interest?
Places we know can go from being nowhere to being the centre of the world. I’ve never lived in a metropolis, and I have to believe you can do your stuff from anywhere. It just takes a different way of thinking (and a bit more air travel). Events happen, people do things, and history gets made. “Tate Modern on Fire” could be seen as being speculating on such things.
‘Tate Modern on Fire’ vs. ‘Paul’… could you tell me more about these two works?
I think of “Paul”, 2015, and “Tate Modern on Fire”, 2017, as sister works – siblings separated by time and the River Thames. I look and think of them in the long history of abstract sculpture – both having a physical source in the world, whilst having a re-tuned language of their own. Importantly, I would never call them ‘models’. That description and use of language is wrong. They were made after the buildings they refer to, after the architecture has become symbolic rather than just aspirational. I do like the idea of ‘the model’ however – the naked figure, posing to be drawn in the studio, or the human form hired to dress with ones hot designs for the new season.
“Politics aside, my thing is a more complex interest in architecture and the built environment. I’m interested in how we identify ourselves publicly, how we illustrate ourselves physically (by building churches, monuments, graveyards and gardens), and in turn I’m still fascinated by making objects - objects that speak in our absence.” What are these objects saying?
Ha. I hate it when quotes come back to haunt you!
It may sound like an obvious thing to say, but making sculptures feels natural and comfortably radical. I make objects, which have no purpose other than to be looked at. I make things no one has asked for. They have no use other than to be art. It’s the artness of the object I am interested in, not it’s utility. The current discussion about the utility of culture, the usefulness of the museum etc. is for me completely bogus.
“I like heavy things. I like materials that you can manipulate by hand, and I like sculptures that you want to knock with your knuckles, to be sure what it’s made of.” How did this fascination for materials start?
No idea. I think we are all sensory beings, and touch is an important one. As a thinker and a maker, for me it’s a question of artifice. “Is that real wood, or is it just a 2mm thick veneer?” Either way is fine, but it’s not the same. I love fake, as long as we know its not real, and its not just laziness, or even worse cheap! No to Cheap. Cheap = Bad.
“I’d like the conversation not to be around the work, not in front of the sculptures, I’d like it to be over dinner later that night, or at coffee break the next day. The idea that the object is not the centre of the work is something that I keep coming back to, and keeps me running away.” I think that is very interesting, is it still like that? What do you think that people that come to see the show at Parafin will say the day before the opening?
I think in the digital age, I can no longer control the image, or the manifestation of the artwork as an image. The upside of this is that ideas can exist in many places at the same time. When Gutenberg invented the printing press (around 1440) we could argue that architecture died. Prior to that moment, the values, thoughts and manifestos of a culture were articulated in the churches, houses and cityscapes of the world. The stones of a building stood as fixed points of reference illustrating beliefs and ideas. Prior to the book, we could say that architecture had meaning.
With the invention of the printed word, architectural meaning was broken, and that fixed point was kind of deleted. Instead of having to travel to Rome to see the power of the Catholic Church, their ideas could come to you – a powerful and dangerous idea for many.
Where do you make your works?
I make my work in my head, and then in my studio, and sometimes in public.
What can’t be missing from your worktable?
A Uniball eye pen. Black ink, easy to loose and readily replaceable. The thing I use everyday to gets thoughts out of my head.
Name a collection you wish at least one work of yours was part of?
Glasgow Museums Collection – those closest to you are often the last to hear.
A museum where you’d like to have an exhibition?
Renaissance Society in Chicago – a great organisation with a world class program in a truly wonderful city.
Lightness or depth?
Fast and loose is so last year.
Day or night?
Heaven is cold crisp cotton sheets, on a newly made bed.
Indians or cowboys?
For fucks sake! I made that work so that I would never have to choose.
The Indian being the soothsayer, the mystic, the wise one. The Cowboy being the drunken womanising law breaker. Of course the truth is that all artists are a bit of both.
A question you’ve never been asked but one you’ve always wanted to answer? Answer that question…
What are you reading?
Heroes of the Frontier, by Dave Eggers.
It follows a mother and her two young children on a journey through the Alaskan wilderness in a beat up RV. It’s an examination on contemporary American life, as well as being at times very funny.
My daughter has seen it, and the soundtrack (“Justin Timberlake is GOD”) is constantly on in the car. I feel that I am missing out on a major cultural event by having not experienced it.
Where would you like to live?
Do you have reference artists? Artists you’d like to work with?
I sometimes ask myself“What would Bruce Nauman do in this situation?”
My only problem with his work is that I didn’t come up with those ideas, and that some of his best work work was made before I was born.
A project, related to art, that you’d like to do?
Not telling. Ideas are too valuable to give away to strangers.
If you weren’t an artist, what job would you like?
Professional tennis player?
Let’s imagine a group show. Who would you like to exhibit with?
Yes or no to curators? If yes, who would you choose?
Yes to curators – no to pluralists.
I’m a fan of specialists, and good curators can tell you things about your work you could never hear from yourself. The bridge they can form really helps to join the public and the artwork. The best artists I know listen more than they speak, and good curators always have something to say.
Katrina Brown, Director of the Common Guild in Glasgow – the smartest person I know.
“Life is a dream that stops us from sleeping!” - Oscar Wilde
A dream of yours?
Living in a world where ‘the image’ is King and words work for him (rather than the other way round), where early Simple Minds songs play in the street, and Celtic are European Champions again.
Nathan Coley lives and works in Glasgow. Important solo exhibitions include New Art Centre, Roche Court, Salisbury (2016), House Festival, Brighton (2015), Pier Arts Centre, Orkney (2013), Kunstverein Freiburg (2013), Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2012), ACCA, Melbourne (2011), Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2004), Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon (2001) and the Westfalischer Kunstverein, Munster (2000). Notable group exhibitions include Glow, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2016), Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick, Somerset House, London (2016), Bruges Triennial (2015), Generation: 25 Years
of Contemporary Art in Scotland (2014), You Imagine What You Desire, 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014), Mom, Am I Barbarian, 13th Istanbul Biennial (2013), Tales of Time and Space, Folkestone Triennial, UK (2008), Days Like These, Tate Triennial of Contemporary British Art, Tate Britain (2003), and in the British Art Show 6, BALTIC (2005).
Coley’s work is included in many collections worldwide. Coley was short- listed for the the Turner Prize in 2007.
The major commission The Same for Everyone is part of Aarhus 2017 European Capital of Culture.
Portrait on the cover, Courtesy Nathan Coley studio.