Art Review 'The Coral Reef' Mike Nelson Tate Brit

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History of Art By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: History of Art
Last updated: 21/01/2016
Tags: exhibition, fine art, installation, review, tate britain

Mike Nelson is a British installation artist and a Turner Prize nominee in both 2001 and 2007. He builds life size architectural structures inside already existing spaces such as empty buildings, galleries and buses. The Coral Reef is one such structure. The Coral Reef was first constructed and shown early in 2000 as a temporary exhibition in Matt`s Gallery, East London. Then ten years later in 2010 it was reconstructed at The Tate Britain where it will be exhibited until late 2011 and where I saw it in person in January 2011. This review looks at the underlying ideas of an exhibit being designed to condition our responses, in this case the blurring fact and fiction. Also discussed is the importance of the materials used by the artist. And Nelson describes it as being like `an ocean surface with a coral reef of different belief systems underneath the surface.`

The work consists of corridors, doors and many small rooms that contain the remnants of human existence in the form of discarded objects a cup, a TV (still on), telephones, newspapers and a tied up bundle of Marxist propaganda leaflets - all strategically placed alongside objects such as old photos, torn posters and tatty notices - to engage us in the work. We are invited to enter into a type of labyrinth that makes no sense. Then we eventually lose the ability to differentiate between the artwork and the real building, in this case the gallery itself. For example, a door returns us back into the gallery but first through a storeroom of wooden frames and paints - is this the Tate store or part of the artwork? The presence of the gallery assistant inside the installation confuses fact and fiction - is he part of the installation? Fact and fiction have become blurred.

Furthermore, the structure is completely self-contained with its own walls, ceilings and floors. This takes us from the gallery into a fictional world where it is easy to forget that `The Coral Reef` is a mock architectural structure. However, it cannot be classified as architecture because it does not make the same mark on the urban environment and its human neighbours as real architecture does - but it is experienced very differently from looking at a painting or sculpture. This is because Nelson`s art is designed to involve us the viewer, in its narrative.

Nelson describes this as being similar to when a reader enters into the fictional world of a novel `Even though you know that it`s complete fiction that you`re walking into, because you know this is the Tate Gallery - I make the analogy of reading a book. You sit down and you could be sailing the seas or fighting the First World War. And the idea is that you are invited to become lost in this lost world of lost people.` So `The Coral Reef` could be categorised as a type of fictional architecture. And in keeping with the aim of the work, that is to involve the visitor, The Tate has deliberately hidden the structure behind an ordinary plain white door and the attendant allows only ten people in at one time, conditioning our responses further.

Art historian and critic, Jonathan Jones very clearly writes in his Guardian review about his experience. He tell us he found it `An overwhelming sense both of abandonment and anticipation sucks you into what feels like a narrative about terror and conspiracy.` Jones goes on to explain how the space conditions us, `It is ourselves being shaped by the spaces as we are cast in the role of part trespasser, part archaeologist and part detective: a person moving through the traces of other`s existences trying to understand what catastrophe may have caused this emptiness.`

The materials that Nelson chooses play an important role in this experience. They are very personal to him. And therefore carry an aura of something human. A variety of materials have been carefully hand selected by the artist, salvaged from second-hand shops and flea markets. They come complete with layers of dirt, grime and pungent smells. Nelson talks about his relationship with the materials used: `Every piece of wood that you can see and every object has been sourced and found by me. I wander around salvage yards and markets and find what I want for that particular space or place.` Hence, all materials contribute to the eerie sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity and the feeling that whoever was there, could return at any moment. Or perhaps they walked out a long, long time ago, leaving the rooms in a time warp in the rooms a junkie`s squat, a minicab office, a bar, a workshop, all supplied with mysterious and unfathomable props-each filled with carefully selected objects to complete the scene and provide clues about past inhabitants.

This exhibit leaves us wanting more. Because much of this work is left unexplained, demanding further exploration. Questions remain. What is real? How does art condition us? How does this type of experience make us re-consider the effect of a painting upon us? Where does art become architecture? What are the historical and social issues that this exhibition raises? This idea can be positively summed up by saying that Nelson forces art historians and critics to seek a new criticism that deals with the economic, political, social and cultural impacts of an ever changing world. It is possible that Nelson considers that `The Coral Reef` is a good way to untie another truth that is bound up in society - but waiting to be found. This becomes a coherent historical theme because `The Coral Reef` clearly shows us scenes from another time, about another past.

Julia Jane Heckles History of Art Tutor (South West London)

About The Author

Hello I'm Julia Jane, a full time arts educator in art and design and history of art. I'm a highly experienced, positive and encouraging tutor.

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