Exclusive: Q&A with Turner Prize-Nominated Artist Mike Nelson


Mike Nelson, A Psychic Vacuum, (detail) Mixed media installation, 2007.

Biking through Manhattan in the fall of 2007, I came upon a strange scene on the Lower East Side. It was one of those shuttered, derelict buildings I had passed many times, but that day there was an intriguing opening in its brick facade: a blank door on Delancey Street, through which a trickle of people flowed into an eerie interior. I had unwittingly stumbled into A Psychic Vacuum, an installation by the British artist Mike Nelson. There were no catalogs or placards; no conceptually abstruse artist’s explanations; I wasn’t even sure whether the labyrinth of rooms I found on the other side of that rabbit-hole entrance was intentionally created or merely found, a fully-intact wonderland.

All I knew was that I ended up in a beautifully dark and disorienting maze — a string of small rooms filled with symbols and props, stuffed bears and baseball bats and vacant chairs; objects that felt like clues to some recently evaporated scene. Each room was a claustrophobic curio cabinet, like a relative’s attic in which the astute observer might discover some long-buried history. It was interactive; it was exciting.

It was also immensely creepy. Scattered with chilling security mirrors and straitjackets, prayer mats and torture implements, dirty dentist’s chairs and chambers that repeated themselves with only minor variations, eliciting a panicking, constricting déjà vu. What was real and what created? What was the connection between the objects? In an attempt to belatedly answer some of these questions, I caught up with Nelson to revisit the vacuum, which he has recently recreated in a new book published by Creative Time.

Flavorpill: Your installation takes its name from Stanislaw Lem’s book A Perfect Vacuum, a series of reviews of non-existent books. The warren of rooms in A Psychic Vacuum, constantly shading between the fictional and the actual, has a similar structure, like a set of interlinked apocalyptic short stories that encourage the viewer to make narratives of her own, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Do you see your works as novelistic, or as encouraging a “reading”?

Mike Nelson: Work such as this relies on the spaces in-between what is actually there. It acts like a catalyst, coercing you into imaginative space. These residues of suggested narratives pull you into several spheres — psychological, socio-political, and anthropological.

FP: I felt a little like an archeologist or anthropologist going through the labyrinth – an Indiana Jones exploring the abandoned record of some obsolete, sinister society, a society that happened to be my own. But this society isn’t entirely your own. Your work comments on American politics, but you are English. Was that a challenge for you?

MN: At times, the motifs I used were a little heavy-handed, but in the given situation and time it seemed appropriate. A reassessment of what it meant to be American, to live within America, seemed overdue. To look at one’s flag and feel shame is not entirely new to most English people.

Mike Nelson, A Psychic Vacuum, (detail) Mixed media installation, 2007.

FP: Belief seemed to be a prevalent motif in the installation: there were prayer rugs, votives, and small shrines throughout. The work also challenged the viewer’s belief: how much of the space was real? What had been found and what created?

MN: This work is all about belief. My earlier work, The Coral Reef, was about a sub-structure of belief systems that existed under a metaphorical ocean’s surface, a dominant system of money, of economics. This was 1999, 2000. Subsequent world events and a journey across the Atlantic encouraged me to flip that work into A Psychic Vacuum, into an economy lost in an era of modern primitivism, being buried under a literal sea of sand, a desert.

FP: The final room, in which the viewer sees that giant dune of sand, comes as a vast and beautifully expansive release after the claustrophobia of the maze. You’ve used sand in your work before. Why?

MN: The work I made with sand before was a reworking of a seminal piece by Robert Smithson — Partially Buried Woodshed, completed in 1970 on the campus of Kent State University. My work intended to consciously re-politicize that piece, which was posthumously connected to the shootings of four students by the National Guard during anti-Vietnam and anti-Cambodia demonstrations. So in a way it was as if it held up a mirror as history and art repeated itself — another woodshed, another war in a foreign land, this time of sand and oil.

FP: How do you come up with the concepts for each room or installation?

MN: It’s a mixture of intent and suggestion. I travel around sourcing material, looking for specific things but often finding others that I can work in. Architectural detail and later objects are worked into the structure almost as you would imagine a painting or sculpture being built up or worked into.

Mike Nelson, A Psychic Vacuum, (detail) Mixed media installation, 2007.

FP: Going through the installation made me wonder a lot about the history of the space. What had it looked like and been used for before? How did it influence your work?

MN: The psychic booths and tattoo parlors of the Lower East Side fit my modern primitives idea very well. We cut out bits of the old building to build into our new structure to keep a semblance of credibility to the ambiguity of [the labyrinth’s] previous existence.

FP: How did you organize the pages of the book? Since each room was essentially its own entity, it must have given you a chance to reshuffle and recreate the maze.

MN: Yes, this is something I enjoy doing. The book works its way through to the sand room, giving one perspective or reading. You then reenter, finding a route you had not taken and seeing the same spaces from different perspectives.

FP: What is your next project?

MN: Hopefully some major demolition of a small part of London — but we have to find somewhere first.