Words Charles Holland
Mike Nelson is an architect. Not professionally, but he does design buildings. Or, at least, bits of buildings. The difference is that, unlike most architects, Nelson sets out to create places that aren’t very nice. In fact they have a palpable sense of unpleasantness. His work deals with generically low-rent spaces; places where horror flicks and Kung Fu movies might be set. B-architecture, you could call them. His installations are sets filled with found objects that evoke seedy, familiar places: motel lobbies, dank corridors, a security guard’s room, a dilapidated redneck bar.
This year Nelson has been nominated for the Turner Prize for the second time in his career. Perhaps the sense of déjà vu explains why his installation for the Turner Prize exhibition in Liverpool has generally been seen as lacklustre. His creative energies seem to have been spent elsewhere.
His latest project, A Psychic Vacuum, is in Essex Street Market, a vast semi-derelict warehouse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Entry is from the street into a dilapidated Chinese takeaway where dust lies thick on deep fat fryers and over plastic chairs bolted to the floor. Although this space is typically “Nelsonian”, it is in fact a genuine abandoned restaurant. From the back of it a door leads into a labyrinthine mass of interconnecting rooms constructed using junk collected from second-hand shops. These rooms are typically disquieting places: a deserted bar, a dank and smelly freezer room, a lonely bedroom decorated with religious icons. Eventually, this claustrophobic maze leads you out into a huge industrial space almost completely filled with sand. Somewhere under it lie the rooms you have just come out of.
Nelson’s effects are unsettling for sure, but it is his method that is particularly intriguing. Architects start with drawings that get translated into buildings. Nelson starts from the other end, beginning not just with the sensation of a space but more specifically the feelings evoked from the objects he uses, connecting like so many intense but tangential thoughts.
Architects strive to make nice, maybe beautiful places. Even work that purports to be edgy and radical is still shiny and clean and well put together. Only an architect thoroughly unconcerned with ever being hired again would set out to make somewhere as maladjusted as A Psychic Vacuum.
Freed from the overwhelming pressure to be responsible, Nelson gets to be the anti-architect. He creates a strange looking-glass world where all the effort, ingenuity and skill goes into making bad places. Instead of sitting down with a nice clean piece of paper trying to design a better world, he starts with all the dirty and unwanted bits of the existing one. Then he weaves these together to form a dark parody of the places we inhabit. It’s thoroughly appropriate that he has found such a large chunk of derelict real estate in the rapacious market of Manhattan. His approach is the opposite of regeneration. It is – to reverse the title of a recent book – the architecture of unhappiness.
Mike Nelson’s A Psychic Vacuum was at Essex Street Market, New York, 8 September – 28 October