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Mike Nelson: Extinction Beckons, an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery

Text by Juliette Wallace

Gang of Seven, Mike Nelson (2013)

Fifty tonnes of sand, over 5,000 metres of reclaimed wood and a building’s worth of cement. These are the ingredients needed to produce the upcoming exhibition Mike Nelson: Extinction Beckons in London this February 2023.

For just under three months, visitors of the epically Brutal and yet startlingly beautiful Hayward Gallery, a staple of the radical 1960s redesign of London’s Southbank Centre complex, will have the opportunity to enter worlds lost, proposed and threatened through the artist’s first survey exhibition. Psychologically charged and atmospheric environments will take over and transform the Hayward Gallery, pushing our minds to override pre-existing notions of our past, present and future. The big question: are we ready?

Mike Nelson is a veteran of the British art scene. Beginning in the 1990s, Nelson began operating during the time of the celebrated YBAs (Young British Artists). Although a colleague of the famed artists of the UK’s Sensation[al] movement, Nelson carved an altogether different path, steering well away from the pop, shock and capitalist world that surrounded him. His main interest is psychological: he wants to understand how to seep into his viewer’s consciousness and mess with their perception of the world around them. To do this, Nelson accesses science fiction, the relics of failed political movements, memories of our dark histories and the stuff of countercultures as references. 

The fictive worlds that Nelson began creating just under three decades ago continue to be relevant today, and his pieces have been selected for various important exhibitions over recent years, including the 54th Venice Biennale (2011), the 13th Lyon Biennale (2015) and the 20th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2018). Now the Hayward Gallery brings together the artist’s older works with his more contemporary ones to encourage the viewer to reconsider our unstable society and the choices we have made.

He does this through immersive, interactive environments assembled from the salts and sands of our earth. Though his installations sometimes physically enclose us, their open-ended narratives beckon to a seemingly endless play of possibilities – even as they conjure bleak scenarios evocative of the fringes and margins of society, comments Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery. 

In a time when the intangible realm of the internet is progressively dominant, averaging at 7 hours of daily usage across the globe; where reality and fiction, past and present, are mushed together in incomprehensible algorithms and floods of misinformation; where our concept of ‘home’ and ‘home-page’ are getting more and more muddled, Nelson is attempting to shake us up through the resources found in our physical surroundings. It is the artist’s use of earth’s materials – natural and man-made – on a massive scale that penetrates the psyche, forcing the visitor to consider what might have been and what is yet to come. Mad Max, eat your heart out. 

Impactful and severe, Nelson’s works are reminiscent of artists like Joseph Beuys and the Land Art movement, which included names such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. That which dominated the purpose of this particular group back in the ‘60s and ‘70s (around the time that the Hayward was built) was a need to remind the viewer of the world’s power and scale and our own role within it – both our relative strengths and weaknesses. It seems that these messages of the last millennium are just as important, if not more so, today, and Nelson is trying to find his way into the cracks of our minds to bring us awareness and to stimulate action. But, again, psychological play and manipulation are key to the artist’s methods, and his understanding of the human senses is his way in.

MAGAZIN: Buyuk Valide Han, Mike Nelson (2003)
Studio Appartus for Kunsthalle Münster, Mike Nelson (2014)

The way the human brain functions is obviously of interest to Mike Nelson. Getting a handle on our methods, processes, systems and behavioural patterns means he can use these as tools for his work and lesson. Nelson wants to leave a mark and make a lasting and socially important impact on a wide scale. The artist clearly cares about his message, so in aid of its absorption by the art-viewing public, he accesses the science of how our minds work so that he may use this to play psychological games on us to achieve his greater goals. He has been doing this throughout his whole career.

Nelson toys with the human senses, assaulting, tickling and tempting our sight, hearing, and smell through his imposing pieces. Coloured lights, expansive indoor landscapes, nostalgic junk-yard found objects, and enormous chunks of raw or processed materials are collected, expertly assembled, and will be displayed within the Hayward’s gallery. The assemblage of micro-worlds is done by the artist in such a labyrinth, forcing the viewer to be fully immersed. 

The Hayward Gallery is the perfect setting for Nelson’s particular brand of psychological art. Sitting like a lego toy for Fantastic Four’s The Thing on the banks of the Thames, the gallery’s cement walls and chunky, winding structures create a playground of spaces to work with for the artist. Each room will be transformed into its own disorientating world, all with a particular, unique character and message. 

Magazin, a work originally shown at the 8th International Istanbul Biennale, is composed of a shed-like structure swimming in a sea of red light. Objects hang from the ceiling and are scattered around the room. The installation inspires interaction – a desire to touch and discover – keeping the viewer on their toes. This trait carries through to Nelson’s other installations, including The Book of Spell. This work is enticing both in name and in nature in that it is made up of a collection of works of literature that populate the gallery space, suggestive of magical possibilities within. It is up to us to imagine what these may be.

There is no doubt that Nelson is speaking to us through his work, and his exhibition at the Hayward is set to be a chorus of Nelson’s many voices. However, the melody that resonates will depend on the viewer themselves and their personal take-away from the show.

In the artist’s own words: my intent has always been to make immersive works that operate on multiple levels. They should have a narrative, a spatial aspect, but also a psychological effect on the senses: you’re seeing and feeling one thing whilst your brain is trying to override this and tell you something else. Disorientating, absorbing, transformative and meaningful, Nelson is not afraid to be bold. 

Beginning on February 22nd, the exhibition will run until May 7th of this year. A tip from this author: go back a couple of times and see what your mind tells you upon each visit. The message is bound to take on a life of its own…

(Images courtesy of the Hayward Gallery)
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