Has dystopian unease ever been so much fun? Mike Nelson’s exhibition is as serious and sinister as it needs to be. But I felt strong notes of dark humour, and the interactive elements display unchecked, unabashed brio.
‘Extinction Beckons’ is a suitably foreboding name for an exhibition that – as the accompanying text makes clear – revolves around absence, confusion and decay. In an opening quotation, the artist himself declares his ambition to make ‘immersive’ art. At that moment, he is speaking about the works’ ability to disorientate and bewilder you – to have a definitive psychological impact. And there’s no doubt that you experience this intended mental dislocation as you make your way through the show.
But equally important, surely, is that most of his creations immerse you physically. Almost everything in this show is massive, allowing you to walk around, beneath and through Nelson’s installations. And there’s no getting around it: this is a thrill. You become part of the installations – at times, the only human actor in a deserted set (as a couple of my photos show). Or occasionally, you warily make progress through doorways and passages, aware of other voices and footsteps that may only be inches away from you, the other side of a wall.
Here, I’m referring in particular to what, for me, is the absolute heart and centrepiece of the exhibition, ‘The Deliverance and The Patience’. The title refers to a 17th century incident where captive survivors of a shipwreck in Bermuda tried to found a free settlement before eventually being forced to build two new ships (giving the piece its title) and sail on.
The installation itself is a large network of interconnecting rooms and passages. You start at one end and emerge the other, but the route you improvise in-between is entirely up to you (the gallery guide was careful to explain that you need to zig-zag or double back from time to time to make sure you see every room).
While the makeshift maze does not seem to represent a ship or vehicle of any kind, it is full of references to travel, geography and exotica. The ‘abandoned’ feel of the props, including an overturned chair, easily transport the mind to oceanic mysteries such as the Flannen Isle lighthouse or the Mary Celeste.
For anyone around my (middle) age, there are devices, maps, ornaments and objects that dance across both sides of the line of living memory. To some younger visitors, the scene may feel more primeval, even alien. Nelson seems to deliberately blur references to science and the occult, escape and confinement, across several indistinct timelines.
As the description for this exhibit points out, the ‘clash’ of the different rooms resembles how you experience the world through a film or book rather than real life. And sure enough, it felt intensely cinematic. There was an undeniable horror aesthetic at play, from the empty corridors illuminated only by bare bulbs, to the anguished creaks and screeches of the doors and handles, to the occasional ‘jump scare’ of unexpectedly encountering a fellow explorer, or even coming face-to-face with yourself in a mirror. I would in fact go further than the interpretation: for all the displacement effect, because you happen to be in this particular movie, it’s simultaneously hyper-real, and all the more powerful for that.
There are ‘meta’ touches that give ‘Extinction Beckons’ a sense of balance and completeness. For example, we see two versions of a piece called ‘I, Imposter’. On first entering the exhibition, you pass through a room lit solely in red, which comes into focus as a cross between a storeroom and a huge shed, preserving all manner of debris along its shelves and walls.
Later, buried within a different exhibit entirely, you encounter a reconstruction of a darkroom with the same name. The photos pegged out to dry depict the assembly of yet another of Nelson’s installations. These criss-cross references to his own practice distort the timeline in one way, but it’s also a jolt to realise that you’ve essentially seen one piece both intact, yet simultaneously exploded, or even turned inside out, in the same show.
Other areas of the exhibition continue to show how Nelson forces fluidity and instability onto time and space. I was particularly taken with ‘The Amnesiacs’, an installation supposedly put together by a fictional biker gang with PTSD from the Gulf War, trying to depict what they saw in their flashbacks. The Amnesiacs are also responsible for the fake fire, constructed from debris, you pass on the way to the exit.
Towards the end of the exhibition, ‘Triple Bluff Canyon’ presents a reconstruction of Nelson’s studio, frozen at a point in time. However, it’s open to the external onlooker, and the artist projects found footage of a far-right conspiracy theorist out of the space. The notes explain that this shows how ideas can violently impact truth and logic. I felt it went even further than that: that art itself is vulnerable to ideology – that the artist either has to seal themselves away from the real world, or actively engage with its worst, as well as best, aspects. (It also struck me that at one point, this must have been a fake studio within its real doppelgänger, which must surely have been a ‘full Nelson’ moment if ever there was one.)
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the hang. I am always fascinated by how exhibitions are assembled and displayed – in some extreme cases, it can make or break the experience, whatever one feels about the art itself. Here, the work and the space felt made for each other.
Many large galleries could have adapted their rooms accordingly, of course, but this particular exhibition was very at home in the Hayward, slotting into its brutal concrete and labyrinthine structure as if it was always destined to lodge there. Perfectly at home, performing its function, even when the gallery closes, and we abandon it.
Mike Nelson, ‘Extinction Beckons’ is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London until 7 May 2023.
(All photos by AA.)