Mike Nelson - To The Memory of HP Lovecraft

Catalogue text for Singapore Biennale, 2011

In 1999 Mike Nelson - installed To the Memory of HP Lovecraft at Edinburgh's Collective Gallery. The visitor walked into the exhibition space - through a homemade reinforced steel door - to find that the room had been wrecked... the white walls had deep parallel grooves slashed into them from what might be the talons of a massive claw and holes hacked through them and piles of plaster and paint and pulped wood were scattered cross the floor like faeces. The damage was focused on the lower part of the walls, as if caused by some sort of animal or a human being reduced to an animal state. What ever had done this, it was no longer there.

If not for the reference to H.P. Lovecraft in the title, we could see the wrecked walls in terms of making reference to an art action or a performance, an Austrian actionist maybe, or the preserved detritus of Joseph Beuys banked against gallery walls in New York. But with his titular presence - and as is usual with Nelson - the wrecked space triggers associations from literature and cinema and popular culture as well as from contemporary art.

The cthonic horrors and glimpsed nightmare creatures of the cult American horror writer's imagination have seeped out from his convoluted gothic fictions to colonise comic books and the cinema: to become the malign presences of 'The Thing' or 'Alien'. With Nelson's work the gallery becomes the site for the actions of something creepy and unspeakable. At the same time we were aware of its theatricality, that it is a set. This mixing of the languages and histories of contemporary art with wider narratives, be they Sci-fi, literary, social, psychological, political and conspiratorial, is central to Nelson's work, and positions art and its artifacts as part of these wider webs of signification. In Triple Bluff Canyon (2004) for instance, the woodshed famously buried by Robert Smithson is reconstructed as a JG Ballard ruin drowned in desert sand and becomes into a loaded terrifying site that hints at survivalists, abductions and despair.

To the Memory of HP Lovecraft was restaged at the Hayward Gallery in 2007 and at the end of the exhibition the artist removed the wounded wooden panels from the walls - including layers dating back to the building's construction - and re-cycled them into plinths of varying volumes and sizes in Le Cannibale (Parody Consumption and Institutional Critique) (2008). This work presents us with a sculptural field that recalls minimalist sculptural practice. However, rather than the mute perfected surfaces usually associated with such approaches, the plinths are ruined and scarred and whatever might have been on them has disappeared. They have been shattered by a history we can only guess at and seem to bear witness to the actions of a malign intelligence or a nameless anger.

© Richard Grayson 2011