Studio Nathan Coley

Bandstand 2012

From Abstraction to Allusion: Nathan Coley’s Bandstand

Caroline Käding

Bandstand consists of a monolithic piece of concrete, poured on site, whose surfaces create a particular spatial arrangement. In front of two parallel, overlapping, and room-high vertical walls, a horizontal surface “hovers” approximately forty centimeters above the ground. It is composed of two rectangles of about the same size as well as a smaller one, which are all placed together to create a single orthogonal shape with protruding and receding elements. At the front and on each side, the surface can be accessed by a set of four concrete steps, which are set into the horizontal plane. Another set of steps are found at the rear and leads in between the two back walls running across the surface, set apart from each other but overlapping at roughly the middle of the raised platform. To a viewer standing in front of the sculpture, these two back walls, the front one shorter than the back one, form a single plane, whose smooth surface bears the rhythmic vertical markings of the structure’s casting joints.

The artist placed the sculpture at the narrow back end of an elongated area of greenery, set against a row of trees located a short distance behind it and bordering the park. On the other side of the park, across from the row of trees, is a foot and bicycle path, which runs parallel to the town’s main tram line. Fruit trees stand at irregular intervals on the grassy area.

In the center of the sculpture, protruding through a circular hole in the concrete slab, another tree stands. One wonders whether it was already growing there before the sculpture was created around it. In any case, through this tree, the sculpture is rooted to the piece of land on which it stands and thus also to the landscape.

Bandstand produces a multi-dimensional frame of references, opening up the possibility of critically reflecting the historical precedents of the sculpture. The work makes direct reference to an existing piece of architecture Coley came across whilst visiting Brasília in 2004, a fifty-square- meter concrete platform hovering in the city’s Square of the Three Powers. Probably poured in the nineteen-fifties,
Coley photographed this “landing” along with the few lingering people who were viewing it.

This hovering surface in Brasília is constituted by the formal language corresponding to the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. His expressive, futuristic reinforced concrete constructions definitively shaped the aesthetic of the public buildings and squares of Brasília in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, one of the heydays of modernism. Like the structure in Brasília, Bandstand has the quality of being perceived as an aesthetic work of art while simultaneously being usable. Or its usability is not overtly expressed, since it has been placed in an insignificant park area beside one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a place where people pass through and don’t spend much time. This is less suggestive of a function than the elevated cement platform on an urban square in the middle of the Brazilian capital. In addition, the vertical surfaces of Bandstand, which are absent on the object in Brasília, lend Coley’s piece a sculptural rather than functional dimension. The two works are undoubtedly different to the extent that the surface in Brasília is a relic from the epoch of modernism, while Bandstand in contrast functions as a sign that points to this past.

The capacity of Bandstand to take up and recall a specific work from a bygone era stands in clear opposition to its formalistic sculptural language. This is due to the fact that in terms of the use of this formalistic language there is an obvious difference between explicitly incorporating modernism into a work and using a work to establish a specific reference to an epoch. Reworking the Brazilian original and creating it in another form, even if altered, is fundamentally antithetical to the original aims of modernist abstraction, which serves as the conceptual foundation of Bandstand. From the nineteen-nineties into the early years of the twenty-first century, young European artists who became well-known in this period often explicitly referred to works of modernism and reinterpreted the premises and process of this epoch in different ways. The work of Nathan Coley is characteristic of this generation, whose works portray the legacy of modernism through an abstracted formalism and thus comment on modernism itself. Such an approach makes evident the gap in time and the shift in underlying concepts and ideals. Since the nineteen-nineties, abstraction no longer has the connotations it once held—instead it has been carried over into a referential function.

In Bandstand, the ambivalence of formalistic abstraction and representation (in terms of the physical similarity with the hovering platform in Brasília) is obscured; in a figurative sense this obscuration means that both form the base and the window at the same time, and this is what defines this work. The formal aesthetic of the sculpture is both opaque and transparent. Coley supplemented the sculpture that he happened to discover in Brasília through the specific local context of his Bandstand. Located on the outskirts of Freiburg, Rieselfeld is a young neighborhood, largely inhabited by families and was built in the nineteen-nineties. The last phase of construction coincided with the erection of the artist’s sculpture. The concrete shells of the buildings that were built here strongly resemble the vertical components of the work, giving the impression that Bandstand is incomplete. In this context, the indicated window opening in the left back wall seems to be symbolic. It is not only a presumed quotation from the new buildings that are being constructed around it, but also offers a view through the otherwise non-transparent concrete surface to the row of trees behind it. The opening penetrates the robust material and thus serves as a conceptual statement. As if one could look through the work into other eras, the opening formally offers passage into the past and to another place (such as South America), while also offering an open view of the immediate surroundings in this young neighbourhood.

With the English title Bandstand, another conceptual element comes into play, which points toward Coley’s native country—Great Britain. Seen today, these bandstands have deeper roots in the culture of Great Britain than that of Germany. This form of concert pavilion came into fashion in the Victorian era and can be found in many public parks as a remnant of the period. As a rule they take the form of a narrow and high tent, have a roof, and often have a decorative wrought-iron railing running along the edge of the elevated platform. The only thing that a concert pavilion and the sculptures in Brasília and Rieselfeld share is that all are communal platforms, which anyone can access. On the weekends and holidays, concerts used to take place on these bandstands. They were also often the place of political gatherings, meetings, and demonstrations, recalling the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London. Although they are used less today, they are perceived as relics of another time instead of sculptures. Coley’s Bandstand does not make reference to this structure through its composition but only through its title. Due to the artist’s conceptual approach, Bandstand has a global scope as it incorporates references from South America and Great Britain as well as allusions to other countries and cultures. In the process, no specific country is represented; the artist brings this distant place into a site-specific work for Rieselfeld.

For the period of Nathan Coley’s solo exhibition at Kunstverein Freiburg in the spring of 2013, these various referential trajectories were supplemented by an additional location, the building of the Kunstverein—a distance of just under six kilometers from the suburb of Rieselfeld to the exhibition space on the edge of Freiburg’s city center. The exhibition was developed in association with Bandstand. The gaze of the viewer—which normally passes from the five-meter-high anteroom and down the full length of the large, simple exhibition hall framed by an upper gallery and topped with a continuous glass at a height of eight meters—was obstructed by Coley’s installation Untitled (Cardboard Wall Sculpture) (2013). Designed for the entry area, this multi-part work at first gave the impression of a single wall made out of large-format sheets of cardboard. However, the individual freestanding wall components were placed against the side walls of the foyer so as to offer a meandering path into the main gallery space. Three of these walls, which were placed one behind the other and staggered in height, were of similar proportion. The vertical rhythm created by the large sheets of cardboard created a similar effect as the vertical surfaces of Bandstand. In particular, the roughness of the brown packing material used for the walls in the gallery corresponded in its quality as an everyday and untreated material to concrete that is exposed to the open sky. In this manner, the elements of the installation made direct reference, both formally and aesthetically, to the sculpture in Rieselfeld.

In addition, the installation confronted the viewer with similar ambiguity, which leads to a dialectic of pure aesthetic observation and functionality, as in Bandstand. The functional aspect was manifested in the cardboard wall element that was constructed to protrude furthest into the hall and was shaped like a reversed “L” of which the longest side was placed just in front of the right side wall of the gallery. Hung on this surface were two collages, The Square of the Three Powers (East) (2011) and The Square of the Three Powers (West) (2011), framed black-and-white photographs that Coley himself had taken of the sculpture in the Square of the Three Powers during his visit to Brasília. On both photographs he covered and thus obscured certain elements of the image with gold leaf. By installing these works on the final wall element of the installation, the cardboard wall sculpture “slipped” into acting as exhibition architecture similar to temporary partition walls. This arrangement is similar to the way in which the single planted fruit tree vibrates within the poured concrete sculpture of Bandstand in Rieselfeld, cementing the object to the landscape and surroundings. In this sense, a functional approach is asserted in both works of art.

The collages are comparable to windows; they permit a view through the otherwise opaque cardboard walls and to another place—a visual device that is repeated in the opening in the left back wall of Bandstand. Here the use of gold leaf could be interpreted as a quote from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance. On an immaterial level it could be seen as an opening of the self to another time or as a means of hiding information—contrary interpretations of the kind that repeatedly appear in Coley’s work. The link to the square in Brasília occurs directly through the photographs in the exhibition, since they show two views of the monument in the city. In contrast to Bandstand this connection is an associative one, since the allusion to the object is integrated into the structure as a citation but is not immediately apparent as an image.

Coming from the relatively narrow and dark passageway at the entrance as part of Untitled (Cardboard Wall Sculpture), visitors are initially drawn into the installation and then, after a meandering path, reach the last, long wall in order to be let out into the brightly illuminated exhibition hall. The last segment of wall extends a bit further and then opens up into a light-infused hall, where Coley’s sculpture A Place Beyond Belief (2011) occupies the back end wall and encompasses the full height of the space. The light sculpture essentially consists of three lines of text that seem to be floating in space. The phrase is written in large letters composed of dots of LED lamps, which further underscore the abstract nature of the letters. The three lines of text were mounted onto the framework of five-meter-high scaffolding.
On a conceptual level, this work includes all the aspects of the dynamic driving the content of Bandstand as well as references or allusions cloaked in abstraction. The direct meaning of the words originally heard by Coley in a radio report on September 11, 2001 in New York can suggest an interpretation meaning a place that evades the imagination or a concept of plausibility or possibly just the opposite, a place where both definitively exist.

Through the collages, the concrete sculpture in Brazil, and ultimately through the title Bandstand, Coley also adheres to the theme of referring to other places in A Place Beyond Belief. Like many of his works, this sculpture offers a possibility to reflect on various allusions in a work of art. Common to the other arenas that Coley refers to in his works is that they can be considered public space: highly frequented places, areas that people move through; places that imply a range of different cultural exchanges. The conceptual and formal language of his works directly relies on the original references, which, however, remain remote. Correspondingly, Coley’s works are never completely assimilated into their surrounding context—whether this is the exhibition space in which A Place Beyond Belief shiningly asserts itself, the institutional architecture in which Untitled (Cardboard Wall Sculpture) is placed, or the area where Bandstand is situated, whereby each of his works retains its own critical autonomy.