Studio Nathan Coley

Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth 2012

Burn The Village, Feel The Warmth

Tom Hunt

While the condition “burn the village, feel the warmth” is logical, the proposition—comfort in return for desecration—suggests a strikingly impolitic manifesto. In Coley’s light-box sculpture, we are given just this brief directive. The words are stacked one on top of the other, separated by a gap between the first clause, the condition, and the second, its consequence.



Each letter is formed from a sequence of circular incisions made into a lid of charcoal-colored aluminum. From these holes, as though in response to the text, shines a cool white light.

Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth (2012) extends Coley’s interest in a mode of communication that holds text and object in counterpointed equilibrium. In this instance, the insistent rhythm of the words, the tablet-like form of the light box, and the incorporeal light that emerges from it, combine to stress the axiomatic potency of the argument.

As with his other work that incorporates language into its objecthood, the words Coley chooses to leave out are significant as the words he chooses to include / reveal. In this case, the apparently water-tight condition, “burn the village, feel the warmth,” is shorn of a key precursing condition: “If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth” (my italics). This African proverb makes explicit the social imperative which provides the ethical distinction / dimension to the burn cause and warmth effect.

Coley is not interested in syntactical games, per se, rather the ways in which ready-mades can be adapted for fresh meaning. As with other examples from the light-box series—Give Up the Good Book, Pick Up a Good Gun (2008); “All Artists Are either Cowboys or Indians” (What Jackson Said to Andy, 2008); Never Trust a Loving God (2011)—the absolute nature of their imperative is paradoxically an indication of their ambiguity as commandments. This skepticism is central to the process by which Coley adopts things that already exist in the world; by isolating them, he relieves them of a specific historical reality and returns them as representations pitched between aphorism and haiku.