Studio Nathan Coley

Iceman 2005


Morgan Falconer

“But you have to stand on a platform and see it coming or you can’t know the feeling a writer gets, how the number 5 train comes roaring down the rat alleys and slams out of the tunnel, going whop-pop onto the high tracks, and suddenly there it is, Moonman riding the sky in the heart of the Bronx, over the whole burnt and rusted country, and this is the art of the backstreets talking, all the way from Bird, and you can’t not know who we are, we got total notoriety now, Momzo Tops and Rimester and me, we’re getting fame, we ain’t ashame, and the train go rattling over the garbage streets and past the dead-eye windows of those empty tenements that have people living there even if you don’t see them, but you have to see our tags and cartoon figures and bright and rhyming poems, this is the art that can’t stand still, it climbs across your eyeballs night and day, the flickery jumping art of the slums and dumpsters, flashing those colours in your face – like I’m your movie, motherfucker.”

Underworld, Don DeLillo

Nathan Coley transported a graffiti artist all the way from Dundee to Bristol to letter the lyrical blue tag that names Iceman. This didn’t make the task of tagging the sculpture any easier. Although Coley had photographs of the original scrawled name on a building in Dundee, and merely wished to transfer it, he had neglected to consider that the Iceman had style. His signature held a distilled essence of personality, it was formed by habitual arm gestures, a certain velocity of movement, and these were the property of the original anonymous Iceman alone. Thus Coley and the hired vandal practiced with sheet after sheet of paper pasted up on the plywood structure of the sculpture, changed approach, swapped style, and only after forging Iceman’s tag until it seemed rigid and stale, did they take away the paper, grit their teeth and try and recreate the anonymous artist’s habitual flow one final time: Iceman.

There is an ethic of daring and trespass in vandalism, and so there would seem nothing unusual in the fact that a piece of public art sitting in a old, disused, bolted churchyard should be marked by a vandal who might have lept over the wall in the night. Tagging is a kind of urban baptism that draws the calm face of public structures into a less restful world of private clamour and conflict – it’s a meaningful act of appropriation. Consequently, the tag has the peculiarly comic effect of lending the structure a certain stature and maturity in the urban landscape. If public buildings are the distillation of consensus, graffiti is the last word in disagreement; the last world perhaps, before something is accepted.

It is rather difficult to tell at first glance what kind of structure is Iceman. St John’s Churchyard is secluded, shadowed by buildings, and so rich and dark with leaning trees that passing-by just outside its railings, all one sees is a sheer wall of light plywood. It might be a temporary outhouse, but it has no point of entry; it might be an architect’s model, but it’s rather too large; sitting among old tombs, it could even be considered a monument – were it not built from plywood. In other words, it might be a signpost to the future or a signpost to the past. It will most likely be recognised as art, yet paradoxically, the part which might not be read as art is the title of the work itself, because its scale is deliberately out of proportion with the model.

Iceman in the latest in a series of works Nathan Coley has created over the past ten years which look at architecture. In Villa Savoye (1997) he took the text of a lecture on Le Corbusier’s paradigmatic Modernist domicile outside Paris and mismatched it with slides depicting a contemporary suburban housing development. In a similar project from 2003, Show Home, he created a model house based on an old-fashioned cottage and, accompanied by a publicity campaign, transported it around various sites in Tyne and Wear. Sat on an empty playing field under rainy skies on a housing estate in North Shields, the show home resembled a tardis holding out the promise of an escape to a different, pastoral livelihood.

Architecture may be central to these projects, but it isn’t the profession’s conventional questions of style and design which appear to interest Coley, it is the way in which architecture crystallises inchoate private desires and translates them into public expressions. Of course, this is indeed work done by form and style, but Coley’s interest is not in the profession’s interest in evolving style; rather he is interested in the gap between the ideals of trained professionals and desires of laymen, laymen unschooled in style and more than content with the old fashioned. One might see a little tragi-comedy in the way Villa Savoye highlights the passage – maybe the decline - from Le Courbusier to Barratt, Wilson and Wimpey. Yet it would be wrong, surely, to dismiss these popular spec-built houses as thoughtless stylistic soups and inelegant failures. On the contrary, they too are streamlined machines for living: perfectly tailored to a narrow demographic. And they are not just tailored to the spatial requirements of a co-habiting couple and 2.4 children: they are expressive of ideals of settled life that the families probably never even thought they had. The polychrome brickwork and the frankly exposed slate roofing recall Victorian styles; the arches over the windows echo the Gothic; the way the garage juts out into the forefront might be taken as be a proud assertion of functionalism, and yet the garage door is smartly panelled like a drawing room interior.

With detail in mind one looks differently at Iceman’s apparently generic structure. It might look like a sketchy approximation of a four-story social housing project, but you simply can’t sketchily approximate such things. Like the graffiti tag borrowed directly from the side of a building in Dundee, the details of Iceman’s structure were also lifted directly from a building. And in that building each detail, each spot of colour, has been placed to crystallise a desire, a consensus. The expansive plate glass windows, the open plan rooms, the geometry: they all aspire to engineer equal communities.

Nathan Coley’s Iceman ‘thinks the outside’ in Bristol in a variety of ways, from considering the nature of the city’s public architecture to looking at the character of its overlooked spaces. It is apt, in this regard, that it sits at the edge of the old city walls, like something pushed to the outskirts, buried like the entombed bodies that surround it. But Iceman also ‘thinks the outside’ in the sense that it looks at the passage from unformed private desire to public debate. Coley’s work hasn’t only addressed this theme in terms of architecture. In his series Landmark Portraits (1999) he depicted himself outside a variety of public buildings acting out public desires, or rather, making them absurdly literal. In Waiting for the Scottish Parliament, Coley sits idling on a bench, biding time: the title is a phrase drawn from media coverage, and yet no-one could have been said to be ‘waiting’ for the Scottish Parliament in quite this way. Similarly, in Applauding the Millennium Dome, Coley stands clapping: whatever the media might have meant by applause for the dome, they certainly didn’t mean clapping.

The terms and idioms of public debate often bear no relation to perceived reality, but they do express real desires. We are not just people with families, we are social beings, and in that sense a part of our private self has the desires of a corporate, public self. It is a peculiar, somewhat irrational character – wounded by wars it doesn’t fight; shamed by defeats it never witnesses – but a real one nonetheless. Society simply satisfies the needs of those different selves, the public and the private, by making some spheres of life the province of one self, and other spheres the province of another. It used to be the difference between the home and the boardroom, though as the sphere of informality grows, even the boardroom can be a space to reveal individuality and personality. The ground between the public and the private is continually shifting, and it is on this shifting ground that Coley makes his art.

One characteristic that Coley’s work has often revealed about these shifting spheres is the fact that private feelings can be muffled and suppressed if society does not have a category to accommodate them, does not give them an organ of expression. For example, many remark of the meanness and informality of modern funerals: they have travelled far from the theatre of Victorian mourning. In a sense, one can see a parallel of this in our inability to mourn the passing of certain public forms. If Iceman is a graveyard memorial, it is a memorial to a great many things: an ideology, a way of living, a modern landscape. Like the titular line which appears in the empty windows of Coley’s blackened model of the demolished Marks and Spencer building in Manchester, a work completed in 2002, it is a lament: ‘I don’t have another land.’ We are not meant to feel deep sorrow for such things as department stores, Modern architecture, discredited ideas; and yet we do, and properly so, for mourning is a healthy form of contemplation.

At the conclusion of his own lament for modern society, The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett reflects that intimacy has become a kind of tyranny that has tipped the old balance between public and private life. Cults of personality, authenticity and individual expression have destroyed a settlement in which there was once a large personal realm in which man could invest one kind of passion, and a large impersonal realm where he could invest another. Post-Romantic art has been the victim of one aspect of this, as art has become a matter of compelling emotion above all else; the city has been the victim of another aspect: it has been shunned as the epitome of all that is impersonal. Iceman works across this territory: it turns its gaze on an aspect of the city which has been rejected and written over by a supremely personal expression, a signature. If, finally, Iceman is hard to decipher, and if some people passed by it day after day during the exhibition never quite knowing what it was, that is because it doesn’t speak in the conventionally expressive voice of art. Its surface and structure speak in several voices of which the artistic is just one; Iceman is about all those voices.

From the exhibition catalogue 'Thinking of the Outside' Situations, Bristol

Interview with Nathan Coley

Claire Doherty

Claire Doherty: You first came to Bristol on a research visit in late 2003. Could you describe how your ideas began to develop from that initial encounter with the city?

Nathan Coley: For me it's always a mixture of a lot of things. I think we spent as much time talking as I did looking: with me getting a sense of the hopes from the side of the commissioners and, I guess, you asking how this might work within my practice. I initially thought Bristol was the same as most English cities. Built with the wealth of another time, it has a past of which modern living is aware, but on the whole, uninterested in. Yes, it has this particular association with the water, but I didn't meet anyone who spoke about that as being part of their life. All places have pasts, and, on the whole, most are not that more or less interesting than others.

After visiting and working a little (research in the library, boat trip, tourist trail etc.), I decided to ignore specific information to be found in Bristol. I decided that the work should not come from this place, but would come to this place. This is clearly and deliberately against what some people consider good practice in making ‘art in context’. I have very little time for work which attempts only to reveal its context, illustrate forgotten histories or show you what you don't know about this place. Thankfully, I think we have moved on from that model.

Having said that, I am clear that I have made a sculpture specifically from the starting point of St John's Churchyard in the old town of Bristol.

CD: I think that position of resisting nostalgia, of allowing an artwork to speak from a different place, rather than operate as an illustration or entertainment across the city's tourist trail is fundamental to your practice. Show Home, Urban Sanctuary, Waiting for the Scottish Parliament, all respond to preconceived notions of place, but don't deliver what might have been expected. You start from an informed position though – and that is what interests me. You didn't just insert Iceman into St. John's Churchyard without 'surveying the ground'. Tell me a little bit more about what attracted you to the churchyard.

NC: I think of all the places I visited the churchyard was the most forgotten. Right in the centre of town, it sits undeveloped, stubbornly unchanged through '60s and '70s modernisation, and inevitably lost to the city. With the last burial in the 1880s, it could be said to be unused.
No-one lays flowers or visits a loved one there, and as far as I know its only real function is to be retained and overlooked.

Graveyards are often quite peaceful places, places of contemplation and should be looked at as being legitimate public artworks (along with follies). I like the fact that they are local in terms of who is buried there, but international in the sense that we deal with our dead the world over. Having researched the actual people buried in St John's and finding nothing of interest for me, I spent some time thinking of it more in terms of a garden; a hidden space, bursting with plants; a space actually more alive that you might at first think. I thought of it in terms of scale and size, in terms of colour and tone, and began thinking about what it would mean to activate it in another way. How might it change if people had access to it?

CD: I remember we also began to talk about how this piece of land had remained out of reach from regeneration due to its consecrated status and what occupying that space might mean to passers-by, residents of the adjacent blocks and visitors. Land-use is something that has interested you throughout your career - but I think it's always implicit rather than explicit in your work (I'm thinking of the trace of Lockerbie and Kamp Zeist in Witness Box). Do you think you've moved away from explicitly dealing with the specifics of location, the political and economic function of land, in say the way you did with Urban Sanctuary in 1997?

NC: I think the voice of the new work is more mine and less the amplification of the place. I also see a growing preoccupation in developing a sculptural language, and a presentation of aesthetic decisions. Iceman is definitely a piece of sculpture and less a research project which presents itself formally. The opposite could and has been said of Urban Sanctuary - A public Artwork by Nathan Coley.

Thinking about it in this way makes it seem very thought-out and formulaic. It is much more of a mess in my head. I didn't really know what the work was as I was making it. From the start it felt like it had to find its own place in the landscape of possible works. This, to be honest, happened despite the project, not because of it. It's a case of placing it within the conceptual framework and at the same time forgetting about the graveyard. This I think, along with the 'tag', is what makes the work successful - its edginess.

CD: But would the work have come into existence without the commission? Do you think you need that invitation - that initial research - rather than the studio to develop such works?

NC: I don't honestly know. My studio is increasingly becoming a ‘somewhere’ where all of these concerns and ideas meet. Works that has no place to go (yet) sit alongside ideas that have been born out of specific invitations to 'make something for here'. I find that one work borrows something from the other, and that just gets added to the language of the work.

CD: Getting back to Iceman, one of the most prominent responses to the work by visitors was the identification of sculptural similarities between the tombs and Iceman. As the work developed, we had a number of discussions about other artists' work which deals with the facsimile or model of architecture as sculptural form. How did Iceman distinguish itself from a facsimile?

NC: I think at a certain point, the scale, materials, and composition of the object started to ask their own questions. This room-sized sculpture, referencing a four-storey council housing block began to develop its own integrity. The plywood started to make me think of temporary housing structures (shanty towns or illegal settlement buildings), the scale made me think of garden sheds and I realised that it was a good thing to forget the starting points and try to resolve it as a work. Resolving it is perhaps the wrong phrase as I think Iceman is a work which is just about finished, almost 'correct' but rather interestingly and deliberately doesn't allow the audience that satisfaction. It looks like it is fighting with itself. Crucial details like the painted windows and the doorways set up this anxiety, and the spray-painted 'tag' pushes this edginess further yet.

CD: I agree the strength of the work lies in the way it resists becoming a mere facsimile. Comparisons with other recent work such as Emanuel (1972 Settlement Offensive), 2004 and Tower and Wall (1937 prefabs), 2004, both of which are small scale models, lead me to think about how Iceman distinguishes itself in this series. I think the fact that Iceman is neither a model nor a facsimile is important. It is of course a miniature of a generic housing block writ large - but the life-size tag brings this sculpture out of the pictorial frame. If Iceman had been finished to the detail of Show Home's exterior or made simply of plywood - as an abstraction of the buildings seen in your work Places of Worship, then it would have perhaps become less dynamic in the churchyard. It resists nostalgia precisely because it is neither located in the past (a facsimile of an existing building - the housing block in a model village) nor is it a model for the future (the blankness of an architectural model has been marked and tagged).

Within Bristol, such an assertively anxious occupation of empty space within the city seems to respond to the colonisation of land within the city and our uneasy relationship with regeneration. Do you feel that Iceman has a particular resonance within this context?

NC: I think if that has happened, then great. I think like many post-industrial cities in the UK, Bristol has a tension between the private and the public and that our thinking behind regeneration reflects that. There is a particular relationship between the home and the city-square in terms of ownership, and this idea manifests itself in the work. The ‘home’ in terms of the original housing block in that the sculpture is fashioned on, and the individual within the public realm presented in the sprayed text - ICEMAN

From the exhibition catalogue 'Thinking of the Outside' Situations, Bristol