Studio Nathan Coley

If the Young... 2012

If the Young

Tom Hunt

How do we come to know something? This question lies at the heart of Coley’s practice and is oriented around the personal and social politics of faith and belief, control and order, and the authority of the information that is disseminated. The imperatives of his text works place the onus on the viewer to comply and be enfolded or to reject and remain outside and this provocation is often precisely
located—There Will Be No Miracles Here (2010); Heaven Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens (2008); We Must Cultivate Our Garden (2010); A Place Beyond Belief (2012); Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth (2012).

The If the Young . . . series (2012) furthers this concern with pedagogy. Here the proverb, “If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth,” is embedded within a news article analyzing the cause of urban unrest. Printed above the graphite transcription of the excerpt is an apparently illustrative image: a burning building, the façade of Tate Modern at the moment the institution publicly declared its denunciation of the Chinese government in relation to its treatment of Ai Weiwei, and a picture of a quiet mangrove in the Everglades. Yet there is no direct correspondence between the two elements: the news article may or may not be specifically concerned with the London riots and the images derive from unrelated Internet searches. The viewer’s instinct
to read the text and image in light of one another has been manipulated by the artist rather than the historical event. The oblique nature of the series is characterized by the contrast in media between the hand-drawn text and the digital print. The unique declaration one associates with the personal signature is here at odds with its precise repetition of the excerpt, beginning mid-sentence and half cut-off like news feed. Related to this, the democratic nature of the Internet undermines its authority as a source of reliable knowledge. The searched for images in If the Young . . . are anonymous and unfiltered yet are presented as definitions.

Within these works, Coley explores the means by which information enters public consciousness, from the ancient tradition of passing information and a code of ethics down generations, to the daily turnover of news, to the depthless, democratic archive of the Internet. What we see and what we read complicates our understanding of the works’ intent. Indeed, with its ellipsis, the title of the series, If the Young . . ., indicates that ambiguity rather than certainty is at the crux of the work.