Studio Nathan Coley

Lockerbie Evidence 2003


Ben Tufnell

The artist Nathan Coley entered a similarly disclosed arena, not a mental hospital but a courtroom. He applied to be admitted to the Lockerbie Trial. The authorities were baffled by his interests in being there with no concrete purpose other than to witness the proceedings as an independent observer. He was accepted, not as an artist but as a jour- nalist, since this was the only category in which they could place him. He was in any case intrigued by the idea a build- ing itself could inscribe and impose on visitors submission to authority. But was Coley’s enforced false identification as a journalist denying that press pass to a bona fide journalist who might have had other questions to ask and stories to tell? Funded by a grant from the Year of the Artist scheme in Scotland, what were his responsibilities, and to whom? This kind of conceptual conundrum was exactly what drew him to the trial in the first place. It was being held in a Scottish court, in a site legally designated as Scotland, but geograph- ically in The Netherlands. The staff included Dutch workers, who would wake up in Holland and cycle a mile down the road to this place that had become Scotland. There were Scottish workers, who were working abroad, in Scotland. Equipped with his press pack, which included digitized images of the evidence, Coley sat watching the trial, wondering right up to his final days what exactly he was doing there. Staring at the witness box, he realised that his interest in the trial was contained in the object he was looking at. A constructed space charged with revealing the ‘truth’, the witness box was a physical symbol of the ideas of truth and conviction that so intrigued him. So much so, that he has collaborated with the Imperial War Museum in London to obtain permission for it to enter their collection.

Coley had an exact replica of the witness box made, which is presented in the exhibition together with his drawings of the evidence made in his studio in Dundee and video- taped interviews on the subject of identity and certainty. Reflecting on the trial he says, ‘As an artist, I’m not inter- ested in justice, I’m not necessarily all that interested in revenge either, and I’m actually not that interested in truth either. I’m much more interested in taking on the role of the artist and lying, working with ideas of doubt and uncertainty. I think that’s a valuable role for us to take. There are other people who can deal with the truth.’

His interest as an artist is in questioning the ways in which philosophical values and beliefs become inscribed in the in- frastructure of social and political systems. The ostensible purpose of the Lockerbie Trial was to establish whether the accused men had planted the bomb. But at a deeper level it symbolised and enacted a confrontation between Christian America and Muslim Libya. At the centre of the trial was the witness box — a conceptual device used to elicit truth. Yet it invites projections of truth, both in the courtroom, as well as in the exhibition space where Coley re-presents it. In both situations, the truth will be subjectively constructed. How are we to look at Coley’s drawings of the ‘evidence’ which is made up of ordinary objects and ordinary faces made ominous by the context? Evidence of what exactly? Coley’s act of infiltration is an act of scrutiny which peels back the veneer of certainty.

And what are we doing when we look and talk about the works presented in this exhibition, or indeed any other? Are we, as viewers, in the role of judges or psychiatrists deciding on the truthfulness of these accounts of reality? Are we looking for evidence that the world is indeed how we believe it to be? Though the exhibition itself is a con- struct every much as the individual works themselves, it doesn’t attempt to ‘diagnose’ or ‘convict’ the viewer or society as a whole. It doesn’t demand specialist knowledge but invites the same spirit of curiosity and creative, critical thinking that took Nathan Coley to the Lockerbie Trial. His attendance was not a stunt, but an open-ended reflection of what it all meant.

Artists are not interested in being psychiatrists, judges or politicians. They play with the truth of things. There is something intentionally seductive about those words that describe the world of fakery: hoodwink, counterfeit, cook, sham, bamboozle, con, swindle, dodge. The point is to enjoy being bamboozled. We don’t know what we might learn.