Studio Nathan Coley

Palace 2008


Celia Davies

The first impression of Palace is of a dark silhouette against the white walls of the gallery. The blackness implies heaviness; its entire surface, every detail, is blackened. The black might be read as an indication of the sacred: like the black of the Ka’ba, a 16 metre high shrine located in the courtyard of the Great Mosque at Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. All Muslims, wherever their location on earth, turn towards the Ka’ba during prayer; it is draped entirely in black silk cloth, with Arabic calligraphy spelling out selected verses of the Koran. Or perhaps the black here has mythical associations, as it did for the Abstract Expressionists in America in the1950s. Or maybe this is a minimalist, ‘secular’ black that draws the viewer in, to focus, free from distraction or further invention. The black of Palace is not jet, gloss or velvet black, but a matt black, redolent of charcoal. Utilitarian timber buildings can be tarred black as a method of preservation. Or is this the charred remains of a burnt-out building, destroyed by fire. This could be the melancholic black, familiar in western art and culture, signifying a sad, abandoned and isolated object.

Beyond its overwhelming blackness, the form of Palace emerges: a nineteenth century western saloon façade. Constructed with timber; it is nearly six metres tall and ten metres wide. It is made with minimal details and features – just enough to convey the idea and no more. Shallow steps, integral to the structure, lead up to a porch and saloon door, but given the gallery context, the viewer is unlikely to enter; it feels forbidding. At ground level the carpentry articulates empty windows frames and three doors (each are notably in a different style), while at first floor level there are more empty window frames with a pediment roughly centre. Behind the façade, the structural supports are evident; but curiously, the space here feels habitable; there are niches to stand in; to get closer to touch the rough finish and to gaze back through the empty window frames. At the centre of the back of the structure there are more shallow steps up to the wooden platform on which the structure rests. The work invites people to walk on this and those that do can hear the sound of themselves walking on the work: the hollow sound of a suspended wooden floor. The action makes them a visible part of the façade; others can hear and see them, they are on display, acting out a routine. The saloon doors can be pushed, to allow the viewer to walk through from the front to back and vice versa;the saloon doors slap back behind them.

The façade is familiar, plucked straight out of the main street from an American western movie. Its language is taken directly from the film set, at 80% real life size; it is deliberately scenographic in presentation. Like a stage set, it invites occupation and interaction between the work and the viewer. The thin slits of white light shining through the planks of wood make it clear that it is shallow, hollow, a thin slice of something. The function of a facade on a film set is to convince only when viewed through the camera lens and then on the movie screen; an object to be looked at. It does not need to be truthful in itself, but this structure reveals itself for what it is. It does not demand that you suspend disbelief, it invites you to think.

The Western
Coley is interested in the mythology of the western produced in America during the 1950s and 60s, a notion of which was upheld by Europeans as much as Americans. Hollywood film directors, influenced by the prevailing political climate and more specifically presidential policy at this time, purposefully set out to grapple with issues of morality in an age of political and social unease in post-war America; political paranoia with the McCarthy era (1940s/50s), the US civil rights movement (1955 – 68), Vietnam (1959-75), emergence of the Cold War (1950s to 1960s) reaching a hiatus with the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) - the closest the world has been to date, to nuclear war. The western was a populist vehicle by which contemporary Americans defined and redefined their past “…about America rewriting and reinterpreting her own past, however honestly or dishonestly it may be done.’’

The western was largely set in a reimagined America of the 1870s, in the aftermath of the US Civil War (1861 – 1865). It points to a period in history when cowboys were migrating out into the American desert, pushing forward frontiers, creating new towns, and seeking their fortune in gold while displacing the North American Indians. The movies played out epic adventures in widescreen that dealt with law and order, good versus evil, the individual versus the state and revenge. “…. movies shown and re-shown in the mind could grow and take on enlarged and distorted forms. Or in the case of westerns, merge into one gigantic frontier picture.’’

Legend and fact often entwined in the western and it was a populist means by which Americans invented and reinvented their history. The farcical western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) is based on the real life outlaw and self appointed justice of peace known as ‘Hanging Judge Roy Bean’ (1825 – 1905). Story has it that armed with an outmoded Texan law book; he held court in his saloon bar dispensing liquor and unpredictable justice, driven by prejudice and greed. He reportedly had signs over his saloon bar saying ‘ICE COLD BEER’ and ‘LAW WEST OF THE PECOS’.

The saloon bar was the social centre of the main street and was often the first and most prominent building to be built in new settlements by frontiersmen. Frequented by outlaws, gamblers and deserters from the Civil War, the saloon was unwelcoming territory for soldiers or foreigners. A notoriously violent establishment, the saloon was the site of the drunken brawl and the shoot-out. The western saloon represents the lawless and vigilante activity of the Wild West in microcosm: in Coley’s work it is a metaphor for an age of increasing moral uncertainty.

The Palace
The etymology of palace is ‘Palatium’, the Palatine hill in Rome, where the house of the roman emperor was situated. The word originally referred to a royal residence, seat of state, sovereign or religious order. Most often palaces were built in important urban settings to symbolise power in a homeland but also to lay claim to land in new frontiers. In their original form they represent the awakening of a society’s civil culture. The architectural extensions and amendments to palaces over time epitomise the shifting political, religious and social values of the society that built them.

In America, colonial governor’s palaces were renamed ‘Executive Mansions’. The most prominent executive mansion in the world is The White House. Today a symbol of the USA as a super power, in 1814 it was almost completely destroyed by British forces during the Burning of Washington. The British Empire troops hoped that burning the capital of the American nation would have a psychological impact on the will of the Americans to continue to defend their land. Only the burned out shell of the building remained; it was torn down and reconstructed.

More generally, the word palace has been used to infer wealth and status or enjoyable experience: Gin Palace, Crystal Palace, movie palace. Perhaps the most well known palace in North America is Caesar’s Palace, a luxury hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip in Paradise, Nevada, the city of façades and wealth. Taking the Ancient Roman Empire as its theme, it is currently owned by the largest gaming company in the world, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc.

Coley’s work is preoccupied with the languages of both commercial signage and architecture, and Palace can be seen as a fragment of 19th century American main street architecture: ‘decorated sheds’ in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s terms: three buildings in a row, each with their own decorative nuances and signs. But in Palace the clarity of this sort of architecture is denied. The architectural character of the façades and the words on the signboards borrow from familiar languages, but there are strange details that undermine the familiarity: words are formed from letters; they are decorative but also reminiscent of bullet holes on a building; there is a choice of three doors into what look like three buildings, but only one can be easily accessed. Familiar elements are combined and recontextualised in an unfamiliar way creating a conceptual space for you to enter into the work. The signs on Palace do not say ‘Saloon’ but rather, LAND, BELIEF, WEALTH, LIFE and MIND. Initially looking as if to make a direct historical connection with the frontier spirit of North America; these words may be read as ‘badges’ of the western frontier, ‘tattoos’ of the cowboy. However, these words were sourced by the artist as being the five rights that every man is granted under Islam. Palace as a structure is understood to be deliberately false, and here Coley brings together two ideologies from different corners of the globe. They invite us to speculate on whether these words share a commonality across seemingly opposed ideologies.

All words on buildings present themselves as positive; often they are rhetoric for the religious or political power that the building represents. Coley is aware of the potential mulitvalency of the words written upon the structure of Palace. This can lead us to consider how this work might be read in the prevailing political/cultural climate in different locations: Washington, Berlin or Baghdad. Are these words shot into the structure in protest, or are they propaganda? In Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949) George Orwell explored the political use of language and deliberate ambiguity to distort meaning, with ‘doublethink’ and ‘doubletalk’ used to control attitudes and belief. Can these words be trusted? Are they any more reliable than this piece of stage scenery?

Five words are partially drilled out of the timber structure of Palace. On the left hand side of the front facade is the word ‘Land’. This section of the façade is utilitarian: its door ‘hidden’ within the boards. In the centre section the word ‘Belief’ sits prominently on the porch roof, below the central pediment and cornice and above the saloon doors. To the right is ‘Wealth’. Here there is a simpler roofline with a cornice. The door, (now a feature) and windows are symmetrical. On the side of the structure is ‘Life’. The fifth word: ‘Mind’ is on a sign which swings from a chain like a shop sign on the back of the structure: the otherwise purely functional support for the scenery on the front. This is unexpected and invites us to read this word differently from the other four.

Palace is a work of borrowed ideologies, exaggerated stories and beliefs taken from both fact and fiction. It simultaneously offers a familiar illusion as its most prominent visual characteristic and denies its believability through the choice of means used to achieve it. Deliberately allegorical and ambiguous, our understanding of Palace depends on our position. A provocative work, it has the potential to make more myths.

Celia Davies, July 2008