Coral Maze

By Benedict Seymour, 10 July 2000
Image: Mike Nelson, The Coral Reef, Matt’s Gallery, 2000

Ben Seymour on Mike Nelson at Matt's Gallery.

Mike Nelson’s installation The Coral Reef at London’s Matt’s Gallery invited the viewer to explore a labyrinth of interconnected waiting rooms. From a prosaic minicab office with Islamic calendar and texts on the walls to a frowsy deep south hotel with JFK memorabilia, whirring electric fan and stealth bomber pix, none of the rooms were labeled but each offered pungent object-clues for decoding. Signaling possibilities rather than filling in the bigger picture, the installation invited you to imagine its occupants and their stories, evoking an array of tenuous existences and precarious communities, a submerged reef of private clubs, gang chapters, secret societies and dream syndicates.

As one ventured further into this rickety funhouse, the choice of rooms and of hypothetical realities multiplied: a redneck bar with blood red walls; a Mexican revolutionaries’ meeting place with ornamental cacti and the writings of Lenin; drug paraphernalia on a wooden chair in a bare blue room with only a junk store painting and a naked light bulb for company. While there was no single unifying thread leading one into and out of Nelson’s labyrinth, a desire to exit the prevailing reality, whether by narcotic, political, religious or even vehicular transport (at one point you encounter the dirt-smeared garage of a coven of bikers) was evidenced in many of the reef’s stark antechambers. At the same time, their cell-like insularity betrayed a paradoxical will to enclosure, visions of escape hardening into a routine of containment.

Nelson’s paranoid-critical construction offers only cues to the viewers’ fantasy, mytho-prosaic figments from society’s liminal spaces. As you obsessively retrace your steps through these unofficial waiting rooms — one of which has been uncannily replicated at another point in the maze — you start to feel lost in a horizonless, timeless space. It’s as if, setting out to explore the interstices of social reality, one had unwittingly entered the fantasmatic inertia of its political Unconscious, a beautiful and deadly coral reef.

Benedict Seymour <ben AT>

Extinction Beckons, a book documenting Nelson’s recent work, is out now.

Mike Nelson, The Coral Reef, Matt’s Gallery, 2000