Presented at the Hayward Gallery between February and May, ‘Extinction Beckons’, was a partial, albeit intentionally distorted, survey of Mike Nelson’s practice from the mid-1990s to the present day. With its ominous title, the exhibition reconfigured and reimagined 15 of the artist’s major works and incorporated materials from various other sources.
Twice nominated for the Turner prize, Nelson was born in 1967, the year before the Hayward Gallery opened in 1968. Designed by Higgs and Hill, the emblematic piece of brutalist architecture, with its exposed grey concrete, at one point in time represented the same collapsed post-war ideals that Nelson often excavates and complicates through his sculptural practice.
Nelson conjures reclaimed materials that have long since passed their initial function in the realms of industry and architecture to construct large-scale immersive and labyrinthine installations which subvert and occasionally obliterate the viewer’s expectations of a space. Early in his career, he developed hybrid scripts, blending obscure political and counterculture subjects into Borges-esque fictions, inferred through installations that suggest the viewer is occupying a strange space of something that has long since happened or has only just occurred. Broken old doors, straight and bent rebar, cast concrete remnants, waiting rooms, busted tyres, empty barrels, creaky corridors, worn-down floorboards, bits of plastic, sun tarnished images, sand-covered buildings, stopped clocks, a tipped-over chair beside a roulette table, an empty bar, and rusty cogs from retired machines, are but some of the reoccurring combinations and materials appearing throughout Nelson’s practice.
Solstice – from the series ‘The Asset Stripers’, shown in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2019 – is made of hay rakes, steel trestles and girders, concrete slabs, and other materials which were conflated and flattened to the extent that their original function is incomprehensible. Untitled (public sculpture for a redundant space) (2016), which was situated under one of the Hayward Gallery’s iconic brutalist staircases, comprises an algae-covered sleeping bag, filled with bricks and concrete. The imprints of bodies are everywhere in Nelson’s work, but actual human forms are nowhere to be seen.
From the very start of the exhibition, the viewer’s familiarity with the gallery is intentionally skewed. An invigilator is waiting at a door; not the usual entrance into the space, rather the narrow entrance of the gallery’s old book shop. After a set of instructions and warnings are issued by, in my case, an extremely tired invigilator (who had perhaps unconvincingly said the same line, “Welcome to the Hayward Gallery”, a couple of thousand times already that day), I enter a corridor, where the gallery’s mediation explains that the first work in the exhibition is I, imposter (2011) – a work first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011. A storage room is lit by red light entering through an artificial window; it contains work piled on deconstructed factory shelves, and the work is not installed in the original form. It feels as though I am walking around an abandoned warehouse while an apocalyptic scenario unfolds outside.
Storage, something waiting, a moment in time passed; such themes are conceptually foregrounded at the very start of this exhibition and this register permeates throughout. Elements of I, imposter were also reused in other parts of the exhibition. The red-lit darkroom of the original installation is partially connected to the spectacular bunker-like structure of Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed), which in turn is surrounded by empty barrels of oil – a reimagined reconstruction of Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) – and covered in forty tonnes of sand, as if a sandstorm has just occurred.
The second room contains The Deliverance and The Patience (2001), a maze-like structure comprised of many corridors and rooms. The piece was first installed in an old brewery at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. The work itself is highly reminiscent of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) (1990) and Nelson’s widely acclaimed installation, Coral Reef, which was installed in Matt’s Gallery in early 2000. The distinctive spaces of the installation seem to allude to fictions that are somehow just beyond comprehension. An empty bar, an airport waiting room, an altar for some occult ritual – each room is connected by a parataxis of squeaking old doors. However, despite the scope and spectacular calibre of these immersive installations, the work sits uncomfortably within the institution of the Hayward Gallery itself.
Each piece was accompanied by an invigilator and often the popularity of the exhibition (I visited several times with my students) meant that viewing each piece came with a long queue and detailed waiting instructions. The problem was not the queuing but what was encountered between the works. The exhibition differed from previous iterations of Nelson’s work in that the institutional mediation felt at times unchecked. It is impossible not to think of the museum workers one encounters, who are perpetually reeling off scripts or clicking tally counters. The Hayward Gallery, as part of the wider Southbank Centre, initiated mass redundancies during the Covid-19 pandemic. Precarious labour, declining living conditions, and the erosion of workers’ rights are further implications of the failed utopian promise muted by post-war modernism that Nelson’s work so heavily hinges upon. Inadvertently and explicitly, the blockbuster exhibition serves to highlight some of the complex inequalities operating within large art institutions today.
Frank Wasser is an Irish artist and writer who lives and works in London.