The Power Plant presents the first solo exhibition in Toronto of work by the renowned British artist Mike Nelson. Entitled Mike Nelson: Amnesiac Hide, the exhibition comprises the large-scale installation Quiver of Arrows (2010) and new significant commissions; including the sculptural work Gang of Seven, produced in partnership with The Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, and a new photographic work Eighty Circles through Canada (The Last Possessions of an Orcadian Mountain Man), produced by the Contemporary Art Gallery in association with the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff.
Nelson is best-known for his labyrinthine architectural installations that unfold as narrative structures, where the viewer moves through rooms like a reader turns pages in a novel. These immersive environments are often seemingly abandoned, devoid of figures, yet imagining the unseen occupants of these intricate spaces is central to the viewer’s experience. For instance, Nelson’s work Quiver of Arrows is constructed from four travel trailers soldered together to form an enclosed customized space that viewers may enter and explore. While the exterior of the trailers signify a distinctly North American design for leisure and travel, Nelson renders the vehicles inoperable, removing their wheels and sections of their bodies. Audiences navigate the interior of the work, passing through the rudimentary spaces of the 'wagons,' where objects and tableau suggest cultural and ideological others; perhaps these are the targets of what an idea of North American liberalism could suggest for the latent arrows in their quiver. Nelson's first interest in these once gleaming aluminum visions of the future was their resemblance to the early covered wagons of the first pioneers - not an unreasonable comparison when you realize that the oldest within the contruction dates back to 1939. Given the size and scope of this installation, The Power Plant is the second gallery to ever exhibit Quiver of Arrows.
In his new work for The Power Plant, Nelson revisits ideas and forms first seen in The Amnesiacs, a serial project begun in 1996, which references a narrative involving an imaginary cast of characters — a group of ‘outsiders’ to the mainstream who uncannily resemble a disembodied late twentieth century biker gang, albeit without bikes. These quintessential outlaws of myth and literature, as depicted in the popular imagination of North America, are paralleled here with another favourite genre; that of the hunter or fur trader, exploring both groups’ economic underpinning of these romantic façades, and the resulting conflicts involved in the expansion of territory.
The sculptural work, Gang of Seven, and the shelving that supports the wall for projection within another gallery space are constructed from material gathered from the beaches around Vancouver. Nelson imagines this detritus spat out by the ocean as the material language of a gigantic intelligent entity, much like that of Lem’s planet ‘Solaris’, sifting the debris as a means to uncover truths about contemporary culture and our place within it. The roving characters, The Amnesiacs, have come together as interpreters, deciphering the collected material by creating assemblages akin to some form of disjointed memory or flashback, that when brought together may affect communication or reveal hidden meaning, the potential for a new and unified system of understanding. Nelson originally developed these thoughts after the unexpected death of his friend and collaborator, Erlend Williamson. In 1996 he had fallen to his death whilst climbing in the Scottish Highlands, at the time when Nelson was working on his first incarnation of what would become The Amnesiacs. Williamson, an artist and mountaineer whose family ancestry was of Orcadian descent, will contribute again; this time parts of his own narrative, and the very materials that surrounded him — those that remain present in his absence — will be woven into the fabric of the work.
Each of the new works is derived from the Canadian landscape: one is quite literally built with flotsam and jetsam collected off local shores, while the other re-imagines it. The second new piece, Eighty Circles through Canada (The Last Possessions of an Orcadian Mountain Man), in part is a sequence of projected 35mm slides produced during recent road trips across British Columbia and into Alberta. Collectively they trace another movement across the landscape as well as capture momentary pauses, underlining human interventions to the land. Nelson’s interest in the photographic depiction of the Canadian landscape came through seeing a series of slides from Dr. Wilson Duff’s family trips across the province, presented at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. As an anthropologist Duff was dedicated to understanding North West Coast cultures, even such private holidays were spent viewing aboriginal festivals or visiting the workshops of totem pole carvers. These images resonated with Nelson as much as the objects in the museum, as a language to be unraveled. They were of a time and place, but already displaced. In relation to this, Nelson has made a work that talks about the land itself and the artistic traditions inherent within it, especially those borne out of North America in the twentieth century and their re-translation as part of a British oeuvre. Nelson unearths the possible re-reading of such activities as cultural imperialism within both strands of the movement — an accusation that could ultimately be reflected within the activities of the artist himself.
CURATED BY JULIA PAOLI