Extinction Beckons is an intriguing collection of immersive environments and assemblages, including a warren of interconnected disparate themed rooms and an array of concrete-cast heads mounted on rebar
For more than 20 years, Mike Nelson has been making puzzling immersive environments and assemblages with narratives that, while fictional, still resonate with reality.
These are brought together in Extinction Beckons, a career survey – he dislikes the term retrospective – at London’s Hayward Gallery, in which past works are represented in new variations and interpretations. Created from a medley of mostly found objects, their fluid character is a repeating motif in this intriguing show, which both unsettles and bamboozles.
The walk-through opening piece sets the scene. Visitors pass through a dimly lit storage room where racks are filled with bits of buildings and furniture, including doors and other oddments. These turn out to be remnants from his I, Imposter installation at the 2011 Venice Biennale, here returned to their component parts, perhaps as materials in waiting for another purpose.
It’s a warm-up act for the most immersive piece in the exhibition, The Deliverance and The Patience, which was originally created in 2001. It’s a huge enclosed warren of interconnected worse-for-wear and gloomy rooms with bashed-up dividing walls – not one for the claustrophobic. Visitors are invited to explore by choosing from the many doors and encountering odd little scenes.
These have more than a hint of a Marie Celeste time warp from several decades ago. In a tiny room, a vacated chair with a jacket still draped over the back is pulled up to a table with a roulette wheel and tarot cards. Open another door and you find yourself in an odd travel agency, where a map, rather than simply indicating countries, points out the various dangers associated with different destinations. Another houses part of a dismal bar with cigarette butts still in the ashtray. There are all sorts of oddments: a basketball net made out of what looks like a laundry basket with a hole in it, boards bearing voting rules from a late 20th-century European election, and a table displaying an assortment of votive-style offerings.
One door leads up some stairs, where you can view the roof of the labyrinthine installation. Amassed over it are various pieces of scrap and oddments such as an old television, a model of a ship and a treasure map fairground game. Throughout, visitors get a sense of FOMO: have I chosen the wrong door and missed a good bit? Have I seen it all? It’s impossible to make sense of it all. Learning that the title refers to a shipwreck in the 17th century, after which survivors attempted to set up their own free society in Bermuda, only adds to the melting pot of possible interpretations.
By contrast, the easy-to-miss but still unsettling Untitled (Public Sculpture for a Redundant Space) is much more straightforward: a sleeping bag in a stairwell filled with rubble. Is this a comment on the displacement caused by redevelopment and gentrification? Are people as much collateral waste as rubble?
Things get complex again on the upper floor with the large-scale installation of Triple Bluff Canyon (The Woodshed), a 2004 work inspired by an earthwork by American artist Robert Smithson. Nelson’s woodshed is part submerged in tonnes of sand and there are visible oil drums – both a reference to the Gulf war. Inside, meanwhile, Nelson has recreated the I, Impostor (the darkroom) installation. For the Hayward show, Nelson has also added blown-out tyres found on the M25, conceived as ‘contemporary fossils’ and perhaps a reference to our reliance on oil for fuel. A sense of unsettling abandonment pervades throughout.
Some works are easier to grasp. The Asset Strippers is a series of old agricultural and industrial machinery acquired at auctions held by company liquidators. Removing them from their functional context and presenting them as sculptures highlights the loss of not just the companies they previously served but British industry more broadly. Meanwhile, the idea of making is also explored in an installation called tools that see (the possessions of a thief), comprising a workbench with some of the artist’s own tools and several tall heaps of rusty nails.
The final two installations are a return to more opaque narrative themes. Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Munster is an array of rebar populated by cast concrete heads with distorted features, inspired by science fiction by Stanislaw Lem. Meanwhile, The Amnesiacs weaves a narrative of a fictional biker gang of Gulf War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, living outside mainstream society. They are conceived as the co-creators of a series of sculptures housed in wire cages.
It’s a suitably puzzling ending to a show in which, as Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff points out, Nelson is never telling us what things mean or what to think. Instead, we have to do the work for ourselves by picking up on the clues he’s left and spinning our own narratives around what we find.
Mike Nelson – Extinction Beckons, until 7 May, 2023, Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX