Nathan Coley is interested in how the values of a society are articulated in the architecture and public spaces it produces. He uses the immediately identifiable architectural forms of mosques, churches, saloon bars and holiday homes, as a way to unearth our social, political and ideological value systems. Controlled spaces, thresholds and platforms become signifiers for the often fraught relationship between church and state; performers and spectators; politicians, monarchs and subjects.
In 2005 Coley made a series of small-scale models of a church, synagogue and mosque which were stripped of their unique characteristics but remained very clearly signifiers of their religious types: steeple for church, dome for mosque and single storey for synagogue. The most striking element of the work is the dazzle pattern applied to the surface, reminiscent of the camouflage pattern used to confound the enemy on World War I & II ships. These religious structures are attempting to deny their existence – to appear other than what they are - while also spelling out their religious allegiance through their form.
Coley is playful enough to not be didactic. He isn’t prescriptive about the kind of questions that he wants us to ask when viewing his work, but there is a palpable sense that he wants us as citizens to be aware of the power structures that define the parameters of our society. With the camouflage series, he may be asking us to consider the position of the church in our increasingly secular way of life; the insidious power that faith still wields whilst becoming seemingly more invisible, or maybe he is pointing out the conflict between form and surface application – warning us that things are never as they seem.
In 2006 Coley was invited to make a public sculpture in the historically and religiously loaded city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The context for Camouflage Church could hardly have been more rich: the city’s Cathedral is the final destination of the popular medieval pilgrimage route and is the reputed burial-place of one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. This large-scale version of the model has become even more of a sign of itself; the architectural details such as windows and doors are gone and we are left with a mute generic church installed within a city populated by the architecture of faith in the form of pilgrims, cathedrals and prayer.
More recently, Coley has been considering the symbolic layers inherent in a larger expanse of public space, beyond Europe. Built in 1960 and designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, the Square of the Three Powers in Brasilia was constructed for the inauguration of the new Brazilian capital. It is a box of Coley delights: it contains the Brazilian Congress, the administrative seat of the republic’s president, a statue of the blind figure of Justice, the Supreme Federal Court and an expansive platform for citizens and tourists to enjoy. These four power structures - the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and the voice (and actions) of the everyman – are overlaid with the melancholic air of failed modernism. The square’s civic structures remain, but socially and ideologically, the square is a relic from a time when utopian ideals were at the heart of urban planning strategies. Coley designed a series of these platforms for an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art , offering us the opportunity to consider both intellectually and physically the varying hierarchies inherent in the original square as well as the platforms themselves – as sculpture, performative structures and plinths. The loaded architectural space of the contemporary art gallery (the 21st century equivalent of a church perhaps) added yet another layer to Coley’s rich trove of associations.