Studio Nathan Coley

Lockerbie Witness Box (Exhibition Version) 2003


Rosewood laminates, aluminium, steel, carpet, plywood, electrical components and chair
112 x 166 x 185cm


Tate Britain, London


Ben Tufnell

More than twenty-five years after the original bombing and almost fifteen years on from the trial, Nathan Coley’s Lockerbie project has lost none of its unnerving power. If anything the work has gained in resonance as terrorism, counter-terrorism and the accompanying spectacle of extended and complicated international trials, the ongoing rounds of guilt, fear, recrimination and revenge, become ever more part of our daily media diet. And it is clear also that, fourteen years after it was made, this work is one of the defining pieces of this important Glasgow artist’s broad and complex oeuvre.

Coley attended the Lockerbie Trial in 2000 as an observer. Unable to attend as an artist he was forced to attend as a journalist, a member of the press corps, adopting temporarily a position we might associate with a duty to report the truth. However, as an artist, Coley’s relationship to ‘the truth’ is problematic. As an artist, he feels it is his role to complicate things, or to reflect on the complications that sometimes get buried by a desire for simple narratives. At the time of the trial, he denied he was even interested in the truth and said that he was interested instead in ‘taking on the role of the artist and lying, working with ideas of doubt and uncertainty...’. This project, more than almost any of his subsequent works, places doubt and uncertainty centre stage. During the trial Coley found himself focussed upon the witness box. The witness box is of course a physical structure, an object, which supposedly allows, even insists, that ‘the truth’ be told. As such it embodies a complicated set of rules and beliefs. Confronted by Coley’s work, the replica witness box and the series of drawings of evidence presented during the trial, what position are we to take? Are we to celebrate this instrument of justice, or to lament the impossibility of ever really knowing ‘the truth’? As always, Coley’s position is of studied neutrality. His work extends no judgement but perhaps functions as a kind of mirror, reflecting our questions back at ourselves.

It is worth noting also, a further complication: the original witness box is currently on display in the Imperial War Museum in London, in a gallery dedicated to recent conflict. It is there thanks to Coley’s intervention — it was his initiative that persuaded the museum to acquire the object. And he continues to feel that the original object is part
of a bigger project. The original witness box thereby now functions almost as a conceptual aside or adjunct to Coley’s artwork. It is both here and there, real and not-real. It also offers a strange parallel with one of the absurdities of the original trial — that it took place in a place in The Netherlands that was legally designated as part of Scotland for the duration of the legal process. Rules, law, belief, these things change the meaning of things.

In this extraordinary work a major Scottish artist addresses a pivotal event in recent Scottish history. Yet the Lockerbie project also synthesises Coley’s ongoing interest in questions of politics, belief, place and the ways in which they come together to create meaning, or invest objects or buildings with meaning. It embodies his way of working, his marriage of intense research with carefully considered modes of presentation, his curiosity about complex questions which lie at the heart of contemporary experience. As such this work continues to be paradigmatic for Coley’s practice.

Lockerbie Witness Box

Nathan Coley in conversation with Claire Doherty, 2005

Claire Doherty: I'm looking here at two images - one is a photograph of the witness box at the Lockerbie trial on 'Scottish land' in the Netherlands, the other is a photograph of the replica of the witness box in the galleries of Tate Britain some three years later. It seems to me that it is in the gap between these two places, between these two objects, that your work Lockerbie comes into being, but where does the work itself reside? Do you think that there is a difference between the research process that took you to Kamp van Zeist and the process of making the object itself?

Nathan Coley: I like that we are starting with the question of place and ideas of meaning within that. For me, the two images (although similar visually) illustrate different intents. The witness box in Kamp van Zeist and the sculpture in Tate Britain have both been fabricated for very specific functions, in very specific places. The courtroom object could be seen as a space, we as a community have created, to enable us to find truth - an area outwith normal life from which to give evidence (in one sense, not unlike the museum). My thoughts on the work Lockerbie Witness Box (Exhibition Version) 2003 are very clear. This is a sculpture which is the exact replica of the original piece of furniture from the courtroom. It has been made to exist as an object within the contemporary art space. Its function is to be an artwork: in this case on display in Tate Britain. We of course 'read' both objects differently due to context, both of which are extremely loaded. It gets interesting for me when we think about my sculpture being a 'fake' of an object which has been originally made (by ourselves) to enable us to find truth.

CD: You didn’t know what the outcome would be when you first left for Kamp van Zeist. You knew to some extent that you would be (as Alain de Botton has suggested) traveling with ‘yourself’, so do you think you arrived at that strange ‘Scotland without Scotland’ looking for the ready-made. Is there a process of investigation when faced with a place, or context, you are aware of employing?

NC: Initially I was just interested in going to the event of the trial - this place in the middle of Holland that was technically and legally 'Scottish'. I then thought it was important to set myself some rules. As no-one had asked me to be there, I had no brief or job to do, other than what I could make for myself. The first thing I said to myself was – “try to forget that you are an artist” - not to look directly at the situation as somewhere to make art from or in. This of course fell away towards the end, but for many months I was just there to witness this world event, in a strange constructed place in the middle of Europe. All that seemed to be interesting enough, without looking for cultural signals or ways to start work. The second decision I made (which I feel now to have been a very important one) was not to make contact with any of the victims’ families. On the busy days, the world press was there. From CNN to the BBC, many of them were looking for the 'human story', and I felt my position should be more removed than that.

CD: So what did this distance allow you to do, what kinds of truths or untruths fascinated you?

NC: Although I am sensitive to the horrors of the bombing, I hold no interest in who did or did not plant the bomb. In that sense (unlike a lot of the other people in the court) I had no interest in seeking or finding 'the truth' to what happened that day in 1988. I was and am however interested in how we created a 'legal fiction' to look at the subject. It was the place in Holland that first interested me. I have never been to Lockerbie, and feel no need to visit. All of that said the starting point or ready -made that I was looking for (the witness box) was constructed under very specific conditions. The first step with the work was firstly to ask what would happen if this loaded historical object was repositioned in the art gallery and then subsequently, how would we deal with it if we were presented with a copy of the original - a fake.

CD: I remember when you first spoke to me about the idea and at that point, you were in the midst of negotiations about how to acquire the original witness box. At that point, the potential work seemed to me to be closely related to Susan Stewart’s notion of the souvenir. She says, “The souvenir distinguishes experiences…and speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing…we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative.” I think I’d be right in saying that the initial proposal for the work to include the original witness box captured the imagination of colleagues and friends – because it involved this ‘invention of narrative’ around a relic, the dislocation of a piece of history from one non-place to another. But then, when one aspect of the outcome of your research process became the fabrication of a replica of the box, I think the work became something else. As you say, it became much more loaded, perhaps more complex. The replica is still a kind of souvenir, but also references the impossibility of translating your experience as witness to the trial. It short-circuits that process of memory, so that we don’t know if to trust you as witness. I think this is what I find so intriguing about your responses to invitations to make new works in particular places or situations, that resistance to nostalgia that is certainly evident in Showhome.

NC: I agree. I think the work fundamentally changed of course, when I decided to make my own witness box rather than just re-contextualize the original. In truth I think of the whole project as being both invented (the original) and then remade (the exhibition version). The original (due to my endeavor) is now in the Imperial War Museum in London (interestingly in the Weapons and Firearms Department!) and the ‘sister work’ vibrates in the context of the contemporary art arena. What would happen if we exhibited both? Would they just cancel each other out, or become more than the sum of their parts? With that other point: can we ever (in Britain) really even get away from nostalgia?

CD: I guess nostalgia is perhaps the wrong word in relation to your response to the Lockerbie trial – perhaps ‘indulgence in the story’ might be more appropriate to the ways in which such an event has been reported, consumed and digested. What I find particularly interesting about ‘your’ witness box is that, if you consider it outside the specifics of the drawings, it begins to operate outside the specifics of Lockerbie as a sign of the physical mechanics of truth or as Maria Lind suggests elsewhere in this publication – “the actualisation of space”. I think this is particularly interesting if you consider this project as a way of responding to a very specific geographical and political situation without confining your response to the particulars of that place. For me, this is the problem with much commissioned art practice, particularly within a biennale culture, where the work is rarely able (for reasons of time, budget and support) to signify beyond the most obvious characterisation of place. I wanted to ask you though, whether you feel the work is finished – or whether you might actually still be refining the ‘ideal’ presentation of that work?

NC: I think this work in particular has more to learn. It still has the capacity to understand itself better. I just recently included the sculpture and the drawings in my solo exhibition at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. For me it was interesting seeing it alongside a number of other works that I have been making, and I think in some respects it was tough trying to make sense of it as something resolved. It was the first time it had been seen in Scotland. It was in Edinburgh, the political and legal centre of Scotland. I don't see that as a problem. The idea that art works exist out of time is clearly absurd. Maybe its moment is yet to come. Perhaps we are too close to the events of the bombing for the ideas to transcend history.

As for this idea of making work for specific places. I have never been a fan of that way of thinking or looking. I guess I want the moment of looking to place you in the centre of the world, but that the ideas or discussion can be seen both here and everywhere at the same time. In any case, local history is generally exactly that.

CD: I’m not sure about the here and everywhere though – I think it might be more that your work subverts the preconceptions of place, so that it reveals the systems – both personal and political – that begin to make a sense of place. In which case, it’s an interrogation of the specifics of place - rather than an indulgence in them. I think this is different than saying that a work can have universal meaning.

I want to take you back a bit though - to what you were saying about forgetting that you were an artist - as a rule of engagement with that particular time and place. What does that mean - forgetting that you are an artist? Do you bring to bear other kinds of approaches, or use other kinds of tools - anthropological, architectural, and economic?

NC: What is here? Who are these people? What's that horrible building over there? God, I'd love a drink! These are initial reactions and feelings that we all go through in relation to places that we’re new to. We try to make sense of them physically, visually, personally, and of course (in the case of needing water) in terms of just getting through the day. I feel (and this happens without really thinking) that when I'm invited to start thinking about making art from or in a particular place, that it's best, at first, to stay as long as possible in this mode. Not to think about the sculpture or film or 'the work' too much. In my experience that gets in the way of the idea. What I mean is that for me, the start of the work is there to be found. There is a conversation over dinner, a street sign, a taxi ride or a 'Wimpy' show flat which might be the trigger for an idea. If I am too busy thinking about art, I feel I'll miss the reality of the situation. The whole thing about being an artist doesn't really come into it. It is hopefully about the idea which then manifests itself in the world somehow: the other way round seems too difficult to me. In any case I get my best ideas driving home tired from the supermarket, not with all the site visit photographs in front of me.

CD: And when the idea for the replica witness box emerged - from left of
centre, maybe when your mind was 'off-duty', back home from witnessing the
trial - what kinds of concerns did you have about remaking the ready-made?
For instance, were you concerned about what might happen when it became
displaced and recontextualised?

NC: Not concerns really, more an excitement about what would happen. The witness box
seemed to be a micro version of all that was happening at the trial in Holland. Ideas of ownership of space (both legal and personal), jurisdiction, sovereignty and its transference as well as the whole issue of the fetishisation of the object seemed to be contained within the box. It's important to say that had the original looked different, I imagine I would have felt less excited about it. Although designed by Dutch architects in 1999 for a very specific official task (the witness box for the most expensive trial in British legal history), it has a certain style to it. Some people imagine it to be an actual box when hearing about my project. When confronted by a 1970s-looking, spaceship-like piece of furniture, it works differently I think. One commentator said it looked as if was a collaboration between Duchamp and Richard Artswager, which of course I enjoyed.

CD: And now, as you’ve noted, it has been shown within the context of your other work – models and propositions of projects which deal with the nature of belief, of authority and memory in very different ways. How do you think this replica operated in relation to the remaking of all the places of worship in Edinburgh in cardboard for example?

NC: I think in exactly that way. Both projects deal with how ideas of belief manifest themselves. They both set up a very deliberate relationship between you, the audience and the object: something which still excites me, and keep me wanting to make sculpture. In addition, seeing all the work together, I think something was being presented which if nothing else you could deal with in terms of 'skill'. A very dirty word in contemporary art!

CD: What do you mean by skill? Whose skill?

NC: Skill in terms of understanding what it can mean to present objects in public, and being able to make manifest ideas and thoughts able to withstand that. Also, in particular, the remaking of every place of worship in Edinburgh, presents a level of hand skill which was important to the actual idea of the sculpture. That piece in particular, for someone in my position, is a really radical work. To be an artist working in the UK in 2004, presenting a work with such an articulation of hand skill is I think quite a
provocative risky proposition

CD: And does this sense of testing out a proposition through a ‘crafted’ technique have an impact of how you work within a studio? What do you think the studio allows you to do? Is it simply a site of production and the ideas flow more readily ‘driving home tired from the supermarket?

NC: For me the ideas are tried out in the studio, but never or rarely are they found there. I guess it's about finding the right balance. I don't think I would find it easy to make art without a working space, but being in the studio can be a bit restrictive for the development of ideas. I'm interested in how the built environment is a reflection of our values, beliefs and social politics. When I get captured by the studio and the world
of making art, I sometimes forget that.


Natalie Rudd

Research occupies the heart of Nathan Coley’s practice. He undertakes in-depth investigations into particular spaces, buildings and locations, so as to examine the ways in which the built environment embodies often conflicting systems of social value, religious and political belief.
Coley looks at the particular to reveal that it is multifaceted, takes the matter-of-fact and makes it less so. His intention is neither to obscure our assessment of the world nor to impose fixed answers, but rather to highlight the need for an active, informed engagement with our inherently complex surroundings.
To increase his knowledge of a situation over time, Coley employs a wide variety of experiential research methods including site visits, interviews and photographic documen- tation. The way in which he then presents these findings
is similarly open. In earlier work he tended to favour photography, video, slide presentation and book formats, which allowed for a sequential unfurling of ideas.

His more recent work has assumed an assured physical- ity, a certain monumentality. Time remains an important consideration but it is inferred in increasingly subtle ways. Using simple materials such as cardboard and plywood Coley has constructed scaled-down versions of buildings that exude the precision of the architectural model maker and the physical effort of the builder. Although seemingly workaday, these buildings are invested with symbolism and loaded with human concerns. As part of the As It Is exhibition at the Ikon Gallery Birmingham, he undertook The Lamp of Sacrifice, 161 Places of Worship, Birmingham (2000). Using the gallery as both studio and showroom, he re-made every church, synagogue, temple and preaching hall listed in the city’s Yellow Pages. Working via digital photographs taken of this multi-cultural of British cities, he constructed four ‘Places of Worship’
per day: a time-based performance of mock-martyrdom that played out John Ruskin’s assertion ‘it is not the church we want, but the sacrifice’. Although there is something utopian in this harmonious multi-faith cityscape, trauma has since emerged as a
key theme of Coley’s work. The non-combative targeting of buildings undertaken to make The Lamp of Sacrifice prompted him to consider its sinister counterpart.

During the past year he has made a number of sculptures based on buildings that have suffered a violent clash of interests. I don’t Have Another Land (2002) is based on Manchester’s old Marks & Spencer’s building which was destroyed as
a result of the IRA bomb damage in 1996. In researching and re-presenting this lost building, Coley has given new consideration to a structure erased from collective memory by the rush of redevelopment.

It is within this context that Coley’s interest in the Lockerbie Trial (2001) marks a natural development. Although the artist is quick to acknowledge the human tragedy of the event, his interest resides in the psychical and political impact of one land upon another. According to some accounts, the terrorists had intended the bomb they had planted on Flight 103 to explode over mid-Atlantic no-man’s land on 21 December 1988, but terrible timing rendered Lockerbie the accidental target, thus causing a legal battlefield between the Libyan, British and American government. Political sensitivity demanded that the trial of the suspect take place at the agreed neutrality of The Netherlands, where a special Scottish court was set up within the guarded enclosure of Kamp van Zeist. And so Scotland moved, hauled to a site far beyond its geographical borders into the centre of Europe. This situation lent force to Coley’s research into the possibility of a conceptual and spatial transportation of one place to another.
The experience of undertaking research within a court context was entirely new to Coley; with so many rules and restrictions to negotiate it took time for him to conceive of a way to articulate his response. He wanted any outcome to reflect his carefully — maintained position as an impartial observer, while embodying the complexity of the situation. His eventual focus on the witness box seemed entirely apt. The witness box is a controlled space in which we must swear allegiance to religious and/or legal systems in order to authenticate our position within it. Furthermore, the witness box at Kamp van Zeist court not only formed the centrepiece of this new Scotland, but also seemed charged with a feeling of human presence and absence. Even the form of the box is richly referential: its distinct ‘bullishness’ has the pseudo-functional bulkiness of an Artschwager sculpture; its mute, precise simplicity not unlike Coley’s previous constructions.
Coley has collaborated with the Imperial War Museum in London to obtain permission for the original witness box to enter their collection, and has also commissioned a replica of the box to be made for exhibition use. The process of re-presentation, so much a part of Coley’s recent sculptural practice, only seemed to intensify the issues of authenticity and signification that he wanted to address. Furthermore, replication has allowed the witness box to assume a double life, to resonate simultaneously within distinct contexts of the museum and the gallery.
Accompanying the reproduction witness box, and in addition to a video in which anonymous testifiers are cross-questioned, is a series of twelve drawings based on crucial pieces of evidence presented at the trial. These high- ly charged fragments have a similar capacity to signify far more than their mundane materiality might at first suggest.
The drawings exude a sense of temporality: they operate as still lifes, portraits, even of the objects themselves, but they also serve as a kind of a diary, documenting Coley’s presence in court and reflecting his desire to examine the evidence in all its minutiae. The coloured-pencil hues,
so redolent of the traditional court artist, have a certain softness, yet there is something inherently hard about these drawings. The lines scratch the surface of the paper with the insistence of a shocking news broadcast that etches its harsh imagery into our minds. We are transported back to the site of the atrocity, the moment when a town, entirely unrenowned, became a site of international significance. As backwaters become frontlines, notions of sanctuary begin to dissolve.

Rudd, Natalie, “Nathan Coley” in Days Like These, exh. cat, (Tate, London), 2003. p.54.

On Being Sane in Insane Places

Judith Nesbitt

The artist Nathan Coley entered a similarly disclosed arena, not a mental hospital but a courtroom. He applied to be admitted to the Lockerbie Trial. The authorities were baffled by his interests in being there with no concrete purpose other than to witness the proceedings as an independent observer. He was accepted, not as an artist but as a jour- nalist, since this was the only category in which they could place him. He was in any case intrigued by the idea a build- ing itself could inscribe and impose on visitors submission to authority. But was Coley’s enforced false identification as a journalist denying that press pass to a bona fide journalist who might have had other questions to ask and stories to tell?

Funded by a grant from the Year of the Artist scheme in Scotland, what were his responsibilities, and to whom? This kind of conceptual conundrum was exactly what drew him to the trial in the first place. It was being held in a Scottish court, in a site legally designated as Scotland, but geograph- ically in The Netherlands. The staff included Dutch workers, who would wake up in Holland and cycle a mile down the road to this place that had become Scotland. There were Scottish workers, who were working abroad, in Scotland. Equipped with his press pack, which included digitized images of the evidence, Coley sat watching the trial, wondering right up to his final days what exactly he was doing there. Staring at the witness box, he realised that his interest in the trial was contained in the object he was looking at. A constructed space charged with revealing the ‘truth’, the witness box was a physical symbol of the ideas of truth and conviction that so intrigued him. So much so, that he has collaborated with the Imperial War Museum in London to obtain permission for it to enter their collection. Coley had an exact replica of the witness box made, which is presented in the exhibition together with his drawings of the evidence made in his studio in Dundee and video- taped interviews on the subject of identity and certainty. Reflecting on the trial he says, ‘As an artist, I’m not inter- ested in justice, I’m not necessarily all that interested in revenge either, and I’m actually not that interested in truth either. I’m much more interested in taking on the role of the artist and lying, working with ideas of doubt and uncertainty. I think that’s a valuable role for us to take. There are other people who can deal with the truth.’
His interest as an artist is in questioning the ways in which philosophical values and beliefs become inscribed in the in- frastructure of social and political systems. The ostensible purpose of the Lockerbie Trial was to establish whether the accused men had planted the bomb. But at a deeper level it symbolised and enacted a confrontation between Christian America and Muslim Libya.

At the centre of the trial was the witness box — a conceptual device used to elicit truth. Yet it invites projections of truth, both in the courtroom, as well as in the exhibition space where Coley re-presents it. In both situations, the truth will be subjectively constructed. How are we to look at Coley’s drawings of the ‘evidence’ which is made up of ordinary objects and ordinary faces made ominous by the context? Evidence of what exactly? Coley’s act of infiltration is an act of scrutiny which peels back the veneer of certainty.

And what are we doing when we look and talk about the works presented in this exhibition, or indeed any other? Are we, as viewers, in the role of judges or psychiatrists deciding on the truthfulness of these accounts of reality? Are we looking for evidence that the world is indeed how we believe it to be? Though the exhibition itself is a con- struct every much as the individual works themselves,
it doesn’t attempt to ‘diagnose’ or ‘convict’ the viewer or society as a whole. It doesn’t demand specialist knowledge but invites the same spirit of curiosity and creative, critical thinking that took Nathan Coley to the Lockerbie Trial. His attendance was not a stunt, but an open-ended reflection of what it all meant.
Artists are not interested in being psychiatrists, judges or politicians. They play with the truth of things.

There is something intentionally seductive about those words that describe the world of fakery: hoodwink, counterfeit, cook, sham, bamboozle, con, swindle, dodge. The point is to enjoy being bamboozled. We don’t know what we might learn.

Nebitt, Judith, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” in
Days Like These, exh. cat, (Tate, London), 2003. pp.16-17.