In Flagrant Contradiction
When is belief needed? On a very general level, it seems to be required most when doubt is at its strongest. Every person can cite their own examples, every fiction uses oscillation between doubt and belief to drive narrative tension, and all holders of power, whether individual or institutional, affirm their status through a negotiation with faith and hesitation. Belief is part of the invisible landscape of knowledge. Belief can be an explicit declaration. And it is a complicated term to address. Belief opens a box of leaping and squirming groupings of consensus and conflict, not to mention suspicion and sentiment. To believe is to place weight, value, and emphasis on something. It is a process that pulls the fiction of the straight line of objectivity into oblique subjectivity. All these problems come before this word has even been tied to a referent or wrapped around a subject or object.
Nathan Coley’s subject is belief, not belief in. He conducts his research through the making of objects. Belief and art are coupled through the powers of doubt and wavering agnosticism, be it the polychromatic wooden sculptures of medieval Silesia telling stories of hell and damnation in a preliterate era or the exquisitely smooth surfaces of John McCracken’s other-dimensional blocks of pure color. Removed from their own times, both examples instruct each other: paired, they offer registers of visual excess that privilege the phenomenological encounter to initiate belief. In a 1998 interview, McCracken described:
For a long time I was more directly interested in cosmology than in aliens. But in the last few years I started reading more about them, and I became convinced that there really are UFOs and aliens all around us. Aliens are elusive and hard to pin down because of their other-dimensionality; their medium of travel is time, as far-fetched as that seems. I think there are actually thousands of extraterrestrials—and other entities that you wouldn’t call extraterrestrials—flying and running around, looking at us, studying us. While they may think we’re kind of cool in some way, even brilliant, I think they wonder how we can be so opaque, why we don’t see them more than we do. It’s amazing that we don’t really see what’s going on. But I think we’re purposefully “programmed” in that way. I think there is a reason for our forgetting where we originally came from; so we could focus on things here. But now, I think, there’s a reason for us to remember where we came from so we can integrate that with what we’ve learned since we’ve been here, so we can get the perspective we badly need. Then we can more effectively set about the business of moving on—and up. The whole thing adds up to a very provocative idea that I think impinges in important ways on humankind’s development.1
Replace “alien” and “UFO” with the word “belief” in the above passage. What results is an anthropomorphization of a feeling and with it a discussion on why humans need to believe is opened. Pause to think about what it means for art to be committed to something outside of convention—
be that the consensual skepticism of art from the first decade of this century, or the rational truth that humans are the ultimate intelligence. There is nothing so unusual about looking outside the assumed structures of knowledge in the realm of art. Hilma af Klint developed abstract thinking though anthroposophy, Kazimir Malevich was committed to theosophy, Piet Mondrian to spiritual order; more recently, Joachim Koester seeks the mystical to discover the rational, Carol Bove studies Aleister Crowley to release ideas from fixed meaning, and Nathan Coley mines the nature of belief to consider how we might understand our place in the world.McCracken’s interlocutor then asks, one might suspect hesitantly given the wild belief system he had just claimed, what led him to speak on the record about these issues.He responds: “Even before I did concerted studies of UFOs, it helped me maintain my focus to think I was trying to do the kind of work that could have been brought here by a UFO. I liked imagining that these cool, advanced beings might zip here in their time-space vehicles and leave objects for us to look at. I like the idea of making objects that are equivalent to such things.” To stand before a McCracken plank is an experience not to be underestimated: it is a moment of reflection that stretches beyond known horizons of perception.
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather
than rationalists. They leap to conclusions
that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgements repeat rational
3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed
absolutely and logically.
These are the first five points Sol LeWitt makes in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” of 1969. This is a declaration concerned with many things, including belief. A mystic believes in something outside of human rationality, outside of language and judgment, in order to enable a pondering of imponderables. The attempt to concretize inner belief through art, both contemporary and historical, feels its way noisily through current exhibition practices. The mainstream belief systems Coley turns to, like these more esoteric systems of ordering the world, are a reflection of the times within which humans operate, and, as such, need to be unpacked to understand a particular present.
This knotted impossibility is central to the artistic practice of Coley. His sculptures study the nature of language, architecture, and assumption in order to suggest that we consider paying greater awareness to how we understand our place in the world. For two decades he has been consistently mining belief as a concept, be it through architecture, law, superstition, religion, or the authority
of the lecture, the conduct of humans, the distribution of information, the representation of memory, or belief in art itself. His research is conducted by using language that already exists in the world—commands, conversations, platitudes, and conventions. It could be an overheard exchange
between friends, a radio program, or the recounting of a historical reference. Each example uses language to represent an event, feeling, or opinion produced by the peculiarities of a specific frame of time. Coley finds these resources rather than seeks them out; he is a listener. In his hands, words become images, and objects are placed in the public to be read.
The cover of this book announces: A Place Beyond Belief. This single-sentence sculpture takes the form of a freestanding scaffolding sign, the sans-serif text written in point size, four lights by eight, conceived to be tested in a potentially limitless number of sites. As discussed in Caroline Käding’s text, it was shown in the small town of Freiburg, Germany, in 2013, displayed within a Kunstverein, viewable above from a balcony or from below by gazing up at the towering edifice from floor level. In 2012 it was shown in a city square in Pristina, Kosovo, unveiled on September 11 by city authorities. Day, night, sun, rain. Crepuscular light, electric light. Ignored, examined like a painting. It does not matter to this indifferent structure—the light is illuminated for twenty-four hours with no heed to what reactions it causes. The work responds to its site and to the particularities of each encounter—be that the histories of Kosovo or the recent production and reception of contemporary art.
“Place” is a site that has been named; “a place” is one among many. “Beyond” is outside of a territory of knowledge, be that intellectual, geographical, or ethical. “Belief” is just difficult. “A place beyond belief” is a vernacular phrase, used generally when describing a deeply disturbing event that has occurred in a specific, named location. Coley picks up phrases as ready-mades from private and public sources. This is the ground from which his sculptures grow. They observe the belief, balance, order, control, fiction, and illusion we use to try and interpret the world we have created. Coley considers the ways in which experience is fixed and distorted by language and its attendant inferences. In discussing the word “heaven,” for example, the artist moves from dictionary definitions to the reception and distribution of Led Zeppelin’s rock classic “Stairway to Heaven,” to the eponymous film directed by Tom Tykwer; cotton sheets, a farm in the south of England, a gay night club, the lyrics from a Talking Heads song stating “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” This phrase blazed in 2008 in the seaside town of Folkestone, a place that has been grand, run down, and gentrified. Illuminated day and night, on a high street of cut-price shops, it pointed simultaneously to somewhere else and its own present, a shopping street filled with art and beach tourists, retired and disenfranchised locals, those looking for something better or mourning something worse. The origin of each of Coley’s works is the surrounding world. His sculptures are manifestations open to be misread and ignored as much as any other activity. Coley’s works are always generated by an invitation, with the flight from production to realization compromised and influenced by those encountered during the process.
A radio program, listened to as background noise, where personal memories of the atmosphere in New York following September 11 were shared, initiated the sculpture A Place Beyond Belief. Such memorial programs are emotive, as they communicate the subjective nature of perception. When an event becomes an anecdote it changes; it becomes edited to work as a story with impact. Coley’s possession of this story through claiming it as ready-made material for an artwork also distorts it through distribution—in this very book a number of such stories are repeated as each writer seeks out the source of the work in an attempt to grapple with Coley’s sculpture. This one goes: a young woman sits in a New York subway carriage a number of days after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. It is early morning, and the city is grudgingly back at work. Like many of her fellow passengers, she is tired, emotionally fragile, confused, and angry—still trying to come to terms with what has happened to her city. A Sikh man sits opposite her, wearing a bright orange turban. There is a strong tangible sense of hatred from the passengers toward the man—a feeling of raw anger and disgust. The man’s eyes are averted, the commuters stares un-replied. His head is bowed, he is sobbing. The train travels on, stopping at the next station, the doors open and close, passengers get on and off. After a few stops and more torturous minutes, the man gathers his belongings and gets up to leave. Standing by the exit is a young black woman with a newly born baby. As the man approaches, he reaches into his pockets and takes out a handful of dollars. Without saying anything, he shoves the money into the folds of the baby’s clothes and exits the train. The doors close, and the remaining passengers burst into tears. At that moment, the woman realizes that for New York to get past the attack, to move on and rebuild itself, it has to think anew, it has to look again. It has to get to a place beyond belief.
This story is shocking. It is beyond belief. Why was this told on national British radio? Is it true or embellished? What difference does placing the money, without an invitation, make? Why do we need to know the woman’s skin color? Who has the right to judge another? Does telling this tale of prejudice teach anything? Could this happen in another place? Could it happen here, now? These questions can only be raised as the distance from the specifics of the event widens. Coley is an editor of the world—what he pres-ents may be there already, but his compilations question. Rather than explain, this story inscribed into a sculpture operates as a report from elsewhere—somewhere as
unknown as McCracken’s references. Something personal is not universal, it only becomes an applicable generalization once comparisons are made and commonalities sought out. What Coley himself believes in is irrelevant and undisclosed. His subject is neither personal nor private: it is public belief—a drive that formulates the origination of society. His concern is with the general, or, in Ludwig Feuerbach’s terms, the species rather than the particular or individual. Indeed, Coley’s own religious or moral opinions have never been shared either in the work or in public interviews.
Coley’s work is a private study of public proclamations, a million miles away from commentary. In another text work a phrase states: There Will Be No Miracles Here. This sculpture has been seen widely and written about extensively, because, very simply, it is a significant work central to Coley’s investigations and to considering art today. Like all his works, it does not stand still, it moves with its times, in tune with the personal and the political. The site of encountering Coley’s work is created by the nature of cultural reflection, be it encountered in a gallery, museum, or public space. The work is mobile: it rests in one site before moving elsewhere, driven by the flow of the international art world, driven by the desire for economic and knowledge capital outside of any artist’s control. Each work operates in time as much as it does in space as every presentation leaks into what has come before and what follows in an echo of the production of history.
There Will Be No Miracles Here began its journey in 1998 when Coley created a series of posters of appropriated signs, presenting plain black text with red emphases: “The village and surrounding heathland is private property”; “Persons creating a noise or disturbance in or near this public street are guilty of a misdemeanour and are likely to a fine and imprisonment”; “There will be no miracles
here. By order of the King.” When first shown in a gallery, photographs of the posters in public sites were accompanied by a voice speaking these admonishments that offer unspecific threats. Why is and not are? What is a miracle and who is the King to abolish them? What is a misdemeanor? It depends on the circumstances, on what has been deemed correct conduct. Jean-Luc Nancy makes an important distinction between “politics” and “the political”: the former is the administration of the latter, which consists on a dissensual gathering of individual positions.2 It is in this realm of the social that Coley’s sculptures unpack the bureaucracies of politics. Like the word belief, these phrases are charged terms that have power without qualification. The former phrases are familiar, an ungrammatical formal legal language that appears in sites where trouble, whatever that may be, is expected. Perhaps outside a late night bar, or on a street corner—the sign, perversely, inviting misdemeanors because it is expected.
The architectural historian Mark Cousins relayed the third phrase to Coley. His anecdote, repeated and warped in retellings, describes how this text appeared on a sign in a mediaeval French village named Modseine, following a period of inexplicable mass hysteria. In an attempt to
assert control, the conduct was named “miracle” by local administrative powers. Once classified, it could be legislated. Presumably, the illiterate peasants would read this sign and they then complied by curbing their miracles, resulting in the harvest being completed as the unrest ceased. A “miracle” is a word for something unknown within language. A miracle is an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world surpassing known human and natural powers, ascribed to a supernatural cause or a god to rationalize irrationality.
This open and consistent concern with the encounter between objects and language opens the door to two useful references for considering Coley’s wider artistic practice. First, the artist Lawrence Weiner, who understands art as an examination of “the relationship of human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings.”3 We make objects to try and find a place in the world—objects make life easier, present problems to be solved, embody thought. They are negotiated in the realm of the social. Objects ask questions of other objects that have already become familiar. Weiner’s and Coley’s work is profoundly sculptural, interactive, and material. Metaphor has no place; as Weiner states in the 2007 short film Turning Some Pages: “Art is not a metaphor upon the relationship of human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings, but a representation of an empirical existing fact. The world needs to be re-presented to make
it mystical, unknown, and outside the taming properties of language. It does not need to stand for anything that it is not already, as it is complicated enough by itself.”
To talk of objects in the context of belief evokes the nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, particularly his 1841 treatise The Essence of Christianity, a humanist study of why we have the desire to believe. Religion is a sphere of belief Coley frequently addresses. Fear of Death (for Bertrand Russell) (2009) consists of a series of denuded larch trunks, standing nearly two and half meters high, painted rust red. The titular reference is to a talk, subsequently distributed in a pamphlet, by Bertrand Russell in 1927, delivered under the auspices of the National Secular Society that concludes with the statement: “religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear.” Around each tree a phrase had been hammered into the surface, giving reasons why humans turn to religion: “Fear of Death”; “Fear of Defeat”; “Fear of the Mysterious.” Larches are often founds in cemeteries, a site where language, memory, and belief intersect.
Feuerbach notes that above all other animals, humans possess self-consciousness. This quality is enabled through acts of perception, “the ability to distinguish one sensuous object from another.”4 Through this, “man becomes conscious of himself through the object that reflects his seeing; man’s self-consciousness is his consciousness of the object.”5 Perception involves a reflection on and production of values, producing what Feuerbach calls a “species consciousness” that gives humans an understanding of the infinite, bringing with it an admission of personal fallibility. The ideal being in this scheme holds qualities of wisdom, rationality, love, and benevolence as the highest ambition.
Feuerbach suggests religion fulfills human needs by suggesting that human desires for an ideal can be realized, with the notion of a Christian god based on the outward projection of man’s inward nature, a fluid ever-shifting definition. Religion, he asserts, changes as human life does—the building of temples mirrors the concept of the home, for example. In his 1843 “Preface to the Second Edition” of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach states that religion was out of step with his experience of the modern world. God had become superhuman, removed from daily life and distanced from the actual practice of being human: “Christianity has in fact long vanished, not only from the reason but from the life of mankind, that it is nothing more than a fixed idea, in flagrant contradiction with our
fire and life assurance companies, our railroads and steam-carriages, our picture and sculpture galleries, our military and industrial schools, our theatres and scientific museums.”6
As the world sped up, industry and culture could provide the feeling of the infinite; belief moved from God to somewhere else. Both Weiner’s and Feuerbach’s meditations on the object locate it in the realm of the social.
Sculptors traditionally make work by removing or adding: carving into block, building up from dust. Coley does both. Unnamed from 2012 folds language, emotion, site, and memory into sculpture. A collection of re-cycled headstones sit in the gallery, propped just above the floor using ready-at-hand building materials—recently, in Vancouver, standard two-by-four red cedar blocks, while in London lacquered steel sections of a similar size. The names of those to whom these stones belong have been taken away. All that is left are dates and sentiments. Some die young, others old; some in circumstances known to history, others pass unconnected to world events. My dear husband; forever in our hearts; in loving memory. What does it mean to bury a daughter or a prisoner of war. To think of it is enough to pull tears. How can one find the words to express a loss? It is impossible, any activation of regret is a platitude, and any platitude can be an emotional trigger—sometimes actual, other times projected as we test out what it might feel to experience loss. Gathered together with no names, these stones become civic rather than personal.
In a three-part series of altered photographs, Coley again addressed memory though reduction. Color removed, the images appear to be of another time. All were taken by the artist while traveling for other reasons than specifically making this work; rather like the aforementioned anecdote
collection while half-listening to the radio, distraction enables an unconscious gathering of material. The Honour Series (2012) captures figures protesting or celebrating in an urban environment, gold leaf applied to remove specific allegiances written on handmade placards and banners. The shapes of these signs are, in another work titled Choir (2012), formed into a mass of white abstract sculptures, sized to be held in the hand and displayed sitting on a table covered with a flattened cardboard box. In a sister project, The Honours Series (2012), the volumes of statues in cityscapes are, in a vertical figure-ground exercise, filled with gold, while around them they are ignored—in one by a man on a mobile phone, in another overlooked while another sculpture gains attention.
Familiarity creates disappearance. In these protests or examples of civic commemoration, speeches and memorial gestures are made to a disinterested or absent crowd. A lack of knowledge leads to projection that this must be happening in an elsewhere—another time when protest meant something, another country where statues were more than park decorations. An event becomes attributed to honor, respect, and privilege so that it can be heard. Civic space is created for its citizens to possess, or at least to believe they do.
A pair of photographs of the Square of the Three Powers in Brasília taken by Coley, while making the artist book Urban / Wild,7 stayed pinned up in his studio for seven years before becoming the work The Square of the Three Powers (2011). In Coley’s reworking, the sky in one image has been filled with gold leaf while a trio looks upward and a man sits alone staring into space. This site and its surrounding administrative buildings were among the first public spaces completed for the inauguration of the new Brazilian capital in 1960, designed by Oscar Niemeyer to hold literally and symbolically the power of the legislature, judiciary, and the executive. Four steps lead to an elevated platform in the center, an invitation to speak and to listen, the basis of political exchange, as it is for tourists and office workers to gather and sit for lunch. Coley himself created a platform a year later, Bandstand (2012). This permanent sculpture in Rieselfeld, Germany too has four steps, this time with a built-in backdrop, a screen to block out the landscape and fill the field of vision with the potential performance. Both Bandstand and The Square of the Three Powers invite public declarations to be imagined, if not made. For speech to hold authority it must be listened to.
Authoritative language is consumed by the ears as well as by the eyes. Coley uses spoken and written words, as described above in the first iteration of There Will Be No Miracles Here. The lecture is a pedagogical convention striving to produce knowledge, but not all words are to be trusted. In her 2008 spoken word performance and album Homeland, Laurie Anderson told a tale of a time when she taught an art history evening class on a topic she know nothing about—so she made her own version up. The students learned, but not what they thought. When the “truth” was discovered Anderson was fired. Coley’s Another Lecture (2011) is a PowerPoint presentation of images of the left-behind parts of Melbourne and Glasgow. Unfinished fences, piled up paving slabs, boarded up buildings awaiting development are the backdrop to a confident voice that, like many practiced public speakers, describes in detail the carefully planned space with an over-familiarity of the spoken words which serve to widen the gap between the dry authority of the rhetoric of city development and the plain facts. Which is fiction, which is to be believed?
In the late nineteen-nineties Coley made four other lecture pieces, these using now obsolete thirty-five millimeter slides. Lecture (1996) shows unfinished buildings in Glasgow set to a voice expressing a desire to humanize and beautify the city. Villa Savoye (1997) brings together a historical text giving a weighty detailed description of Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, with images a world away from the suburban demonstration of the five points of modernist architecture embodied in his Villa Savoye. Instead, it is a different machine for living as that which fills the screen, a Barratt Home, a particular genre of British housing stock that is quick-build, low cost. Not unpleasant, these buildings fulfill the idea of what a home might be and enable a British desire to have a home, no matter what toll such an economic commitment might play some two decades later. Both lecture sculptures allude to the language of permanent architecture, of a modern wish for a future better than the present, while pointing to the fact that cities rise into ruin rather than fulfill the imagining of a single vision. Cities are tangible products of ideological positions. In design, compromise produces unsatisfactory consensus.
When Coley pays attention to an architectural landscape it is always constructed through a singular gaze, sometimes directed where the buildings meet the ground as one walks through the streets, other times looking up or down at the buildings designed to stretch up to their full height, like enthusiastic children in a schoolroom, urgently wanting to say their piece. Architecture fulfills and produces desires, perhaps most explicitly seen in places of production, power, worship, and memory. The Lamp of Sacrifice (161 Places of Worship, Birmingham) (2000) and The Lamp of Sacrifice (286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh) (2004) track sites of institutional devotion using the Yellow Pages in two cities—a reference tool nearly as obsolete as the rhythmic sound of the analogue slide lecture. The title points to John Ruskin’s 1849 book The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the sacrifice in the first chapter being a human dedication to craft as a means of providing a visible proof of love and respect for God. In the following sections, Ruskin outlines the lamps of truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience: all terms that wind their way through Coley’s wider artistic practice. These two works consist of models filling the exhibition spaces: a model is an example to reproduce. Coley’s, though,
reproduce what is already known but not necessarily seen. He makes us look anew.
Palace (2008) is another model, this time a saloon timber façade from the eighteen-seventies, nearly black, and familiar from the genre of Western movies that repeat inaccurate stories of the American Civil War’s aftermath. This version of America is one of hard drinking and suppliant women, of racist stereotypes and fast running horses, of frontiers and a dysfunctional legal system played out in the saloon. Like a movie set, this sculpture is all façade, propped up like Coley’s light-signs. When we see his illuminated signs in photographs the reverse is rarely shown but, like all sculptures, when engaged with fully they need to be seen in the round. Documentation of artwork is only theater, what really matters is the phenomenological encounter.
The encounter with Palace is an invitation to walk behind the set and across a platform that reverberates footsteps through this structure. Drilled into it are the words “land,” “belief,” “wealth,” “life,” “mind.” These are concepts fought over in a search for power and control, often under the auspices of balance and utopian democracy. In form it echoes I Don’t Have Another Land (2002), this sculpture a model of the Marks & Spencer building in Manchester bombed in 1996 by the IRA. Like Palace it holds a text, in this case fitted into a grid of windows rather like contemporary signs offering offices and parking spaces for cheap in empty buildings. The phrase “I don’t have another land” is another found example of language by Coley, an utterance in common usage, seen written on a wall in the Occupied Territories. How is the statement understood? It depends on the position of the reader. As the Manchester bombing recedes into history, other struggles over land thefts, rarely mentioned, raise their hands. Coley is not suggesting a position, rather transposing a specific struggle on to another—the values are waiting to be made by the reader as the specific becomes opened out into the general to be snapped into whatever place one chooses.
If the first decade of the twenty-first century was the time of the “whatever,” the teens are chasing doubt and failure as something to hold on to. A study of the methods of narrating the experience of the present issues a license to cut through assumptions. The general notion that this is an age where agnosticism is the primary position cannot be true as belief is found everywhere. It is hard to believe
in revolution, in capitalism, communism, the church, the government. Yet, there is still belief in taking a position. Belief in failure may not be a rosy future; however, the consensual notion that “we are all doomed” has comforting warmth that makes the future, perversely, seem safer. This is not an era when all is thrown out of the window and hedonism prevails—that would be a retrogressive position out of step with the now—it is a time to examine what possibly might drive us to believe. It is impossibility that makes Coley’s work so consistently pertinent for the present.
1 Frances Colpitt, “Between two Worlds: John McCracken,” Art in America (April 1998).
2 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis, 1991).
3 Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich, eds., Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968–2003 (Ostfildern, 2005), p. 123.
4 Ludwig Feuerbach, “Introduction to The Essence of Christianity,” in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, trans. Zawar Hanfi (London, 2013), p. 97.
5 Ibid., p. 101.
6 Ludwig Feuerbach, “Preface to the Second Edition,” The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (Oxford, 1881).
7 Nathan Coley, Urban / Wild (London, 2004).