Ceci n’est pas un...
Nathan Coley likes to claim, slightly sardonically, that he is a ‘demolition engineer’. But he is neither an engineer, nor, as far as we know, has he ever actually demolished anything.
His claim is understandable though and can even raise a smile, because he has more than once referred to the act of demolition in his work. In an urban intervention created in partnership with the artist Thomas Bechinger, a sign stating ‘Demolition in Progress’ appeared on a fence surrounding a small pavilion in Berlin (1997). However, the letters and graphic design of the text made it clear that the sign had not been placed there by a company specialised in that type of work, in other words, that there wasn’t an engineer in charge of the supposed operation.
In ‘The Land Marked’ (Centro Cultural de Belém, 2001), demolition reappears, but this time in an audio and video installation inspired by one of the most emblematic sixteenth-century monuments from the time of King Manuel in Lisbon, the Belém Tower. Visitors would have probably seen this icon upon arriving at the exhibition, given how close it is to the Centro Cultural buildings. In the Project Room, the viewers again encounter images of the tower, but in a context that no longer exists: the monument appears flanked by two industrial chimneys. This image, which can easily be recognised as an old image (because of the way the people are dressed, the cars and its black and white production) becomes, by having been transferred to video, animated and somehow real. The next image shows the two chimneys being blown up, accompanied by the sequential sounds – boom, boom! – leaving the Tower in the centre, liberated from its industrial frame. In the subsequent sequence of images the event is inverted and this time it is the Belém Tower that implodes and vanishes, leaving the tall chimneys gazing at the empty centre of the image. Eventually we see the Tower and its surroundings as they are today, with the exception of a wooden bench that had been meticulously removed from the image by the artist. This is all repeated on a loop.
Most viewers would probably smile at this video-installation. I smiled (at that time, the tragedy of the World Trade Center had not yet taken place) and for several minutes I was spellbound by this virtual destruction of one of our country’s landmark buildings. But then came the question: what on earth does he mean by this? And that is exactly where the demolition engineer truly transforms into a demolisher.
Let’s take into account what Coley works with. It was no more than a decade ago that Portuguese society was up in arms about the construction of the Centro Cultural de Belém, the building in which the exhibition took place. One of the main objections being that it obstructed the view between the Jerónimos Monastery, another masterpiece of the Manuel era, and the Belém Tower. In this sense, Coley’s images demonstrate and evoke a long history of controversies around urban and architectural intervention in Belém.
At this stage in our argument, we could therefore say that Coley is an artist who is interested in architecture, buildings and monuments; rather than an engineer, he is more like a – probably frustrated – architect, who once suggested building an urban sanctuary in Edinburgh, back home in Scotland. But analysing that project, things may get more serious.
In 1997 Coley conceived a publication in which he transcribed a series of conversations between himself and various others, whom he had confronted with his idea of building an urban sanctuary in Edinburgh. Each interviewee was asked a series of questions relating to their specific field of knowledge and their relationship with Edinburgh’s urban space. The fundamental question was: how and what should an urban sanctuary in Edinburgh be? This document is all the more interesting because Coley spoke to a wide range of people: from a theology teacher, a police constable, a feng shui expert, to an architect, an urban planner, an artist, an architectural sociologist, and the City’s Tourist Information Office.
The inevitable diversity of points of view and the wealth of details and factors that came out of desires based on specific experiences and knowledge, incorporated a criticism – albeit a subtle one – of how nowadays buildings are conceived and constructed, of how their locations are fixed, of their implementation, their direction, etc.: all this happens without ‘listening’. The feeling with which we are left after finishing the book is that if architects were to listen to such diverse approaches and perspectives before conceiving a project, we would be living in better cities.
Returning to Belém and its history; the Belém Tower was built by King Manuel I in 1515, the Golden Age of discovery voyages, when they say Portugal was rich and powerful. The building was constructed to be a fortress that protected the coast from foreign attacks. It served as such until 1580, when the country became subject to Spanish rule and its dungeons became a state prison, particularly for upper-class prisoners. From 1808 to 1814, during the French invasion, it was altered to accommodate military installations. At the end of the nineteenth century, the writer Almeida Garrett protested against the state of decay of the Tower. With the support of the Duke of Terceira, then Minister of War, the building was restored and new sculptural elements, in particular the niche with an image of Our Lady of the Grapes, were added.
It was in 1867 that the events occurred that provided one of the references for Nathan Coley’s work: the construction of the Gas Factory near the Tower. The proximity of the River Tagus facilitated the unloading of coal that was supplied by boat. Besides supplying the factory, the coal was also packed in sacks for use as domestic fuel. The small industrial complex included furnaces and coal stores, and further away two gasometers. The construction was highly controversial and one of the main opponents was none other than Queen Maria Pia herself.
In 1910, it was proposed to move the factory, because it was considered an aesthetic ‘insult’ to the Tower. After various unsuccessful attempts to transfer the plant, including a pilgrimage to the site organised by the SNBA (National Society for Fine Arts), the decision to remove it was only taken in 1928. It took until 1949 before preparations to dismantle the factory began.This continued until the following year, when the chimneys were demolished – the event recorded by an anonymous photographer.
So, not everything in ‘The Land Marked’ is fiction: the industrial chimneys really did exist, their demolition was recorded in these black and white images, which Coley retrieved from the City Photographic Archives. The title of the work alludes, on the one hand, to the historical importance of the monument as a Lisbon landmark, but it also has a more general meaning: that of marked earth or territory. Which bring us from a concrete, visible context – in monumental stone – and, for those who live in Lisbon, a familiar point of a reference in the city’s geography, onto a more symbolic, abstract level.
In relationship to the Tower’s appearance today, it is worth remembering that in 1940 the Belém Tower was handed over to the Ministry of Finance, who carried out restoration work and added the shield-shaped merlons to the façade. This all took place during the Exhibition of the Portuguese World which was intended to celebrate, among other things, the country’s territorial and colonial power.
This brief historical framework is a demonstration of the different levels of reflection the artist’s work evokes. Coley, at the start of the twenty-first century, not only refreshes our memory about the context surrounding one of Lisbon’s major monuments, which is part of our national and tourist landscape. He also makes us aware that this monument has not existed forever, that many other monuments have been destroyed and that some were conceived but never built. The European doctrine of heritage and preservation is cross-examined and questioned very subtly. Or rather, it is not accepted as a natural given, but instead questioned as an ideology, resulting from of a series of ideals that seem to have been set in stone over the centuries.
Moreover, during the months the work was exhibited at the Centro Cultural de Belém, a more than paradigmatic contemporary example of a similar order took place. The project was the emptying and consequent demolition of a building in the historical centre of Lisbon, to make room for an elevator to facilitate connections between the lower part of the city and the upper part surrounding the castle. Coley gave a television interview to give his opinion on this highly contentious national issue. The elevator was never built, but Coley said, demonstrating his lively sense of humour, that he could always come back one day to demolish it.
Unlike other cultures, Europe tends to view its architectural buildings as eternal, but it is obvious they are not and that entails a constant choice between what is to be maintained and what can be destroyed.
The issue of functionality that is so dear to artistic discourse is re-addressed. If a work of art distinguishes itself from useful objects by its lack of functionality, and is created without any other function than its pure creation, then what is a building that has long ceased to be functional, which no longer serves the objective of national defence for which it was originally created? Any politician or citizen would answer this question by simply referring to its symbolic, historical and artistic character. And this is the criterion that undoubtedly led to the decision to remove the factory, which was, at that time, indeed utilitarian and functional.
It is the deconstruction of these different levels that interests Coley. The way he uses virtual technology for example is not to create supposed scenarios of the future, but to revisit or confuse scenarios of the past.
It is clear that what concerns him is not architecture, buildings or monuments, but what surrounds them and the discourses they give rise to; the social, political, ideological and aesthetic impact they provoke. Unfortunately, some time after the artist conceived his work, all these premises became almost self-evident with the attack on New York.
What Coley has always pursued is to show how the urban space and what takes place within it is an excellent starting point to question our own perceptions and the commonplaces on which our different discourses and worldviews are built. And the expression ‘commonplaces’ easily gains a double meaning here: in a toponymic and urban sense it recalls the commonly shared public spaces, while in the epistemological and linguistic sense it alludes to common sense, the basic degree of received knowledge.
And it is not only perception, but also representation and its mechanisms that are questioned. By mixing original photographs with other, manipulated and virtual images, Coley works on that very thin line between reality and fiction, the representation of reality and simulacrum.
Ceci n’est pas un …
From the the book:
'From Work to Text, Dialogues on Practise and Criticism in Contemporary Art'
Edited by Jürgen Bock