Studio Nathan Coley

Unnamed (Vancouver) 2012

Unnamed (Vancouver)

Nigel Prince

Coley’s practice revolves around investigations into the social aspects of our built environment, of what attributes might be considered to constitute public space and the values inscribed within them.

Unnamed (Vancouver) was commissioned to form the centerpiece of Knowledge, Kindliness and Courage, his exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, in 2012. Just as previous works have looked at how buildings might be seen to symbolize systems of belief—specifically places of worship—this installation advances the thematic questioning by using found headstones, collectively telling stories of different patterns of history, immigration, and the politics of societies. If we understand these objects as an embodiment of some notion of community, then we might argue their significance reaches far beyond that as mere records of social history, insofar as they demonstrate a political demand on place.

For Coley it is important the stones are acquired, not newly made. Consistent within his practice, they are ready-mades; de-commissioned markers given a new context and life, in much the same way as phrases are unearthed and used for his text-based works. To reflect on faith, or more generally belief, as a notional intangible, then how might a concrete expression reveal itself? While there is a quite literal weight to these objects, there is also an immediate and tangible feeling of gravitas metaphorically embedded within the installation. The silence of these modified tombstones when manifested as an artwork produces a powerful aura far beyond the reverence that might be typically anticipated for such forms. Where have they come from, how did they get here, and therefore crucially, what do we make of them now. Unnamed (Vancouver) causes us to ask what occurs when private is made unexpectedly public, how the forms themselves come to be invested—and reinvested—with meaning.

Gathered throughout the gallery, supported on stout cedar batons, the seemingly informal, provisional nature of their installation—stacked, leaning against walls, placed in small groupings—creates a sense of being in transit, of yet to find a home, suggestive of a dislocation from their actual site, temporarily in limbo. The wooden blocks act as both plinth and an evocation of pallet systems characteristically used to transport grave markers by monumental masons. And yet these simple forms operate too as a formal device—warm against cool, color against none, soft against hard. Furthermore, in elevating the headstones off the ground we become even more aware of their physicality and the profundity of meaning that might be suggested by this act in relation to their former function. The batons also reference other art historical standards, their visual consistency and cross-section a unifying presence throughout the work, reminiscent of plays on seriality and modular form within minimal and conceptual practices. Within the visual logic of the piece, too, they echo where names once were, now deep rectilinear troughs of newly cut granite in contrast to the otherwise weathered surfaces. De-individualized, what remains are the conventions: dates of commemoration, mention of place, decorative features, inscriptions which indicate the gender of or relationship to a person, as well as more usual epitaphs of mourning and dedication. Languages are various: English, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Italian, Japanese, German, and Vietnamese. Many appear to be civilians; some honor soldiers, victims of war and internment. Yet with names removed, identity is opened out for us to consider a more wide-ranging and expansive series of issues, a very real sense of presence in something that has previously implied absence. The memorials speak to the broader notions concerning how we mark lives lived or events passed, and raise the issue of morality in using these loaded objects in such a way. Some of the stones document alarming brevity, some a ripe longevity, nonetheless still disturbing. Erased names notionally create a further space, which is now filled with a different understanding, one that makes the familiar unfamiliar. As with the day’s turning, these monuments retrieve time but also signify a continual state of flux, a fundamental understanding of the inevitability that the structures we inhabit and the lives we lead will undoubtedly be outstripped by the environment that surrounds us.