For the case study I must look at a piece called A Place Beyond Belief by Nathan Coley.
What’s your first response to this piece?
What are the meanings behind the words? I can see a church roof, is it a statement about heaven? Or is it more about what’s after belief? Death?
What questions are you going to ask in order to make sense of the piece?
- Is it site specific? If so, where is it?
- Who commissioned it and why? Were they motivated by politics/religion?
- In which year was it constructed?
- Does it only comprise of the illuminated letters or is there more too it? Does the scaffolding count as part of the piece or is that just what the letters are attached too?
- Does the time of day at which you view it matter?
- Does the piece evolve or is this the finished article?
What type of work do you think this is? It could fit into several different categories; how would you define it?
My immediate reaction is to say, it’s contemporary art! That’s surely too obvious an answer though so, if I had to pick a sub-category I would choose Text Art. Possibly Text Sculpture is a better word considering that all the letters are quite large physical items?
What do you think the text is about?
I think that the phrase ‘A Place Beyond Belief’ refers too either the afterlife, what people of religions believe awaits us all when we die, or possibly just a really strong sense of believing in something. From the initial image with the illuminated lettering set against the stormy sky either of those could be workable theories. With a different image taken from a different angle or at a different time of day the message could be quite different. I’m assuming here that the physical lettering on the scaffolding is the artwork here, not the photograph.
Listen to the monologue – what are your first thoughts?
I could not access the given link to the monologue nor locate it when I searched, I did however find an article from the Guardian newspaper in which the artist talked about the creation of the piece.
My first thought is that the text on the art installation is not religious as I initially thought. It is a message of hope and aspiration, something for people to strive towards. Religions with their differences often lead to wars but if everyone can look past that and just try to be good people, the world would be a happier place and we would all achieve a lot more.
What other information can you find on Coley’s website about this particular piece? The ‘view text’ link, centre top, is a good starting point.
Where is it actually sited? Does this change your response to it?
The installation is sited in Kosovo outside a half built Orthodox church. The country is mostly Muslim, they were oppressed by Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990’s and the church is seen as a symbol of that.
The siting does not change my response to it. The wording and it’s message is not site-specific but I would argue that it is situation-specific. The original inspiration for Coley was the aftermath of 9-11 in which it was obvious that people had to come together, to move past differences of religion and work for a greater good. That is very similar to the situation in Kosovo post-Milosevic. The Muslims were the majority and they suffered under an oppressive regime, they could turn on the minorities much like what happened in South Africa or they could all try and work together to create a better future for their country.
Have your views on this piece changed after listening to Coley speak about it? If so, why?
Yes my views have changed on reading more about the origins of the piece. I initially thought that it was more likely to be a religious statement, now I can see that it is about something much bigger than that. My view changed on learning about the Sikh man on the train experiencing misplaced hostility, now that I have that piece of information I am better placed to apply a context to the wording on the scaffold.
Can you see how this piece might take on more political significance than we might have realised upon first viewing the image on the page?
Yes, the message that Coley has chosen to illuminate is particularly relevant to Kosovo. They are currently on the road to being recognised internationally as an independent nation, though still under supervised independence and with some way to go they are looking to the future. It is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, as recently as the 1990’s whilst being oppressed by Serbia, all ethnic Albanians (90% of the population) were banned from holding state jobs. Normally sweeping acts like that are in the history books but that is still one in living memory. That is exactly the kind of act that Kosovo wants to move away from, a mistake that they do not want their politicians to make again. That is possibly why the Guardian article talks about how it was the idea of Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s deputy minister for foreign affairs to have the installation in place for one month and how there is an idea of the Government buying a copy of it to display in their Parliament building as a constant reminder of where the nation has been and what it is heading towards.
Do you think contextual information is essential to gaining a greater understanding of contemporary art? Do you think that it should be an essential ingredient?
Contextual information is essential to gaining a greater understanding of contemporary art. Without it the various pieces have no meaning or relevance and is a waste of time in both the creation and the viewing.
What do you think about this piece, what do you think it achieves?
I think that whilst this piece was on location in Pristina, Kosovo it will have been a constant reminder that we need to move beyond tribal differences and work together to make a better future for everybody.
With something so large and outdoors, even when it has been taken away again it is not the sort of thing that will be quickly forgotten. The juxtaposition of it against a church which was a symbol of Serbian oppression will have served to magnify the message that Coley is trying to spread. I think that the installation will have had an effect locally, I think it will be a reminder, those that forget history are doomed to repeat it.
I then had a further look at some more of Nathan Coleys work as displayed on http://www.studionathancoley.com/works
You imagine what you desire (Brighton) 2015
The phrase “You imagine what you desire” is a quote from a play, ‘Back to Methuselah’ Pt 1 Act 1 written by George Bernard Shaw. The full quote is “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will’. For an installation in Australia Coley chose to split the text into different sections and install them seperatley. The installations were not just confined to Australia, the above installation was resident in Brighton in 2015.
This is my favourite of the variations of examples that I can see on Coleys website. The reason for my preference is the choice of Place. Brighton is very close to my hometown so I know it’s culture well. Famed as the gay capital of the UK it has a fun loving all accepting environment where people can be as flamboyant as they like. With Brightons reputation the topic of sexuality frequently gets associated with the most unlikely issues. I looked at this work by Coley inside a church and instead of thinking of religion I have thoughts of sexual tolerance and it’s occasional absence. The South East coast has a strong older population many of whom are a little bit stuck in their ways meaning that there are still such unfortunate scenes as people attempting to ‘pray the gay away’ out of their children. Also linked to this for me are the many individuals that I have known who have been passionately anti-gay only to burst out of the closet a few years later.
Moving in a totally different direction and looking at it’s specific placement in a church as opposed to the town, it could be a statement about faith. People imagine what they really want, I imagine leaving the military, a new career in the creative arts and being able to have a dog. People who are passionate about their religions imagine a heaven, a loving god and in some cases miracles.
There is a school of thought that to achieve what you want you only have to picture it clearly enough, to see it happening and it will materialise. This potentially could also be a message reinforcing that belief.
It looks very different when the illuminated letters are displayed in a gallery on a plain wall as seen below.
When set against a backdrop of trees and nature the phrase could be relating to yet something else. It could be a message about saving the planet or global warming, or even a hope for good weather!
As something completely different to look at I also chose ‘Iceman’. I was interested to read that when at art school Coley was encouraged to explore ideas rather than traditional artistic medium. https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/features/nathan-coley
Due to this he works in a range of media including photography, film and sculpture whilst approaching ‘questions about how we relate to public spaces and architecture’.
Iceman 2005 was the result of a commission in the city of Bristol. Coley was invited (amongst others) to join an exhibition called ‘Thinking of the Outside’ which was supposed to be in response to Bristol’s historic landscape.
As the National Galleries article describes, rather than making a work that came from the place, Coley decided to bring a work too the place.
So, on a project that was to respond to the historic landscape of Bristol which is extremely colourful in both drama (slavery and trading) and actual structures, Coley chose to make a plywood rendition of a four-storey housing block. On the side he then added a graffiti tag which he had photographed up in Dundee. The tag itself, ‘Iceman’, refers to heroin. This entire ensemble he then placed in the churchyard of a place called St Johns which is in the centre of the town.
I’d love to know what the exhibition organisers thought of it!
Nathan Coley, Iceman, 2005 (detail), painted plywood, 3.2m x 4.8m x 2.7m. Photo: Jamie Woodley, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.