Mike Nelson: The Coral Reef, 1999, installation view;
image courtesy of the Artist and Matt’s Gallery, London, Collection of the Tate.
On a recent trip to London, I went to visit Mike Nelson's Coral Reef recently acquired by Tate Collections and installed at Tate Britain until January 15th. This work was made in 1999 for Matt's Gallery in London, at the very end of the 20th Century but before events which have come to define current times; 9/11, 7/7 and the economic crash of 2008 in particular. In the light of our recent history this claustrophobic, disorientating piece has extraordinary resonances.
Entering the work through a grubby reception room, you begin your journey into a complex series of rooms and corridors. Each room has its own character - all are shabby, depressed, clues are scattered throughout to tempt us to construct a narrative for ourselves. The title, Coral Reef reflects Nelson's concept of a fragile structure which exists under a metaphorical ocean surface, in which "...in a sense each room is indicative of a different belief system". We are "...invited to become lost in this world of lost people" and that is exactly what the experience achieved for me.
Under electric light, the structure doubles back on itself, the spaces are tight and only just big enough to occupy. A sense of panic rises even though this is obviously a work of art, installed in a gallery - one cannot actually come to harm or get forever lost in the maze - the fiction is powerful enough to suspend the rational just enough to allow the anxiety to emerge. You can hear others elsewhere in the structure, doors are opening and closing, squeaking on their hinges, it could be reassuring but it also increases the panic. The residual evidence of characters living out their days, conducting their business and worshiping at their own particular alter in these uncared for spaces is disturbing, familiar and loaded with prophetic tension. In a carefully constructed, paranoia educing twist we are led to believe we have reached the room through which we entered only to find the exit leads us into a loading bay, its shutters down - we have no choice but to turn and retrace our steps.
It is a remarkable experience, here is Mike Nelson talking about the work and its contemporary significance.