THE BLACK ART BARBECUE, SAN ANTONIO, AUGUST 1961 1998
Mike Nelson (1967 – )
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One might be forgiven for thinking that Mike Nelson’s artworks are equally involved in the ‘dark arts’ of black magic as they are in contemporary art practice. This is more explicit in The Black Art Barbecue, San Antonio, 1961 than in many works, through the installation’s allusion to the art of shrines, totems and voodoo. Like an alchemist, the artist experiments with the splutters and fizz that can be created by combining several elements, but he also plays the part of fraud and trickster.
The Black Art Barbecue is a recreation of an artist’s desk in a studio. The title of the work is taken from an amalgamation of the various drawings that are hung over the desk. Like much of Nelson’s work, the tableau of objects creates the impression that we have stumbled upon a room that has just been left. In the case of The Black Art Barbecue, it appears that before leaving, the (fictional) artist was closely examining a book with a magnifying glass. On the desk is a pair of effigies roughly hewn from green packing foam: a tiny couple – male and female. Surrounding the little figures’ feet are twigs, representing, one must presume, firewood for a bonfire. Flames made from red plastic seem to lick at their bodies, as though they are martyrs burned at the stake or, perhaps more likely, a pair of voodoo dolls. Around the desk is a strange assortment of work tools, totems and keepsakes, including more twigs, animal skulls, paper stars that seem to have been stencilled on the desk, and plastic cases for reels of film.
Nelson based many of the visual cues in The Black Art Barbecue on an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, St Jerome in his Study (1514), a work in which each item heaves with symbolism. Indeed, many of the objects in St Jerome’s study are given equivalents here. The most traditional vanitas emblems – a human skull, an hourglass – are replaced in Nelson’s work by a clown mask and an office wall clock. Other objects blend together the macabre, surreal and comedic, combinations common in Nelson’s installations. A pumpkin wears a trucker’s cap and a rubber Walt Disney ‘Goofy’ nose, a plastic pig snout sits among tiny toy gremlins.
Books littered around the work station include several copies of National Geographic, Heidegger’s Metaphysics (1953) and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (1960). Like the Dürer engraving, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), also here, is noteworthy, owing to the symbolic totalitarian weight given to every object in the crumbling, sickened house in Poe’s tale – a weight of objects mirrored here. One can speculate for ever, interpreting Nelson’s myriad of historical, literary and artistic sources, lost in a labyrinth worthy of Borges. As the artist has said, ‘For me, my work is more like a book than a stage set. The whole point of both is to draw people into a realm, to encourage them to think of what’s going on as real.’
What begins to feel most palpably real in The Black Art Barbecue is creeping dread. Dürer scholar Karl-Adolf Knappe wrote of St Jerome that ‘the light streaming in through the window panes, weaving in and out through the picture, becomes a symbol of supernatural light’. In Nelson’s room, however, supernatural light emanates from an altogether darker source. The installation is dingy and dim – a single light emanating from underneath the desk. However, you might just notice a shadow thrown on the wall beneath the desk: a large insect, hiding in the dark below, waiting.
. St Jerome in his Study is one of three Meisterstiche (master engravings) made by Dürer in 1513 and 1514. The other two prints are Knight, Death and the Devil and Melancholia
. . Nelson quoted in the catalogue for São Paulo Bienal 26 (2004).
. Karl-Adolf Knappe, Dürer (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1964–65).