Nathan Coley's exhibit at the Contemporary Art Gallery is unbelievably haunting
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until January 20
Walk into the lobby of the Contemporary Art Gallery and you will see a small lightbox, mounted on the wall facing you. Hole-punched in pale, powder-coated aluminum and backlit with fluorescent tubes are the words “A PLACE BEYOND BELIEF”. Both the religious inflections and the ambiguousness of this phrase seem typical of Nathan Coley’s art. The acclaimed Glaswegian has made a practice of deconstructing religious architecture and, as an extension, examining the ways various ideologies and belief systems shape and inform public spaces and the built environment. He often uses found objects, images, and text to explore how social and political convictions may also be imposed upon our urban surroundings—or erased from it.
A Place Beyond Belief is derived from a phrase uttered by a New York woman in a documentary reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She suggests that the survival of her city depends on a future condition in which competing ideologies have disappeared, taking with them murderous hatreds and intolerance. Still, neither the meaning nor the origin of the phrase is given here, so that the words remain aloof and elusive, floating in the ether of impossibility.
From his “Honour” series Coley also presents six black-and-white giclée prints altered with gold leaf. Three of the images are taken an unidentified city and depict groups of protesters carrying placards and banners. Two photos show solitary men, one praying and holding a rosary, the other holding a megaphone; standing on grey city streets; both of these individuals also display handmade signs. A sixth image is of a civic statue or monument in an unidentified plaza in another unnamed city.
The big “however” here is that, in these images, the figures that compose the statue and the words on all the signs, placards, and banners have been completely blanked out with gold leaf. The artist has de-signified the signifiers, erased the markers of conviction and belief.
The protests may relate to the Occupy movement, the rosary-holding man may be a street preacher trolling for lost souls, the statue may be a war memorial—or Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. Although one location is immediately recognizable as downtown Vancouver, we apparently don’t need to know who and what are being celebrated, advocated, or denounced—or where. The use of the urban environment as a stage or podium for proclaiming personal or collective beliefs seems to interest Coley more than what those beliefs actually are. It’s an uncomfortable act of erasure: the artist frustrates our attempts to read particulars into what he delivers as generalizations.
The application of gold leaf is immensely paradoxical: during medieval and Renaissance times, it was used to embellish religious art in a way that further glorified the figures depicted. In Coley’s work, gold leaf does not glorify, it nullifies. At the same time that it bestows an aura of reverence, it negates the thing being revered.
A far more unsettling act of erasure occurs in Unnamed, an installation of 33 altered gravestones, arranged in small, sociable groups in the CAG’s B.C. Binning Gallery. Mounted on bases made of simple cedar two-by-fours, these granite and limestone markers have been gathered from… Well, who knows where and under what conditions? The names of the people whose graves they marked have been carefully excised from the stones. What we’re left with are birth dates and death dates and a few sentimental dedications. Most are written in English but a few are in other languages such as Italian, German, and Chinese.
By removing the gravestones from their original settings and obliterating the names of the people they were intended to commemorate, Coley evokes a disturbing condition—not simply of displacement but also of disappearance. (The wooden “batons” on which the stones sit suggest skids or pallets, amplifying the sense of impermanence.) A few social or cultural conditions can be surmised from the dates and occasional names of places and affiliations, but no sense of individual identity can be established.
Some of the stones marked the graves of those who died young, during wartime. Others record astonishing longevity. Some stones are old and worn, others are relatively new and shiny. Their alterations and displacements suggest that our lives are brutally contingent, and our deaths absolutely eclipsing. Once again, belief is erased, conviction obliterated.