Satire and television, debris and progressive Rock, psychotic cinema, the gallery as a liver
There is a technique in comedy that builds up not to necessarily knock you down, but to disintegrate gently before reaching a climax. Such undermining of expectations was the perennial comic ploy of Tommy Cooper in his bad magician bungles, for instance. Nathaniel Mellors conducts similar moments of dissolution in many registers: over time sense collapses, a mood darkens or narrative falls apart; physically, too, everything seems poised to clatter to the ground. It is as though the chaos from which things have been formed permanently threatened to regain (lack of) control.
Profondo Viola (2004), Mellors’ recent installation at Matt’s Gallery, London, was a composite of numerous sound and video pieces, loosely congregating in a dystopic settlement of crudely fabricated debris and an audio-visual graveyard. The process of manufacture – of the installation as a whole, as well as of individual video and audio pieces – is distinctly cumulative rather than reductive; the artist positing an alternative approach to criticality, based on trial and lots of error.
Mellors’ videos parody existing formats, from television and promos to Performance poetry and critical analysis. In the three-screen projection Transcendental Rainbow (2004), a sort of welcoming foyer piece in Profondo Viola, a paint-daubed and hairy guru explains, in an ever-decreasing spiral of ludicrousness, the evolution of the gallery (from ‘The Wormery’ to ‘The Crisp Packet’ to ‘The Transcendental Rainbow’), offering advice for navigation and understanding: ‘Do not overdress, or you are likely to accumulate a gross skin of coarse pig’s hair.’ Psychedelic nonsense is studded with cliché, like the insights of acid-drenched casualties, and yet some analogies are unnervingly possible as art commentary: ‘The gallery is a kind of liver – a liver in a different place – a gallery next to a canal.’
Inside the main gallery a video was projected above a nearly empty swimming-pool: the artist follows a woman around a Swiss village, feeding her politically loaded lines to repeat. The woman is evidently not speaking her native language, and the artist is cruelly feeding her deliberate bungles: ‘ … America can be collapsed, but only through cultural terror and art horror … kill them all with poesy and culture … helpless popples is pornogrophic … artists pubelicats and art-fur are demographogrophical … ’. Mellors makes a keen point about the precariousness of accuracy and the conflict between the will to be understood and the difficulties inherent in cultural or experiential translation.
An earlier, autonomous video piece, Pod War (The Landscape Critics) (2003), telescopes out, through psychotic cinematog-
raphy, from the intensity of language to the altitude of narrative. White-hooded figures in a wooded English landscape seem as alienated from their surroundings as we are, shipwrecked on the coast of some untraversable storyline. Yet the film is still readable as an Orwellian dystopia. Should the fact that such idiocy is so nearly sensible give us cause for concern? Mellors’ fascination with slippage, malfunction and incomprehensibility may be greater than most people’s, but in the lineage of, say, Charlie Chaplin’s critique of Fascism in The Great Dictator (1940) there are salient points here, made precisely through burgeoning gibberish. The threat here, Mellors seems to suggest, is the confusion of multiplicity, the frenzied milieu through which information is somehow conveyed.
Back at Matt’s Gallery there is a yurt-type structure, with protuberances sticking out from the roof; you have to walk around it to find the entrance and discover the pool of dry ice tumbling about inside. Once more mutation undercuts common sense: who could this shelter be for? What are we to do once inside? The gap between expectation and reality affords us a space in which to contemplate the absurdly fine line between sculptural inventiveness and reality. I like to think of the smoky den inhabited by Prince Lightning, Mellors’ fictionalized ‘rap star for the English countryside’. His CD The Long Scratch (2003) is a mélange of urban/rural tracks that takes its cue from British industrial music such as Nurse With Wound and Throbbing Gristle. Once more there is a steady decline of both form and content; harmony sours from track to track as nature curdles. Although it is the CD that endures in the long run, the introduction of Prince Lightning at the private view is as important. In New York the rap star appeared as a CCTV apparition in a listening booth that was part white cube, part wood-and-straw den. As in Profondo Viola, the rich sculptural environment provides a faceted support for performative moments, both fleeting and sustained.
Mellors’ methodology is a strangely uninhibited formalism that recalls more the syntax of montage than free-form Surrealism. The starting-point is the world, which is twisted into new contortions as a form of self-critique. The agency of art may be an ideology on the wane, but Mellors identifies tropes, media and timbres – satire, parody and the ever important, but all too often suppressed, possibility of failure – that still find their mark when applied to constructive self-critique.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.