Fig. 1 A Place Beyond Belief, Prishtina, 2012
Initial response and first questions
My first response to the piece is a series of questions. What am I looking at? Where is it? What does the text refer to? Religion? The word belief and the church on the background seem to lead in this direction. Is this installation temporary or permanent? The scaffolding would indicate a temporary structure. I enjoy the contrast between the white lights and the dark blue sky, but of course this would look different in daylight, perhaps less dramatic, it would possibly get lost in the daily environment and activity.
I cannot say that I ‘like’ this piece straight away, but by now, since I started the Creative Arts course, I have come to know that when confronted with a contemporary art work I have to be patient with myself and take the time to look and think through different layers, to try to get to the core of what I am seeing.
So I am now zooming in on the image in front of me and considering the questions to ask in more depth.
First comes the text: is there really a religious meaning to it? For a start, linguistically it looks ambiguous or at least open, because a place that is beyond belief may be amazingly good, or amazingly bad, or perhaps even a place that cannot be imagined, an unreal place. It seems like a statement, without a verb, but what exactly about? Or is it an invitation, a call to something?
The scaffolding: is it an integral part of the piece, contributing to it as a whole, or is it only a support? Was it chosen because of convenience being light and easy to move, or for other artistic reasons? Perhaps because the artist wanted to give a sense of something provisional and impermanent, or fit his work into a contemporary everyday frame.
The place: is this piece site-specific or movable? And if it is site-specific what are the reasons for choosing this place? The presence of a church? It being a special place for other reasons? The apparent emptiness all around it? This is a question that I think cannot be answered without looking at contextual information.
As to the type of art this piece might fit in, I think in general terms definitely Conceptual art, but also Light art, Textual art, or more specifically Light or Text sculpture – but are these perhaps only subgroups of Conceptual art? more research on this – and even Land art because the piece seems to interact strongly with the place.
All in all and before getting more information I think the text DOES refer to religion, not to a specific religion but more to religiousness, or to a human religious feeling that goes beyond the different faiths.
I am uploading a collage of pictures of commercial signs from various origins as a contextual visual note to me. These are everyday neon signs, while Coley’s text is written in light bulbs, but I think there is some common ground or at least a possible connection.
Contextual information added
Fig. 4 Nathan Coley speaking about the origin of his work A Place Beyond Belief
After looking into the information and the images on the artist’s website and listening to his monologue on the original idea for A Place Beyond Belief the initial picture gets more focused and richer and I am slowly beginning to get a better grasp of what I am looking at.
The installation in Prishtina was disclosed to the public exactly on September 11th in 2012, thus connecting it explicitly to 9/11 as confirmed also by the artist who in his monologue recalls the words said by a woman travelling in an underground train in New York just a few days after the terrorist attack, that ‘for New York to move forward and be the great and beautiful city that it once was, New York had to find a place beyond belief.’ (Fig. 4)
It seems to me that in this context the words ‘a place beyond belief’ refer to something different from religious values, something that has more to do with the positive search for shared human values that go BEYOND religious, social, political and race differences. This human effort and hope may include religion but can also be thought without it.
In this respect I have given a first look to the other works by this artist and found that he has dealt with the religious theme in several occasions. I shall get back to these pieces at the end of this blog post.
Fig. 3 A Place Beyond Belief, Prishtina, 2012
It is interesting that this installation, whose initial inspiration was born from the tragic events of 2001 in the USA, has been conceived and mounted with another place in mind, Prishtina, in a totally different political and social context. So it was thought as site-specific but has broader associations. In Charlotte Higgins’ words, ‘placed here, the phrase loses its original context and goes out into the world to find a new life.’ (Higgins, 2012).
If I look closely I see that the illuminated text has been placed close to a church, but I now know that it is a church that was never completely built and is already partially destroyed and that in any case it was seen as a symbol of religious interdivision and ethnic conflict. So this is a point in common between 9/11 and Kosovo: in both cases religion has been misinterpreted and abused to bring destruction. Perhaps ‘beyond belief’ could be seen as a call to go beyond bad religion.
The place in which this piece has been installed is also far from beautiful: on the front an empty unkempt ground with scrubby grass and scanty trees, on the back anonymous buildings finished off by ugly aerials on the roof, on everything a sky that is half grey half yellow. I see now that the unpretentious scaffolding fits just perfectly there, it naturally belongs there. And it seems to me that exactly because the context is dreary the text gains power and calls for attention: there is hope, there is a way to slowly gain back control if we stay human. As Nathan Coley succinctly says: ‘It’s somehow the hill beyond the hill you can see’ (Nathan Coley, cited in Higgins, 2012)
Thinking about contextual information at this point I really see that it is not only useful but really essential to get some understanding of a contemporary piece like this. And I am also starting to think that if a viewer does not put in some personal effort when confronted with a contemporary piece perhaps it does not make sense to see it at all and very easily the viewer will go home with nothing of value gained. So yes, I believe that some appreciation of context is a necessary ingredient if one is to be left with something on a personal emotional or intellectual level.
Beside Prishtina the installation has been put up in other locations, in 2012 in London at Haunch of Venison Gallery together with other works by the artist in a major solo exhibition (Jenkins, 2012), in 2013 at NDSM-Werf in Amsterdam, on a concrete plinth in the water (NDSM, 2013) and in Bruges at Triennale Brugge in 2015 (Triennale Brugge, 2015), every time in different contexts that opened the work to new meanings and interpretations.
In 2013 the structure was installed at Kunstverein in Freiburg, Germany, in a minimalist gallery environment (Kunstverein, 2015) : only the text on its scaffolding at the centre of a white walled room space with nothing else around it. I think that in such an empty context the piece is of course deprived of all its other place specific connections but on the plus side it gains a stronger presence and acquires a clear universal value: no religious associations anymore, no local surroundings, only a powerful and energetic message. My only doubt is that without a preliminary investigation into this forceful piece, in this type of context a viewer would have been thoroughly left to her or his own resources for its interpretation. But perhaps this was the intention of the artist.
Fig. 5 A Place Beyond Belief, at Kunstverein in Freiburg, 2013
Other works by the artist
A Place Beyond Belief is not the only light and text sculpture created by Nathan Coley since the artist has used texts in several other works he has installed. His texts are taken from different sources, for instance from something that he has heard like in A Place Beyond Belief, or from literature like he did for the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014 (Fig. 6). In this particular case the text You Imagine What You Desire is a quote from a work of playwright George Bernard Shaw (The Serpent, Pt. I, Act I in Back to Methuselah, 1921): ‘Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.’ and had been chosen as the title of Sydney Biennale in 2014.
Coley decided to divide Shaw’s text into parts and to install them separately in three different locations in Australia: You Imagine What You Desire and You Will What You Imagine respectively on the façades of the Museum of Contemporary Art like the title statement of the Biennale and of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the third You Create What You Will as the Eastern Apron of Cockatoo Island (Biennale of Sydney, 2014).
Fig. 6 19th Biennale of Sydney, 2014
I think that his idea to divide the quotation into three parts does much to strengthen his invitation to use one’s own creativity and resources to build a new world, and that this message mirrors his previous one A Place Beyond Belief in interesting ways and makes it more powerful and clear, particularly so when considering other texts of his like We Must Cultivate Our Garden, There Will Be No Miracles Here, Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens. Together all these messages launched year after year by the artist make a strong connected statement and reinforce each other giving life to an ongoing conversation with the viewers.
In 2015 Coley reinstalled the first part of the text, You Imagine What You Desire, in an old church in Brighton, again generating new meanings for the text set as it is this time in a religious context. And at this point I am curious to see where this work will go afterwards and how it will subtly change depending on the location.
Fig. 7 You Imagine What You Desire, 2015, at St Nicholas of Myra Church, Brighton
I shall now briefly look into another of Coley’s works, a particularly complex three-part installation he created in 2006 at Mount Stuart in the Isle of Bute in Scotland (Schlieker, 2006 and Gale, 2006): the first piece consists of three hardboard models of places of worship, a synagogue, a church and a mosque all three dazzle-camouflaged with a stripe pattern used on ships during World War I and II.
Fig. 8 Camouflage Mosque/Synagogue/Church, Installation at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland, 2006
The second piece is a light sculpture set in a clearing on a scaffolding spelling out the text ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’, which is very recognizable as Coley’s work.
Fig. 9 There Will Be No Miracles Here, Installation at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland, 2006
The third piece, of which I could not find a picture, is in Gale words: ‘The most powerful piece in Coley’s installation … [It] requires you to enter the house, which is the legacy of that renowned scholar and theologian the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Here, before the altar, sits a glass display case mounted on a wooden plinth. Inside is a silver casket, shaped like a heart and with a lid bearing a fine engraving of the crucified Christ and the words: “Thy wounds are my merits”.
This is too complex an installation to be examined even shortly here and it would certainly deserve a study on its own (perhaps in the future). There are many elements to be investigated: the use and the interpretation of the religious buildings, the intent and the meaning of the war camouflage, the text, the association of the various parts in this particular place, the relationships between religion and human values and much more else. I read also that Coley is an atheist, and this element should be further investigated too.
So even if reluctantly I must stop here at this point.
List of illustrations
Figure 1 Coley, Nathan A Place Beyond Belief, 2012 [illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m] Installation at National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina At: http://www.studionathancoley.com/works/a-place-beyond-belief-0/images (Accessed 28/09/16)
Figure 2 Commercial signs on the road
Figure 3 Coley, Nathan A Place Beyond Belief, 2012 [illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m] Installation at National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina At: www.studionathancoley.com/works/a-place-beyond-belief-0/images/3 (Accessed 28/09/16)
Figure 4 At: https://vimeo.com/79395527 (Accessed 29/09/16)
Figure 5 Coley, Nathan A Place Beyond Belief, 2013 [illuminated text, scaffolding, 5m x 5.2m x 5m] Installation at Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany At: http://www.studionathancoley.com/works/a-place-beyond-belief-freiburg/images
Figure 6, Coley, Nathan You Imagine What You Desire, You Create What You Will, You Will What You Desire, 2014 [illuminated text, scaffolding, various dimensions] Installation at different locations At: http://www.studionathancoley.com/works/biennale-of-sydney/images
Figure 7 Coley, Nathan You Imagine What You Desire, 2015 [illuminated text, scaffolding
5m x 5.2m x 2.5m] Installation at St Nicholas of Myra Church, Brighton, England At:http://www.studionathancoley.com/works/you-imagine-what-you-desire-brighton/images
http://www.studionathancoley.com/ (Accessed 29/09/16)
Higgins, Charlotte (2012) ‘Nathan Coley’s Kosovan sculpture: a beacon in bulbs’ In: The Guardian [online] At:https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/sep/23/nathan-coley-kosovo-sculpture-beacon (Accessed 30/09/16)
Jenkins, Maia (2012) ‘Nathan Coley: A Place Beyond Belief at the Haunch of Venison’ In: The Upcoming [online] At: http://www.theupcoming.co.uk/2012/09/07/nathan-coley-a-place-beyond-belief-at-the-haunch-of-venison/ (Accessed 30/09/16)
www.ndsm.nl At: http://www.ndsm.nl/en/evenement/a-place-beyond-belief/ (Accessed 30/09/16)
www.triennalebrugge2015.be At:http://triennalebrugge2015.be/en/detail/18/nathan-coley (Accessed 30/09/16)
www.kunstvereinfreiburg.de At: http://www.kunstvereinfreiburg.de/htmldocs/programm_archiv2013.html (Accessed 30/09/16)
www.biennaleofsydney.com.au At: https://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/19bos/ (Accessed 3/10/16)
Andrea Schlieker, Andrea Negotiating the Invisible At: http://www.mountstuart.com/More/Visual_Arts_Programme/Previous_Years/Nathan_Coley/index.shtml (Accessed 4/10/16)
Gale, Iain, in Scotland on Sunday, May 28, 2006, At: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/visual-arts/shedding_light_on_question… (Accessed 4/10/16)