Mike Nelson at Hayward Gallery: behind the London institution’s ‘most technically challenging’ exhibition to date

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A derelict 18-room building, meticulously recreated 22 years after it was last shown; 40 tons of sand poured over a shed at precarious gradients; 50,000ft of reclaimed timber sourced for its exact grain—the first-ever survey show of the British installation artist Mike Nelson at the Hayward Gallery is a staggering technical feat. According to the Hayward’s director Ralph Rugoff, it is the “most challenging” exhibition the London institution has staged since he joined in 2006, and likely before that too.

Since his career beginnings in the mid-1990s, Nelson has developed a cult-favourite style of installation building that favours immersive structures and room-filling environments resemblant of junkyards and abandoned science experiments. Disorienting in their design, they carry an atmosphere of eerie gloom and post-industrial neglect, continuing the legacy of earlier artists and assemblage sculptors such as Paul Thek and Ed Kienholz.

For Extinction Beckons (until 7 May) Nelson, and a team of technicians, curators and collaborators, have recreated around ten of these works—most to a painstaking level of accuracy and using the same materials as their first iterations. These range from I Impostor, a detritus-filled storage unit-cum-photographer’s studio, first shown when the artist represented Britain at the 2011 Venice Biennale, to The Deliverance and the Patience, a labyrinthine wooden structure of dimly lit interconnected rooms and corridors that house disparate structures and spaces, such as a nautical-themed bar and a travel agent’s office. It was last shown at its debut on the Giudecca island of Venice in 2001, the same year he was first nominated for the Turner Prize. A smaller number of sculptural works such as Untitled (Public Sculpture for a Redundant Space) (2016), a sleeping bag filled with rubble and concrete, on loan from the Royal Academy of Arts, are also included.

Mike Nelson

Photo: Arnaud Mbaki. Courtesy the Hayward Gallery and the artist

“A big mid-career retrospective in your home country is a huge deal,” Nelson says. “The next one typically happens after you are dead. I wanted to prove that I still have life in me.” This determination can partially explain the near-pathological degree of precision he has demanded of these recreations, which is unlikely to be apparent to anyone besides the exhibition makers themselves. The result is a show that is as spectacular as many previous Hayward blockbusters, but the grandeur of which lies in the sheer density and scale of seemingly irrelevant details.

“There is definitely an element of madness here,” says Katie Guggenheim, the show’s co-curator. “We’ve gone to some bizarre places to locate this stuff.” Indeed, key to Nelson’s practice is a hoarding impulse that has seen him store the bulk of the materials, from the previous iterations of these works—often unseen by him for decades—in various spaces and storage facilities he rents and owns across the UK, from his main studio in Orpington, south-east London, to an aircraft hanger in a muddy field in Leicestershire.

And while Nelson’s installations might mimic environments that are desolate and devoid of people—”post-apocalyptic” is an often-used descriptor—the process of staging this show was anything but. In fact, it took a team of around 35 freelance and in-house technicians, three times the usual number for a Hayward blockbuster, according to the gallery’s lead technician Juliane Heynert, the Hayward’s installations manager.

Installation view of Mike Nelson’s I, IMPOSTER, (2011). Photo: Matt Greenwood. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

“Frankly, that was one of our biggest challenges, figuring out where everyone would go—but we made it work, somehow,” Heynert says. A tight installation time of 30 days also required Nelson to relinquish a degree of control from the making process, something that is unusual and rather unpleasant for him: “For me that was the hardest thing. I’m used to spending several months on one work, not one month on seven or eight. It took away some joy,” he says.

For the rest of the team, the biggest challenges arose from Nelson’s exacting, and often last-minute demands. In The Deliverance and Patience, for example, he changed his mind several times about the exact colours of piles of electrical cables in one of the rooms. Acknowledging that few people would notice such thing, Nelson says, “I’m the artist, it’s what I do. Everyone else might see an immersive installation. I also see the colours and shapes.” Further examples of the exhibition’s “madness” can be found in a pile of thousands of steel nuts and bolts in the installation tools that see (the possessions of a thief) (1986-2005): each of these was manually removed from planks of wood. “We couldn’t simply buy them, they had to be this way,” says Archie Bell, a senior installation technician at the Hayward. “Of course, no one but us will ever know—but Mike knows, so it’s our job to do it right.”

From the outset of its planning, one of the show’s greatest logistical challenges was staging Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed), a desert landscape installation where 40 tons of sand is poured over a woodshed, which was first shown in 2004 at Modern Art Oxford. Nelson had not kept the sand from the original and the quarry from which it was sourced has since dried up, which required him to first find another in Bedfordshire that produces a similar quality sendiment.

But sourcing the materials turned out to be the easiest step: “Constructing this was a feat of mathematics,” says Jacopo Sarzi, another of the Hayward’s senior installation technician. He explains that the global engineering firm Arup—whose notable projects include Heathrow Terminal Five and the Centre Pompidou in Paris—were tasked with calculating the load the gallery’s floor could take. A 3D model was then created to work out at which angles the sand could be poured in order to “avoid an avalanche”. The material was then kiln dried, packed into one-ton bags and transported across the installation on a conveyor belt in the gallery. This entire process, the team says somewhat furtively, took more than one attempt.

Installation view of Mike Nelson’s The Deliverance and The Patience, interior, (2001). Photo: Liam Harrison. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

“It’s definitely not a show that could have taken place in the height of the pandemic,” Guggenheim says. “It feels exciting to not have something with clear guidelines about what to touch, what to do. More shows need to be constructed in a way that encourages independent thinking.”

How many of these shows can feasibly be staged in the next decade is unclear. Nelson’s relatively non-commercial practice has made this show a “difficult one to fund” and the gallery landed fewer sponsors than usual. Some support has come from his two galleries neugerriemschneider in Berlin and 303 in New York. Rugoff, whose institution has faced financial difficulties during the pandemic, adds, somewhat tellingly, that it is “increasingly rare to be able to stage a show like this in a public art gallery.”

Nonetheless, it seems that the process has also proved a rewarding and unique for the team. “It is a highly unorthodox show. I’ve never worked on something in which the curation and the technical install have been so intertwined,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Yung Ma.

And the fun is not over. When asked where the works will go following the show’s close it becomes clear that this is something still being worked out. Some works are loans from institutions or Nelson’s galleries. Others have vague plans attached—the sand from Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed) will “hopefully return” to the quarry from where it was sourced. But many will require a lengthy process of deinstallation and re-storage, which is a vital and highly personal part of Nelson’s practice. What this eventually looks like is, for now, a relative mystery. “We won’t know what we’re doing until Mike knows,” Guggenheim says. “Whenever that might be.”

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