We were in Paris, and had just finished lunch when my brother messaged me to ask if I had heard the news, about the fire. I got back to him saying that wasn’t something to joke about. He sent me a link to it on BBC news, and the terrible images were in my hand.
I sat in shock, with tears in my eyes, at the sight of the flames ripping through the roof, and thick black smoke engulfing that so familiar building. How could this be happening? We couldn’t stop looking. It was irresistible, compulsive. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the image was its inevitability — unbearable and unbelievable but also as if foretold.
Parafin is delighted to present its first exhibition with British artist Nathan Coley (born 1967, Glasgow). The exhibition is Coley’s first in London in five years and coincides with his biggest public project to date, a major new work installed across ten sites in the Central Denmark Region for the year long cultural project Aarhus2017.
Coley is interested in the idea of ‘public’ space, and his practice explores the ways in which architecture becomes invested – and reinvested – with meaning. Across a range of media Coley investigates what the built environment reveals about the people it surrounds and how social and individual responses to it are in turn culturally conditioned. Using the readymade as a means to take from and re-place in the world, Coley addresses the ritual forms we use to articulate our beliefs. Whether highlighting in illuminated letters the five ‘rights of man’ under Islam, or deconstructing Shaker furniture, his work frequently turns the specific into the general, thereby testing its function as a form of social representation.
Coley’s exhibition at Parafin includes new sculptures and text works. The centerpiece of the show is a major new sculptural work, Tate Modern on Fire (2017). This work is a companion piece to Paul (2015), which depicts St Paul’s Cathedral. The two buildings face each other across the Thames and in doing so establish a complex relationship — between past and present, religion and culture — at the centre of London. While St Paul’s is an iconic religious building, a symbol of London and of the city’s endurance during the blitz, Tate Modern is, it might be argued, a secular cathedral for the twenty-first century. In Coley’s works, both buildings are rendered as architectural models which, while complete from the front, are open at the back and filled with associative objects in the manner of a wunderkammer or a cabinet of curiosities.
While the work questions the status of the institution, as with all Coley’s work a rich and complex ambiguity pervades. Is the fire a proposal or a warning? On reflection, what at first seems an act of wilful cultural iconoclasm is revealed to be a more open proposition. Furthermore, at a time when cultural institutions are deemed viable targets by terrorist groups such as IS, the image of a prominent public building on fire carries a host of troubling associations.
The sculpture also references Ed Ruscha’s controversial painting, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1965-68). When that painting was first exhibited Ruscha was asked if it articulated a desire to burn the museum and its contents. Ruscha said, ‘No, but if you want to see that as a political painting, you can — a revolt against an authority figure.’
The exhibition also includes Palace (2015), one of Coley’s signature large-scale illuminated text works, and a group of new sculptures which deconstruct self-assemble Shaker furniture. The Shakers adhere to guiding principles of simplicity, utility and honesty and their beliefs are reflected in the pared down forms of their furniture. In these works Coley addresses the conflation of domesticity and religious belief.
Coley will have an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 25 March 2017, the first in the new season of contemporary presentations, NOW. The exhibition will include Tate Modern on Fire and Paul, shown together for the first time, and Coley's iconic The Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 Places of Worship (2004).
Nathan Coley lives and works in Glasgow. Important solo exhibitions include New Art Centre, Roche Court, Salisbury (2016), House Festival, Brighton (2015), Pier Arts Centre, Orkney (2013), Kunstverein Freiburg (2013), Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2012), ACCA, Melbourne (2011), Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2004), Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon (2001) and the Westfalischer Kunstverein, Munster (2000).
Notable group exhibitions include ‘Glow’, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2016), ‘Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick’, Somerset House, London (2016), Bruges Triennial (2015), ‘Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland’ (2014), ‘You Imagine What You Desire’, 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014), ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian’, 13th Istanbul Biennial (2013), ‘Tales of Time and Space’, Folkestone Triennial, UK (2008), ‘Days Like These, Tate Triennial of Contemporary British Art’, Tate Britain (2003), and in the British Art Show 6, BALTIC (2005).