On first encountering the abandoned space off Gartenstraße in Mitte that is home to Mike Nelson’s first solo exhibition in Berlin, there is a profound sense of unknowing, of having to feel around for what it is you’re supposed to be looking at. The initial task of entering a disorienting space is always to locate some form of reference, in this case a desk sitting in a dark side room which plays host to a strange past-and-present conversation between the viewer and the author. Once there, you will be given some form of guidance or at least there will be time to have entered the space. In this case both apply, but not in equal measures.
space that saw (platform for a performance in two parts) is an intervention work in which the viewer is responsible for funding the narrative. This much is alluded to. space that saw makes manifest its reference to a work by James Turrell entitled Space That Sees (1992) wherein the artist carved a square chamber into a hillside at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Where Turrell is concerned with the performative potential of the viewer in alliance with an outer cosmic vision, it is apparent that Nelson is concerned with bringing out a more introspective view on a pre-existing, constructed space.
The lack of any specific direction handed over is precisely what creates the critical register of this living installation. Or more importantly to note is that the space had been lived in, a past tense that corroborates the work’s title in relation to the now living subjects. The building’s interior appears to be authentic and clearly has not been inhabited for a large portion of the twentieth century. Despite this sense –attributed to by a cacophony of rusted wires and electric cables hanging from the ceiling, black paint smeared on derelict doors opening to dirty latrines – the physical dialogue entered in with the space is the result of Nelson’s organisation of spatial filters. In essence a kind of praxis for Constructivist learning theories. It also screams symbolic reference to the story of Roadside Picnic by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the story upon which Russian director Andrei Tarkovsk’s film Stalker (1979) is based. We could here assume the presence of aliens in reference to be the authorities of the Soviet occupation of Mitte, an area of the former Eastern Block within which the building exists. Like the extraterrestrial beings in Roadside Picnic, these forces came and went and now we are witness to the detritus left behind.
It is through the artist’s attempt to alter our perceived reality within the space that an intimate sense of self within a lineage of history and the collective unconscious is elicited. In one direction is it clear that a stairwell has been built to push forth the space in an upward direction, to provide for a sense of emancipation in contacting the interior of the building with a limited day light. Although not as profoundly charged as the experience of entering Daniel Libeskind’s Holocaust Tower in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the experience of a passage to light is here of similar spiritual effect. Continuing through the space you are met with an abrupt end in the form of a wire barricade, inhibiting you from entering whilst still allowing visible access to a second set of stairs. Depending on which direction you travel first, ultimately it will have an effect on how you read the space and how you consider your own narrative in its context.
Upon exiting the space and re-entering the driveway, you are coerced into a second adjacent building host to part two of the performance. After scaling an old elaborate stairwell, complete with swollen balusters and flecks of ancient veneer, you have passed through a makeshift hole in the wall and find yourself on a stage under a giant spotlight. As you move around the small platform, you are confronted with an empty theatre space and a small opening overhead. Again your attention is drawn towards the vertical shaft, but you are made aware of the altered significance of the aperture in accordance with your current proposition to light, an artificial light.
space that saw is refreshingly contemporaneous in that, despite its minimal renderings of spatial intervention, it is not cold or lacking in humanity. It is both playful and profound, spiritual and yet also rather banal; everything that we may find in being confronted with ourselves and the crude patina of history, brought to us through a constructed passage towards a familiar extraterrestrial.
[space that saw (platform for a performance in two parts) is on now until October 13 at a temporary location at Gartenstraße 6, 10115, Berlin]