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Mike Nelson: ‘Extinction Beckons’

  • Art
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Mike Nelson: Extinction Beckons. 2023. The Hayward Gallery.
Matt Greenwood

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

There’s nothing left in Mike Nelson’s art. No life, no soul, no humanity. Only ghosts, dereliction and emptiness.

The British artist specialises in narratives of abandonment, creating discomfiting immersive experiences filled with only the remnants of lives once lived. He wants you to untangle the webs he weaves, and they are very, very tangled. 

His massive show at the Hayward starts in the dark. ‘I, Imposter’ is a room filled with doors and shelves stacked with old floorboards and light fixtures, all bathed in blood-red light. It’s an old Nelson installation, packed up and whacked in storage. These are doors to buildings that no longer exist, synagogues and Turkish social clubs that were long ago demolished. They can no longer lead you into their private worlds because those worlds are gone. 

More doors follow. ‘The Deliverance and the Patience’ is a labyrinth of countless filthy empty rooms: a bar, a gambling den, a prayer room. There are sleeping bags strewn across the floor, cigarette butts extinguished in a rush, ceiling fans left whirring despite the occupants of this dilapidated space having vanished. This was a hot place, drenched in smoke and sweat. But there was hope here too. Something was being built, a world for travellers tired of travelling, dreaming of making something new. But they failed. Failed and fled. All that hope is now gone. Who were they? Where did they go? What were they building? It’s disorienting, dizzying, scary and brilliant. 

It’s disorienting, dizzying, scary, and brilliant 

More dereliction and abandonment follows. It’s Nelson’s thing. Upstairs, a huge concrete bunker has been almost entirely swallowed by heaving sand. Deep inside it is a photographic darkroom – more of that red light – with its prints left drying but long forgotten. This desert hellscape could be a comment on the Iraq war, or it could just be yet more desertion. 

In all of these ghostly post-apocalyptic environments, Nelson casts you as the main character in some disconcerting old film, a Western traveller through foreign lands that don’t want you. 

The film-set approach gets left behind with sculptures from his excellent 2019 Tate Britain installation, objects from this country’s dead industrial past reconfigured into abstract sculptures. They’re great, but after all the heaving immersion that comes before they seem a little barren. 

The final gallery is home to a huge wire cage lined with cast concrete heads. Are they the death masks of the characters who once inhabited these worlds?

The whole show is genuinely brilliant. Overwhelming, sad, affecting. Nelson has combined all these previous works to make one giant new piece, and it’s so good. His dystopian, early-Ballardian environments invite you to build the narrative; they ask you to figure out what happened and what went wrong. He wants you to find answers, knowing full well that when you do all you will find is total, abject horror.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


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