De-void city

Photo: Charlie Samuels

The shuttered storefront at 117 Delancey Street was an otherwise forgotten Chinese restaurant that led into now-abandoned Building D of the Essex Street Market. But today, the former purveyor of cheap takeout is awaiting a delivery of its own: 70 tons of sand. It's all part of the transformation of a desolate urban space into a work of art by the British artist Mike Nelson. Since July, Nelson has been busily preparing the former eatery (as well as rest of the old LES marketplace) for a rebirth September 8 as A Psychic Vacuum, the latest of the artist's installations informed by his reading and experiences. Viewers will move through the old Chinese restaurant into a series of disorienting hallways that mix original elements (decades' worth of peeling paint) with touches Nelson has added (the sound of one's foot against the floor has even been controlled). This ambitious project (instigated by former Creative Time curator and producer Peter Eleey) complicates Nelson's usual method of converting galleries by giving him work in a place that's so full of history, it will be hard to determine what's been there all along and what the artist has brought in.

Nelson has the stained hands, worn jeans, graying black hair and quiet mumble of the stereotypical artist. He reacts awkwardly in response to praise. But when he discusses his current project, his blue eyes twinkle as he recalls the discoveries (the conspicuous abundance of tattoo parlors and psychic booths in the neighborhood) and disappointments (a lack of found objects necessary to create what he calls his "fictional spaces") he's encountered. "This city is so devoid of salvage it's insane," he complains. He addresses other concerns, namely the current global political climate, and the notable "presence of absence" particularly tangible in the city's architectural landscape. A Psychic Vacuum is Nelson's first major U.S. installation, and it coincides with his 40th birthday—a perfect moment, perhaps, to reflect on accomplishments that include two Turner Prize nominations. Nelson, who often starts a new project where former ones leave off, confesses, "I'm constantly looking back."

He began scavenging for stuff to put into the space in May, and so far, he's amassed such detritus as a Desert Storm card set, deer antlers and a painting of the Virgin Mary. There is half a warehouse full of such items, some of which will populate areas like a livery cab office, replete with appropriate decor. And just like that, trash will become art-world treasure, no longer the passed-over relics of lives and worlds long gone.

A Psychic Vacuum is at the Essex Street Market (117 Delancey St) Sept 8--Oct 28, Fri--Sun noon--6pm.