Mirror reverb (the blinding of a building, a notation for another), 2018
site-specific installation at the former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital
Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York; Galleria Franco Noero, Turin;
Matt’s Gallery, London; neugerriemschneider, Berlin
Commissioned by Gwangju Biennale Foundation
On Mike Nelson’s first visit to the former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, he was presented with South Korea’s history through the materiality of the building itself: hinges and door hardware, light switches, and fittings that could only have come from post-Second World War United States; elsewhere, sinks stamped with “Made in Japan.” The hospital silently spoke of these relationships and their vested interests, reminding Nelson that some still persist today. This accumulated matter could oer a partial explanation for the gatherings, demonstrations and civil unrest that took place in South Korea in 1980—most notably, for the Gwangju Democratization Movement, in which the hospital played an important part.
As Nelson wandered around the hospital, he became aware of a presence, a sort of tangible absence, that lingered in the empty building. Repeatedly, he caught sight of another figure, sometimes a gloomy one and other times one lit by the afternoon sunlight. He recognized the figure immediately: the familiar contours of his own face were (re)presented in the reflections from the numerous mirrors in the building. The effect was unnerving; he felt as if looking into a pool of accumulated eyes, of those who had stared into the mirrored surfaces before him. The mirrors were the witnesses of an accumulated time, encoded tablets charged with the histories they had seen, photographic documents never fixed—just accumulating. The work exists in two parts, both in the gesture of removing the mirrors from the main hospital buildings, and in the act of reconfiguring them within the chapel. The removal can be read as a cathartic act: taking away a secret history encapsulated in matter. A mirror—once liquid, now solid—exists as a frozen cipher of what it has seen. The re-hanging of the mirrors in the old chapel—now deconsecrated, but still representing a place of worship—allows them new vistas, but also a new composition or score, an uncoupling from their previous home, an escape from the purgatory of the past.
Mike Nelson (b. 1967, United Kingdom) is known for his intricate large-scale installation works that reinterpret the physicality as well as the internality of spaces. His work centers on the transformation of narrative structure to spatial structure, and on the objects placed within them, immersing the viewer and agitating their perception of these environments. The narratives employed by the artist are not teleological but multi-layered, and often fractured to the extent that they could be described as a semblance of “atmospheres,” put together to give a sense of meaning. Nelson represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 2011 and has twice been nominated for the Turner Prize (2001, 2007). Recent solo exhibitions include The Asset Strippers (Tate Britain Commission, London, 2019) and L’Atteso (Officine Grandi Riparazioni, Turin, Italy, 2018). Nelson is represented by 303 Gallery, New York; Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; Matt’s Gallery, London; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin.