A Place Beyond Belief (2012), the central work of Nathan Coley’s eponymous exhibition in London, recalls a similar text-based piece shown, among other locations, at Tate Liverpool in 2007, when the Glasgow-based artist was nominated for the Turner Prize. In three lines of illuminated signage on metal scaffolding, There Will Be No Miracles Here (2006) spells out a 17th-century French proclamation prompted by incidents of collective unrest. The words remain relevant to our own times, when the state employs different means to monitor and control an unruly populace. Equally multivalent, the phrase “a place beyond belief” originated in a radio interview with a New Yorker who was remembering the terrorist attacks of 2001 and, as the gallery text informs us, expressing optimism for the future of her city. Given that source, as well as what else was on display in the large, three-level space, the wall-mounted piece—its lit bulbs seemingly dimmed by the skylight in the room that it alone occupied-was nonetheless an ambivalent statement on the theme of public assembly.
Coley seeks out sites that have been recoded many times over history. In the video The Land Marked (2001), for example, he utilized consecutive looped animations to depict the demolition of both the 16th-century Tower of Belém in Lisbon and the two industrial chimneys that once flanked that Portuguese heritage site, juxtaposing the sanctioned vista with an imaginary one: the tower is cleared away while the modern chimneys are allowed to remain. Here, with the “Honour” series (2012), Coley presented black-and-white photographs that he either appropriated or took himself at locations associated with public memory or protest, concealing critical passages with gold leaf. A placard at Occupy Wall Street, Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, a crowd gathered at a Vietnam War memorial-all are gilded in the manner of highly valued decorative or devotional objects. Nearby, on a cardboard-covered table, he arranged eight abstract sculptures that rendered a set of fully redacted protest signs (and a lone flag) in white-painted steel. The contextual clues in this work, Choir (2012), are completely removed, causing the objects to appear spectral rather than simply abstracted.
An upstairs gallery contained 18 recycled gravestones, some leaning against the wall, others lying flat. Here, too, Coley has removed crucial information, this time by literally excising the names of both the deceased and those commemorating them. And yet it is through such identifying markers as the language of the inscription, the dates of birth and death, and the rare glimpse of a city name that these remaindered memorials cling obstinately to context. The uncomfortable question of how the gravestones were obtained in the first place only heightens the sense of displacement they evoke. Ultimately, Coley implies that in a world of porous borders but strengthening national and religious boundaries, “a place beyond belief” is either unattainable or, if attainable, may not be a place we wish to inhabit at all.
Photo: Ger van Elk: Red, Yellow and Blue, 1987, lacquer and varnish on color photograph on aluminum, 195⁄8 by 201⁄2 inches; at Bob van Orsouw.