NATHANIEL MELLORS: Progressive Rocksby William Corwin
NEW MUSEUM | FEBRUARY 6 – APRIL 15, 2018
Nathaniel Mellors’s visually seductive series of videos and attendant props, animatronic installations, and paintings are part of a process of re-interpreting closely held mythologies, the result of which is primarily a literary exploration. Progressive Rocks is a cycle of four substantial video works that require a commitment of time and attention amounting to over two-and-a-half hours. Margot Norton’s curation plays to the theatrical nature of Mellors’s enterprise by guiding the viewer through the space in a circular motion, creating a central square core of flickering screens. Enclosed in this core is the heart of the exhibition, Mellors’s collaboration with Erkka Nissinen, The Aalto Natives (2017), the installation that inhabited the Finnish Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Beinnale and which has been substantially reconfigured for the New Museum. The space is necessarily dark to provide a proper ambience for the videos, so the non-luminous works, a series of several paintings, sculptures, and animatronic installations are brightly lit, emerging from the darkness and preventing the viewer from getting any real sense of the gallery space. This is perhaps a not-so-odd coincidence, as the interiors presented in Mellors’s videos have a similarly murky and disembodied quality, always shifting the viewer’s attention to the conversations taking place. The animatronic objects in Progressive Rocks are all heads that either speak, as in the centerpiece of The Aalto Natives (Floored Version) (2017-18), attempt to speak, Neanderthal Container: Animatronic Prelaps (2014), or are prevented from speaking The Vomiter (Ourhouse) (2010); a gruesome being which vomits forth words in the form of a digested book.
Mellors’s dramatic interactions tend to follow a Socratic model—a naïf is schooled on reality by a wiser, and in most cases groovier, foil who unpacks the philosophical, socio-political, and aesthetic assumptions of his/her interlocutor. The chosen foil(s) in The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview (2014), Neanderthal Container (2014), and Ourhouse Episode 1: Games (2015-16) are cheeky, hairy, and streetwise homo neanderthalensis geezers who have smug and nihilistic answers to questions about their species’ art-making and cultural capabilities. While some of the conversation is redolent of Douglas Adams (a compliment) and other ’70s and ’80s British comedy, Mellors’s does a good job of dissecting our own cultural insecurities playing out through our current obsession with our hominid predecessors. In Interview and Ourhouse the Neanderthals discuss or engage in making art, and then attempt to, or actually do manage to eat their homo sapien companions, adding a final coup de grace to Mellors’s argument that both everything and nothing is art. Ourhouse and The Aalto Natives—two videos both clocking in at almost an hour each—delve a bit further into the stabilizing and destabilizing aspects of mythologies. Ourhouse features a fabulous monster who, like the family he terrorizes, has been a staple of the video series since the beginning. The Object, played by Brian Catling, is a creature who devours the books in the library of an upper middle class family. We see him as a silhouette, ripping pages from a book and stuffing them in his mouth in an insatiable frenzy—an uncontrollable, intuitive, anti-intellectual impulse personified, not cognizant of the destruction he wreaks—he just keeps eating. Against this growing mist of cultural entropy, the upper-middle class Wilson family does its best to cope by building time machines and having entertaining philosophical discussions. The Aalto Natives is a series of alternating projections emanating from an animatronic centerpiece of a dismembered body sprouting two heads: a giant egg and a cardboard box. These two heads are gods, a father and son, who narrate their creation of Finland, and consequently return a million years later. In the interim, things have gone a bit awry: what’s necessary to know is that these social defects are not far from our own. While it’s necessary to pay attention and follow Mellors’s convoluted plot-lines, the discussions and vignettes are such that they function well as little skits within a greater whole and convey at least part of the message in smaller and poignant bite-size bits.
Progressive Rocks revels in its all-over-the-map messiness, but there is a wonderful and cogent dialogue between the video and animatronic objects. The paintings such as New Age Crucifixion (2017) and Original Crucifixion (2017) seem out of place, despite appearing in the background of the Ourhouse, but there is a tradition of including props from video and film work ranging from Carolee Schneemann to Mike Kelley. There is a wonderful, arcane animatronic piece in the La Brea Tar Pits Museum displaying an extinct saber-tooth tiger attacking a similarly extinct sloth. Something about the dull, plodding, repetitive inevitability of the tiger finishing off his prey speaks to Mellors’s message in both his kinetic pieces and videos. Animatronic displays are a futile attempt at re-creating reality; they inevitably just make things seem weirder. Mellors uses this surreal space and runs with it, producing moving objects whose animatronic claim on reality is at complete odds to their subject matter: a fanciful mutant Neanderthal head resembling Sloth from The Goonies writhing around on a tabletop. Neanderthal Container: Animatronic prelaps is a good example. We project much of our collective social sensitivities onto both our notions of art making and historical analysis, when in fact, both of these activities take place in a space of localized and personal influences having no relation to our current environment and our contemporary notions of art or history. Still, we try to fit that square peg into a round hole.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.