10 minutes with... Mike Nelson RA Elect
By Tom Jeffreys
Published 16 April 2014
Each month, we have a quick chat with one of our Academicians to find out what they're up to and what the RA means to them.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished working on a show at The Power Plant in Toronto. It was quite unusual for me because there were four different works within one building. I made a work which used, as a narrative structure, an old way of working from the 1990s – works such as The Amnesiacs: going beach-combing out in Vancouver to make a basic, straightforward sort of sculpture. I tried to draw on parallels between Canada’s history of hunters and trappers, and the way they functioned within a nineteenth century economic structure, and the biker gangs of today. Both have a similar Romantic veneer – the long hair and the beards and elaborate outfits – and a similar relationship to economic structures of their respective times: pelts or beaver skins in the nineteenth century, compared to crystal meth and the drug trade of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The exhibition also centred on the death of my friend, Erlend Williamson, who I used to collaborate with, and one work was made to hold the last of his possessions.
At the moment I’m just about to go to Madagascar for two weeks – but I don’t really quite know why! Other than because a French artist called Mathieu Briand asked me to. He’s an interesting guy, a friend of a friend, and he’s running a series of projects on an island off the coast of Madagascar. Madagascar has been of interest to me since reading Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs, in which Captain Mission runs a kind of colony called Libertatia on the island. That, along with other texts around the idea of pirate utopias, formed a lot of the thinking around my first Venice Biennale piece in 2001.
I’m also working towards a show at the Kunsthalle Münster in October, maybe taking part in a Palais de Tokyo group show at the same time, then a gallery show at 303 Gallery, New York in January. There’s a lot on.
What is your earliest memory of art?
I suspect it would be me drawing a sort of scribble – a configuration of geometric, star-like lines in green crayon. It resembled a very angular-looking frog.
What work of art do you most wish you’d made?
There must be loads!
How do you know when a work is finished?
That is an awkward one for me. I think my work is very much determined by the fact that my life is only of a certain length, and at certain points I have to reveal something that I’ve done. Otherwise you could just continue ad infinitum. So I have to make concessions to the way the world is structured. Some of my works are finished; others are, by their very nature, in a state of flux – and that’s what’s interesting.
Do you have a photo of yourself on your phone you can send us?
Where were you when you found out you had been elected as an Academician?
I don’t know actually. I think I got an email, or maybe it was a call. I think Richard Wilson rang me…
What does the RA mean to you?
Since being asked to become a Member, the idiosyncrasies of the Academy have become more curious to me. Ultimately I find interesting the fact that it’s run by artists who elect themselves, and have a strange structure of admission and self-government. I’ve also been aware of a shift at the RA Schools and how much more successful it has become in recent years, how much more interesting and progressive. It is one of the only places where you can go to post graduate art school for free – that was a deciding factor for me becoming an Academician.
Also, you can’t help but look down the list of sculptors in particular and think, ‘what an incredible bunch’. Richard Wilson was one of my tutors; Phyllida Barlow was my external examiner. Then, obviously, there’s Cragg and Woodrow and Deacon – they were omnipresent figures during my time at Reading. Then, going back further, there are people like Anthony Caro and Phillip King. Even though you wouldn’t think of me as a sculptor, ultimately that interest has always been there.
If you were President of the RA for a day, what would you change?
Me being President!
Find out more about Mike Nelson RA Elect.