“Extinction Beckons” (on view through May 7, 2023) is the first major survey of Mike Nelson’s psychologically charged installations and sculptures. An extraordinary feat of planning and labor, the exhibition, which covers 25 years, encompasses around 20 interconnected rooms and corridors, involving 40 tons of sand, 5,000 feet of reclaimed timber, and the skills of more than 30 builders and technicians. The result is an astonishingly immersive journey through fictional worlds eerily echoing our own, but where human endeavors have been rendered futile. The somewhat wry title gives an apt summation of the show’s over-arching vision and contents—traces of human existence, now redundant, archived into a labyrinthine museological storage facility.
Nelson’s large-scale installations are typically site-related. This way of making—which challenges how the environment is perceived and navigated—has its roots in the 1980s, with artists such as Richard Wilson, one of Nelson’s tutors. Architectural spaces occupied by the artwork become perplexingly altered, often creating spatial conundrums for the viewer, and, here, the Hayward’s Brutalist architecture provides a fitting backdrop. Rather than presenting past works in their original manifestations, Nelson has reconfigured them for their current spaces, including ambitious reincarnations of The Deliverance and the Patience (2001), Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed) (2004), I, IMPOSTER (the darkroom) (2011), and Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Münster—A Thematic Instalment Observing the Calendrical Celebration of its Inception: Introduction; towards a linear understanding of notoriety, power, and their interconnectedness; futurobjecs (misspelt); mysterious island* *see introduction or Barothic shift (2014).
Nelson began fabricating and assembling the works for “Extinction Beckons” four months before the opening. He relies on found materials scavenged from salvage yards, junk shops, auctions, and flea markets, re-imagining them into a filmic repertoire with allusions to politics, countercultures, hidden histories, and science fiction. His approach is highly experimental, and he is notably inspired by the writings of William S. Burroughs, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, J.G. Ballard, and Stanislaw Lem. Yet, science fiction is only fiction until it becomes reality. An uncomfortable message lurks within the theatrics of “Extinction Beckons”—a message that cannot be ignored.
The Deliverance and the Patience—the vast installation that dominates the exhibition—takes its name from two galleon ships that sailed from Bermuda to Virginia in the 18th century, but the connection to reality ends there, as Nelson blends historical and literary references. Various doors lead to countless interconnected rooms containing a perplexing array of outdated, discarded objects—remnants of alternate, unseen lives. The Deliverance and the Patience is an unnerving experience in which viewers are equally abandoned. There is no single narrative journey, no route is suggested, and the exit to this nightmare remains unclear. The drama is heightened by empty sleeping bags, a possible indication that the missing inhabitants fled in haste. All is merely conjecture, however.
The sense of being out of sync with time continues in I, IMPOSTER. Again, abandoned objects lay as if in a storage facility, this time bathed in a disconcerting red glow reminiscent of a darkroom safelight. The same theme is transposed to Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed), where another darkroom resides within a shed engulfed by sand. The shed is a replica of the structure on the Kent State campus that Robert Smithson smothered in earth for Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), which came to symbolize the government cover-ups and political events of that era. The political overtones in Triple Bluff Canyon bear down on Nelson’s shed in a similar way, with blown-out tires and scattered oil barrels emerging from the sand.
Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Münster, a serial work, has been re-created numerous times for different locations. Here, viewers peer through wire-mesh fencing that demarcates a display of dismembered heads made from concrete, with comic masks used as molds. The macabre tableau appears to be an ongoing process, with a concrete mixer at the ready. Like the other installations, Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Münster alludes to people or ways of life that resist the mainstream, seemingly without success. Whether ghouls, factory employees, veterans, sweat-shop laborers, or gamblers, all have become ghosts by virtue of Nelson’s ingenious use of found materials, redolent with history via their previous usage.
A haunted bleakness prevails throughout the exhibition, begging the question: Who will be dispensed with next? In a sense, the timing of “Extinction Beckons” is serendipitous in light of recent alarms over artificial intelligence and its potential to threaten livelihoods and wreak malicious havoc. Tech leaders may have called for a temporary moratorium to control its burgeoning growth, but in Nelson’s world, it is already far too late.