Rewind: Mike Nelson: Lonely Planet

Mike Nelson, Lonely Planet, installation view, ACCA, 2006. Courtesy ACCA Archive

By Rebecca Coates

Mike Nelson’s vast and ambitious, immersive installation, Lonely Planet opened to the public on 21 December 2006. Nelson created a labyrinthine series of corridors and rooms, complete with sounds, still images, and olfactory assaults throughout ACCA’s gallery spaces. His proposal for the project incorporated radical ideas about how visitors should enter this complex space. Original thoughts included an un-realizable proposal to cut a small discreet entrance directly into the building’s exterior cortene-steel wall. Another was to bring visitors through the gallery’s cavity wall, stepping over and between an impossible maze of struts and other spatial obstacles – a little like ACCA’s own version of Alice through the Looking Glass.

Nelson’s final solution forced visitors to decide their own route, having to choose from two adjacent identical doors in order to gain entry to the spaces beyond. A small, found, black and white photograph attached to the wall offered a possible clue, timelessly capturing a group of golden youths, board-short and bikini clad, with surfboards on a beach in some unidentifiable tropical spot.

Nelson’s work often examines the idea of ‘otherness’, and allusions to something lost or past. These themes are explored via images, language and material. The Coral Reef (2000), presented in Matt’s Gallery, London (for which he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2001), was evocative in its absences as much as in its rooms and narratives. The traces of a fictional biker gang, the Amnesiacs, littered the space, while one room seemed to be the headquarters for a London mini-cab taxi company employing immigrants, possibly Turkish, and likely to be under the radar and off the books. These literary and other traces alluded to complex histories that included postcolonial references, Islam, and geographies beyond the West.

Mike Nelson, Lonely Planet, installation view, ACCA, 2006. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Lonely Planet at ACCA was equally evocative in its absences. Corrugated iron, weather-board, an old work bench and tools, a particular shade of institutional green paint: for some, these spaces were redolent of rural sheds and vernacular architecture. For others, the installation conjured up thoughts of government buildings of the ’50s and certain, not always pleasant, institutional rooms. An old station-wagon with wetsuit and lines of ants on the move, a discarded sleeping bag, empty beer cans – the implications were not always clear.

Lonely Planet’s allusions to youth, drug cultures, and Australia’s own cult of surf and sand also pointed to hard-line conservative Thatcherite England, where the best way to escape (Lonely Planet travel guide in hand) was via cheap travel and the lure of the exotic, the oblivion of hashish, or the sci-fi literature and psychedelia of an altogether otherworldly kind. These utopian exoticas were spaces that existed outside the laws and customs of democratic societies, governed by subcultures with their own specific rules.

Mike Nelson, Lonely Planet, installation view, ACCA, 2006. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Redundant technology has been a constant refrain in many of Nelson’s immersive installations. Technology and literature are a source of inspiration, and a means through which to present the work. Nelson spent a six-week period prior to installation travelling country Victorian roads, documenting and photographing vernacular architecture, subcultures, and aspects of an often forgotten historic and rural past. These images were shown as a series of slide-projections washing the gallery walls, visible through windows in certain built rooms. The clack-clack of the projectors added an acoustic element from a by-gone era of analogue instruction and holiday slide shows. The slides were reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, a sort of artist’s book cross-pollenated with one of those obscure technical brochures Nelson loves. Reproduced in a grid within their slide mounts, these images captured hot-rod cars – souped-up Toranas and Valiants featuring the wonders of the panel-beaters’ craft – alongside abandoned folk images of service stations, used car tyre mountains, or temporary bush shelters of a possibly sinister type.

The exhibition allowed Nelson to work in a new way. Instead of his usual meticulous on-site build, which often took from six weeks to several months, we had an opportunity to pre-build in the Malthouse Theatre’s nearby store (now the VCA Secondary College). This meant that all of the sourcing of second-hand material and much of the pre-build took place prior to install. A small crew worked on this pre-build and the installation, including Ned Needham as chief assistant, the ACCA install crew, and a number of RMIT sculpture students. This opportunity allowed students to work alongside Nelson, gaining first-hand experience of his working process and methods.

A lecture given by Nelson at RMIT was a packed, standing-room only event. And in the end, we were not unhappy with the fact that though Lonely Planet Publications (whose home-town is in fact Melbourne) didn’t go so far as to officially condone the use of their trademark name, their very silence may well have been a form of tacit approval for a project that celebrated some of the founding principles of those once hippy, alternative travel guides first written in the 1970s.

Mike Nelson: Lonely Planet
19 December – 25 February 2007

Rebecca Coates initiated the Mike Nelson exhibition and was its curator. She worked at ACCA as a curator from 2002-2007 and was appointed an Associate Curator in 2007.