Project 3: Case Study – A Place Beyond Belief by Nathan Coley

A Place Beyond Belief is a 2012 work by Nathan Coley which you can view on his website here. It’s described as illuminated text on scaffolding, measuring 6m x 7m x 3m.

We are asked some initial questions about it:

  • What’s your first response to this piece?

At first look, I thought it was quite cool. The lights look like those on an old American theatre, or a bit like the lights around those Hollywood dressing table mirrors that I’ve always loved. The text coupled with the pretty lights makes it look like it could be the entrance to a theme park or fun fair.

  • What questions are you going to ask in order to make sense of the piece?

Where is it? Where did the phrase come from? Is it a quote? From a book? Does it have any relevance to the location it’s in? Is it permanent? Is it part of a series? Has the artist done similar works? Does the artist have any ongoing themes running through their works?

  • What type of work do you think this is? It could fit into several categories. How would you define it?

I would define it as a sculpture. It could also be conceptual, an installation, part of some kind of performance art, and/or site-specific. Whether it’s truly site specific probably depends if it’s permanent, and if it has some specific link to it’s location that wouldn’t make sense elsewhere.

  • What do you think the text is about?

Without knowing the background, there seem to be two possible meanings. It’s describing a place that’s beyond belief because it’s so amazing/magical/beautiful etc., or because it’s so awful/tragic/sad etc.

We are asked to look at the photos in the link above and then told how we need to become adept at looking for, and piecing together, a variety of information sources to get a feel for a piece like this.

We’re directed to a video where Coley talks about what inspired the piece – a radio phone in where a lady told a story about being on the New York subway shortly after 9/11. Here, a Sikh man had prompted obvious hatred from his fellow passengers for most of his journey. On his way off the train, he reached into his pocket and deposited a handful of money into the clothing of a coloured woman’s baby, prompting the whole carriage to burst into tears. This experience which led her to realise that New York could only get back to it’s former glory if it became a place beyond belief.

  • What are your first thoughts after listening to the monologue?

Really, my first thoughts were confusion about why he put money into the baby’s clothes, as that’s rather odd, but I also understood what the woman’s statement meant. She realised that New York had to become a place beyond the new set of negative beliefs that 9/11 had instilled in it’s citizens.

  • What other information can you find on Coley’s website about this particular piece?

There was the basic information about the work (Illuminated Text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m). The location is described as National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina. There are two links to videos that no longer work. One is to the Haunch of Venison gallery where the work was first displayed, but this was closed down in 2013. There are also two links to articles. One of which we are asked to read after answering these questions. The other is the start of an Economist article, but most of it can’t be read without a subscription.

Just by looking through the other works on his website, you can see that a place beyond belief was displayed in 2012 in London, not long before Kosovo. It was then displayed later in 2012 and into 2013 at the Kunstverein Freiburg in Germany, an art society based in a former swimming pool.

It doesn’t seem t be mentioned in his works page, but it was also displayed in 2015 at the Triennale Brugge, where contemporary artists are invited to display works indoors and outdoors, according to that year’s theme. In 2015, the premise was ‘What if a small, preserved, historic city should suddenly become a megapolis?’ And where ‘Bruges will be transformed into URB EGG: the Triennial cracks the egg of Bruges in order to reinvent the city from the inside out.’

  • Where is it actually sited?

The version that we are looking at was cited in Priština, the capital city of Kosovo. It was located between a university library, and a half-built church commissioned by Slobodan Milosevic in the 90s.

The idea of having it in Kosovo came from the young deputy minister for foreign affairs, Petrit Selimi. He saw culture as a way to present Kosovo with a new and modern face to the world. He wanted people to stop thinking of Kosovo as a war-torn country, and for them to become part of the greater world narrative.

Selimi wanted to put the work on display permanently in the parliament building to remind politicians to never repeat the mistakes of the past.

  • Does this alter your response to it? Have your views on this piece changed after listening to Coley speak about it? If so, why?

The work has a much deeper meaning than I first imagined, and it clearly isn’t the whimsical, fun ‘entrance to a theme park’ that I imagined. Having said that, Coley himself has said that he chose to use bulbs in order to give it a sense of the theatrical, and he likes the idea of it feeling like the travellers have come to town and set this up, like they would a funfair – there one week, onto another town the next.

The ‘travelling’ nature of the piece is interesting. It started off as an idea by a Scotsman, based on what a woman said about the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. It was displayed in London, then Kosovo, then Germany, and then Belgium. Coley says that something obviously changes along the way, and that the location and surroundings has a bearing on the meaning.

Another interesting thing is that it was inspired by a terror attack carried out in the name of Islam, while the piece ended up being displayed in a country that is 90% Muslim.

In conclusion, my views definitely have changed, because I really didn’t have any idea what this piece was about to start with and I had purposely tried not to read too much about Coley beforehand, so I could give an honest first impression.

The next section asks us to stop and think about the following:

  • Do you think contextual information is essential to gaining a greater understanding of contemporary work? Make a note in your learning log.

At this point, I read a quote from Coley (or saw him say it on a video) but did not record my source. I have definitely learnt my lesson and will not be doing that again!

Anyway, back to the question…

Coley himself states that he doesn’t even really know the meaning of this piece and he happy for people to come to their own conclusions. While looking for the original source of this information, I came across this article about an event that Coley spoke at way back in 2007. The writer makes note of the way that Coley ‘resists the idea of meaning in his work’ and ‘states that meaning is of no concern to him’.

I think that some contemporary work is very difficult to understand without further information. You can make a judgement on it based on what you see, but for a work such as A Place Beyond Belief, the context is needed in order to form a deeper opinion. As Coley says though, there isn’t really one meaning, and it changes depending on location and viewer anyway. In order to understand the New York subway rider’s original meaning to these words, I think it is definitely essential to know the story behind it.

There are some works that do have an intended meaning which is, again, not completely obvious to everyone just from looking at them. In this case, you would definitely some kind of information in order to understand what led the artist to produce it.

  • Do you think it should be an essential ingredient?

It depends. I imagine there are many contemporary artists who don’t want any particular meaning prescribed to their works and won’t say too much about them in order to not influence the viewer. Some art viewers may also not mind coming up with their own meanings behind the works.

I am the kind of person who likes to delve deep into things and to know everything about them, that includes what the artist was aiming for (if anything). To me, then, I context is an essential ingredient, though other will disagree.

There is one final set of questions on A Place Beyond Belief:

  • What do you think about this piece? What do you think it achieves?

As the course book says, I think it prompts a change in attitude towards Kosovo for people who have seen it. It certainly has for me. Like most people, the word Kosovo conjured up images of a war-torn country, but now I realise that those days are long gone. There is a sense that Kosovo itself is a place beyond both the beliefs of the outside world and the beliefs of its citizens, both of whom may remember what the country used to be like.

The meaning has somewhat changed from the lady in New York’s original thoughts. For those who want to put modern Kosovo on the map as a place of culture, instead of the citizens having to change their beliefs, it’s the outside world who need to change theirs.

I think that, for anyone who saw the work, either in person, or second-hand, and understood it more than just being a pretty set of lights with a whimsical message (as I first did), it will definitely get them to look differently at Kosovo. The question is though – how many people did the message actually reach?

  • Have a look through the other work on Coley’s website. Pick two or three other pieces that look interesting to you. His site is comprehensive, with linked reviews and articles and often video clips which can give you a more realistic view of the siting of a piece.

Although Coley has many works detailed on his site, it is the same ones that seem to get all the attention. A Place Beyond Belief, Palace, Tate Modern on Fire, Paul, and The Lamp of Sacrifice seem to have the most information online (his other text works get a decent amount of attention too).

The pieces I looked further into were The Lamp of Sacrifice, You Imagine What You Desire, Unamed, the Honour Series, and We Must Cultivate Our Garden (all displayed at the Knowledge, Kindliness and Courage show in Vancouver).

I watched some YouTube videos of Coley talking about all these works, and jotted down some notes:

You Imagine What You Desire

  • Coley says his work looks at spirituality, manifestation of things that are invisible, public space, architecture, the differences between the individual and the group, and permanence vs temporary
  • His text works go through the same creative process as his other pieces
  • He always has a ‘ready-made’ starting point e.g. A location, or piece of text
  • The words ‘You Imagine What You Desire’ come from a longer quote by George Bernard Shaw
  • Previous works have taken words from songs, books, and half-heard conversations
  • He has no rules for the ready-made aspects, other than the fact that the words have not come from himself
  • Coley says that even if you don’t know the origins, you get the sense that it has come from somebody
  • In this piece, you may think you know what it means, but the meaning slips away as soon as you think you’ve got it
  • It means different things to different people
  • It is the phrase made manifest
  • The scaffolding is a temporary structure that can be seen on any urban street and it feels like it could move on at any moment
  • The work is definitely a sculpture. The context and image created with the landscape/cityscape is the work

Knowledge, Kindliness and Courage

  • Coley doesn’t want to analyze the origin of his works too much
  • He’s not interested in being a poet, in science fiction, or make believe. He’s fascinated by the real world and the ordinary

Unamed (Gravestones with names removed)

  • He doesn’t want to become the narrative
  • Reluctant to talk about specifics e.g. Materials
  • Doesn’t want to prescribe meaning – it’s about the viewer and their response
  • Removed the names so the objects become about the general (as a culture, how we bury our dead), instead of the specific (how we have buried specific people)

Honour Series (photographs with some aspects covered up with gold leaf)

  • Not an act of censorship
  • How do we elevate an act to be an honour?

We Must Cultivate Our Garden (illuminated text on top of a building)

  • Coley says he makes works and then places them back in the world
  • This text feels like it is from another world/time
  • The phrase is taken from a translated line at very end of Voltaire’s 1759 French satire Candide (a book described as being about ‘unfounded positivity’ according to this Psychology Today article)
  • The work was purposely not presented in a metropolitan area, nor was it placed front and centre
  • Coley was interested in whether the text was read, misread, or even completely ignored, and in whether the work was loved, come upon by accident, or never even seen
  • He is interested in testing his text pieces in different conditions, how the meaning changes due to context, and how the context changes due to the work being in that specific place

The Lamp of Sacrifice (286 Places of Worship in Edinburgh rebuilt as cardboard structures)

  • Coley describes himself as someone who makes works dealing with architecture, he’s interested in public spaces, ideas of religion, and communities
  • His work manifests as text works, sculptures, photography, and film
  • This piece started with the 2004 Edinburgh Yellow Pages listings for ‘Places of Worship’
  • Displaying them in a way that is different to the real world (all bunched together in a group) makes the audience look again at them
  • People have a look of recognition when they see them, and look to find a church they know/recognise
  • The places of worship have meaning because they were made and financed by the communities that use them
  • The actual look of the buildings doesn’t interest Coley, he’s interested in the fact they manifest communities and people
  • In 2015, the original work was water damaged and Coley chose to remake them based on the original cardboard sculptures and not the real buildings as they are now (some of which no longer exist as places of worship)
  • Consider whether you can see connections across his works.

There are some clear connections across his works and Coley says it himself over and over.

Many of his pieces are text works/sculptures, and he has numerous works that are small scale buildings made from different materials. He has some photographic works that have bits covered up with either gold leaf or paint. There is a theme of religion running through his works, of communities, and of politics in some cases

  • Identify some of his major motivations for making work.

Coley seems to be motivated by how communities create buildings and spaces that communicate their beliefs and values, whether those be the houses they live in or the places they worship in. When he represents them, whether it be in cardboard, wood, or metal, it is not the buildings that fascinate him, but what they mean to the people that use them.

His text works seem to be something of an experiment. He takes phrases from various sources and turns them into sculptures that are displayed in different countries and settings. His motivation for these seems to be wanting to see people’s reactions, and how these reactions change depending on where the work is being displayed.

Another of his major motivations seems to be trying to represent the underlying meanings, the invisible aspects, as opposed to what’s on the surface.

In general, I would say that he seems to be interested in the associations and ideas people connect to buildings and places, and at the same time, he tries to inspire us to make new connections with his works and what we see around them.

[On a personal note, this case study has taken me three or four days to complete and, much as I do like Coley’s work, I don’t really want to hear about him for a while now!]

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