A Place Beyond Belief by Nathan Coley
- What is your first response to this piece?
- What questions are you going to ask in order to make sense of the piece?
- What type of work do you think this is? How would you define it?
- What do you think the text is about?
My first response to this is to focus on the meaning of the illuminated text, given its position next to a christian church.
- A church is the centre of worship for christians. They have faith, which is sometimes referred to as belief. Arguably faith is beyond simple belief. A person may believe in the existence of God but a person of faith may feel that their belief defines many aspects of their life, their decision-making, etc. In that respect the church represents something beyond belief.
- Churches have, however, have been at the centre of many scandals in recent times. In that sense the expression can be seen as pejorative. The church and its actions were ‘beyond belief’.
- Unfortunately, another initial response was to be puzzled about how it could be categorised! I would describe as an installation.
- I would want to understand Coley’s views of religion. Glasgow is a city where some aspects of life are still defined along religious lines. As a football fan, the most obvious is Catholic Glasgow Celtic who fly the Irish tricolour at the ground, as opposed to protestant Glasgow Rangers.
- I would like to know where the church is and whether there was a specific reason for choosing that church. Is it possible that he was intending to offer a more general insight about religion?
- I would also like to know if there was a particular incident or event that prompted the creation of this work.
Researching the work
I will attempt to summarise the various things I have listened to and read (please refer to the bibliography) after writing the above opening.
Coley heard the phrase being used to describe what New York had to become after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. I find the phrase to be intensely evocative. It suggests a place (and time) where people will not be defined or identified by their beliefs in general and their faith in particular. A place where different views and cultures, in fact difference in general, will not determine our action and behaviour towards each other.
The phrase illustrated here, however, is located in Pristina in Kosovo. In her review in the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins (2012) described it thus: “…between the new government education offices, the Kosovo Art Gallery, and the half-built, half-ruined Orthodox church raised by Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s – the phrase that so struck Coley is writ large, picked out in lightbulbs and mounted on a scaffolding frame seven metres tall…” She goes onto say, “The setting is mid-way between reconstruction and ruin: students hurry past between lectures, and newly planted trees grow in spite of the drought. At the same time, the church – a symbol of Serbian oppression to the majority Muslim, ethnic Albanian population – is gradually decaying, weeds filling its cracked brickwork.”
In this context it can be seen that the work is a powerful statement about hope for the future of the many people, cultures and creeds that made up the former Yugoslavia. It may even represent something closer to a dream of a Balkans where the misery of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia might be forgotten and forgiven.
Tim Judah wrote in the Economist (2012), “The meaning of the structure….. planted between the city’s unfinished Serbian cathedral and its university library, is open to interpretation—as is the event the unveiling was supposed to mark: the end of “supervised independence” for the country.”
These two articles serve to confirm the significance of place in relation to this work. Whilst originating in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack in New York, and now sited in Pristina, it is a message that may apply to many places. Interestingly, Judah’s comments above give it a significance in time too, as it marked the end of the supervised independence for Kosovo.
The exercise asks the question as to whether contextual information is essential. I would answer with a resounding yes. I fully accept that there is an argument that art can, and maybe should, illicit an emotional response. I feel, however, that to appreciate art in its fullest sense, context is absolutely essential. It is interesting to contrast this situation with music. It is possible for me to listen to, and enjoy Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, without really understanding of the significance of its composition in the history of symphonic music. My understanding and appreciation of the symphony would be enhanced by that knowledge, but I would argue that it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of listening to it.
My enjoyment, as well as appreciation, of Coley’s piece is, however, inextricably bound with its context. By this I mean that to have some insight into his inspiration enhances my enjoyment of the work. Understanding where it was sited, and why, only adds to this pleasure. I do not necessarily, however, find it aesthetically pleasing.
Coley’s work is rich and varied. Text is clearly a theme as are buildings/architecture. I was intrigued by Roy Walsh meets Patrick Magee (2015). Please refer to fig. 2 below.
This work was part of Coley’s Portraits of Dissension exhibition at the Brighton Festival in 2015. The BBC Arts website described it as featuring buildings “…which [were] synonymous with ideological struggle.” The work above, features the Grand Hotel, which was bombed by the IRA in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and members of her cabinet. The title refers to the bomber, Patrick Magee, who booked into the hotel under the false name, Roy Walsh. The BBC Arts website proceeds to explain that, “As Coley points out, no memorial or civic monument exists to remember the five people who died that night.”
Figure 3 below shows one of the many iconic images of the hotel after the bombing. Another look at figure 2 above, shows that Coley has produced a sculpture not of the whole hotel but rather focused on the gaping hole left by the bomb.
This concentration on the hole in the hotel tells us that a more permanent space was left by the bomb. Five people were killed, none of them particularly senior politicians and their names are probably forgotten by most people. Ironically it is the survivors we remember, such as Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit. Coley’s work raises uncomfortable questions regarding the lack of a monument. Interestingly, The Daily Telegraph reported that a plaque was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of the bombing inside the hotel.
Coley’s work prompted me to return to a point I have raised in other blogs. Namely, I struggle to understand how art is judged. How does anyone compare this piece with Katie Paterson’s Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand? Do they need to be compared and/or judged? Clearly I am looking forward to studying Art History modules in the future in order to gain a better insight into this issue.
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Coley, N. A Place Beyond Belief (2012) At: http://www.studionathancoley.com/works/a-place-beyond-belief-0/images/0 (Accessed on 10 June 2017)
Figure 2. Coley, N. Roy Walsh meets Patrick Magee (2015) At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/47ZkSkT91P0wlP26T0PJkq/building-sights-nathan-coley-s-theatres-of-conflict (Accessed on 11 June 2017)
Figure 3. Grand Hotel Brighton (1984) [Photograph] At: http://www.brightonandhovenews.org/2016/06/22/32-years-on-new-fears-of-asbestos-threat-to-victims-of-grand-hotel-bombing-after-rescue-worker-dies/ (Accessed on 13 June 2017)
BBC Arts (2015) Building sights: Nathan Coley’s theatres of conflict. At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/47ZkSkT91P0wlP26T0PJkq/building-sights-nathan-coley-s-theatres-of-conflict (Accessed on 11 June 2017)
Higgins, C. (2012) ‘Nathan Coley’s Kosovan sculpture: a beacon in bulbs.’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/sep/23/nathan-coley-kosovo-sculpture-beacon (Accessed on 10 June 2017)
Judah, T. (2012) ‘Independence Light.’ In: The Economist [online] At: http://www.economist.com/node/21562982 (Accessed on 11 June 2017)
Nathan Coley – Monologue (2014) [User generated content online] Creat. Coley, N. (Date not known) At: https://vimeo.com/79395527 (Accessed on 9 June 2017)