Fall 2007

Tuesday 11/20/2007


Mike Nelson at The Old Essex Street Market

Ranging from a former brewery in Venice with The Deliverance and the Patience (2001) to a GMC bus in The Pumpkin Palace (2003), British artist Mike Nelson develops site-specific installations in abandoned structures. After researching his locations for months at a time and gathering information on the neighborhood and surrounding culture, Nelson then meticulously manifests the echoes of years of voices, politics, ideologies and philosophies contained within these public enclosures. Commissioned by Creative Time, he chose the vacated Building D of the Essex Market in the Lower East Side for his first New York work: A Psychic Vacuum.

The four buildings of the Essex Market (A-D), originally created by Mayor LaGuardia in the 1940s as a solution to street vendor congestion, are now pared down to two, largely due to competition from supermarket chains and all-night convenience stores. Since 1955, Building D, originally the meat market, has been closed to the public. Incorporating miscellaneous remnants from what was left in Building D, as well as scavenging local salvage yards, Mike Nelson created a socio-psychogeographical landscape of the Lower East Side.

The LES was as much a “laborhood” as a neighborhood, housing locally owned shops and vendors, many located in the Essex Market. While the process of gentrification of old immigrant neighborhoods like the Lower East Side is familiar to most New Yorkers, Nelson’s project offered more than a passive, nostalgic tribute to the area’s pre-gentrified origins. The installation was an intimate, interactive, nonlinear narrative that extended beyond the confines of location; an internal journey into a collective unconscious created by public spaces and the multi-racial, socio-cultural environment that forms them.

The passage began through the doors of a Chinese restaurant, in an apocalyptic state of abandonment and disarray that led to a maze of rooms and hallways. Evoking the cerebral folds of the brain, the labyrinth of corridors opened up to either rooms filled with allegorically charged objects such as bones, statuettes of patron saints, tribal totems, maps and flags, or through false exits, dead-ends and duplicate rooms that were both disorienting and familiar enough to keep the viewer in constant state of engagement.

A room infused with silence, lined with prayer mats and multi-ethnic religious shrines led to a door that once closed had a broken cross with “Jesus Saves” nailed firmly in place. A dark corridor brought the visitor to a rusty, water-stained shower stall with a straightjacket thrown in a corner and neatly lined up baseball bats hung on the wall. An alternate exit led to a musty office in which the absent inhabitant’s volumes of Machiavelli, Dante and Buddhist teachings shared the space with an Elvis-graced Santeria shrine and some herbal remedies that were for sale. These examples only scratch the surface of dense emotional and psychological stimuli that awaited visitors to A Psychic Vacuum.

As individuals and communities we breathe life into the buildings we inhabit. The relics we leave behind remain infused with our choices and our expectations of them. It is Nelson’s profound and subtle understanding of these relationships that allows for continuous participation and reaction from the viewer. In the end, it really is the end. A Psychic Vacuum turned to sand, an hourglass shattered leaving scattered potential; each grain embedded with a collective memory. The legal release form all visitors had to sign upon entering the building takes on new significance at this point, a contract beyond liability, one of letting go of the security of the present long enough to see how the past defines our future.