Nathan Coley is a Glaswegian artist who produces text-based work.
Coley’s exhibition A Place Beyond Belief was first shown at Haunch of Venison in 2012 and included a range of photographic and sculptural work relating to the ritualised nature of protest and mourning. Included in the show was an illuminated, scaffolded text, A Place Beyond Belief, which was originally sourced from the testimony of a New Yorker describing a subway journey she made in the days following the 9/11 attacks. An edition of the work was also unveiled outside Kosova Art Gallery in Prishtina, Kosovo on the occasion of their independence from UN supervision.
A young woman sits in a New York subway carriage, a number of days after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. It is early morning, and the city is grudgingly back at work. Like many of her fellow passengers, she is tired, emotionally fragile, confused and angry – still trying to come to terms with what has happened to her city. A Sikh man sits opposite her, wearing a bright orange turban. There is a strong tangible sense of hatred from the passengers towards the man – a feeling of raw anger and disgust. The mans eyes are averted, the commuters stares un-replied. His head is bowed, he is sobbing. The train travels on, stopping at the next station, the doors open and close, passengers get on and off. After a few stops and more torturous minutes, the man gathers his belongings and gets up to leave. Standing by the exit is a young black woman with a newly born baby. As the man approaches, he reaches into his pockets and takes out a handful of dollars. Without saying anything, he shoved the money into the folds of the baby’s clothes and exits the train. The doors close, and the remaining passengers burst into tears. At that moment, the woman realises that for New York to get past the attack, to move on and rebuild itself, it has to think anew, it has to look again. It has to get to a place beyond belief.https://www.studionathancoley.com/works/a-place-beyond-belief-freiburg
After listening to the monologue, I question how far we have progressed. The 911 attacks were in 2001 and I don’t think we are at that healing point of moving beyond belief. There are still hate attacks, instances of homophobia, racism, xenophobia and people attacking people from another place. Listening to the dialogue almost seems idealistic and preachy, with a hint of naivety.
On Coley’s website are more details about the piece.
Details: Illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m
Installation: National Gallery of Kosovo
Nathan Coley made the piece after listening to people talk about the 9/11 attacks.
…the woman said she realised that for New York to be the beautiful place we know, it had to find a way to become a place beyond belief.”
He then made the piece in Kosovo, between new government education buildings, the Kosovo art gallery and a ruined Orthodox church.
To site the piece using a reference from the 9/11 attacks in the midst of building destroyed by the Kosovo war gives it a different meaning.
It highlights the worldwide issues that war causes, we often see acts of Terrorism and war as the immediate impact, but these effects are felt the world over. It gives the piece a whole new political stance, by comparing the situation in Kosovo to terrorism it highlights an area of the world that many don’t know about. The 9/11 attacks are known by most people in the western world but the situation in Kosovo is not so much. Why is it that we seem to care more about certain countries being attacked than others?
I think contextual information is vital for understanding political pieces like this. I do think it should be an essential ingredient. Of course, people should be able to make their own interpretations and views from a piece but it is important to understand the context that the artist used to create it.
Other work by Coley
‘I Dont Have Another Land’ was a piece of graffiti found on a wall in Jerusalem in the early 2000s an Coley now placed it in Charleston, East Essex, England.
The bold proclamation in the sculpture at Charleston could be interpreted as a reference to the climate emergency or the current refugee crisis. Perhaps it will encourage visitors to reflect on Charleston as a haven – a place of refuge for queer artist Duncan Grant and his friends, at a time when their identities and lifestyles were criminalised.Nathan Coley website
Connections between works – Coley uses phrases that take on a new meaning in each place they are exhibited. They are statements that can be taken lightly, or in a very political manner once you know the context behind them.
The use of text is a common motif. He uses text as it has been directly said, he doesn’t translate or edit it. The text doesn’t always make grammatical sense. The words don’t make up a traditional sentence as there is no verb or punctuation and it is written in capital letters. The work immediately makes the viewer question where this ‘place’ is, and what belief does the artist mean?
Reflections – I am really moved and inspired by Coley’s work. On one level they are simple, it is words, illuminated on scaffolding. However, they have a deeper political meaning that makes people question world situations. There is a sense of worldwide community, that these words travel across continents but still have meaning.