24A Orwell Street Kings Cross Sydney
in: Mike Nelson: Between a formula and a code
At night Darlinghurst and Macleay Streets are like something out of a movie; the main drag is alive, alight. There is loud music playing from different bars and people shrieking at each other in the neon spill of the MacDonald's next to the Asian grocery into the hot tropical darkness. When navy ships dock in Woolloomooloo Bay at the bottom of the road that leads up to the Cross, the streets fill up with men in white uniforms, walking in gangs with a flotilla of girls and hangers on, drifting up and down, seeing what sort of fun they can have and what trouble they get into, before they are recalled to ship and head off to sea again in the morning. Their progress is watched by hookers standing under the neon lights of the strip clubs and drunken boys from the western suburbs. Each morning it's more the Kris Kristopherson song 'Sunday Morning' coming down. Strangely quiet under the high blue sky, just the sounds of small domestic activity, music from radios in distant kitchens, the streets smell of jacaranda blossom and beer and disinfectant and piss. Thirty-somethings in dress-down Hugo Boss and Prada drink good latte's and read newspapers and talk about media deals over breakfast at the cafˇ tables that spill onto the pavement. Just down the hill there's a small square with turquoise metal seats where an Aboriginal couple are nodding off, bulging plastic tartan laundry bags at their feet, syringes carefully placed on the wall beside them.
Facing this square is a red painted shop on Orwell Street. On either side there are back packers hostels and red brick apartment blocks from the 1930 and 40's. When you stand in the street and look up at the flat shop-front, you can see the words 'Magic' painted in faded yellow on its red front. There are two doors, and on either side of the doors there are windows containing logs and dried and dusty foliage and other objects that are hard to make out through the dirty glass. It looks closed and well, if not intimidating, unwelcoming. There's no sign but this is definitely 24 Orwell Street where Mike Nelson has made a work for the 2002 Sydney Biennale.
When you finally press the doorbell and are buzzed in from the pavement you see that the space has been fitted out to accommodate small creatures. There's a narrow corridor with traces of aboriginal style animal paintings on the walls and floor, lined with glass fronted cases and vitrines. As you make your way through you discover that each one of these cases holds a small environment or landscape, a sketchy diorama: maybe sand and a mummified head, or a painted backdrop of a hill, or a wider deeper one containing two steeply rearing conical termite mounds which might be made out of papier maché surrounded by collapsed dry leaves and branches. What every single one of these cases, with their different environments and landscapes has in common, is the total absence of any living thing. The reptiles or animals that the vitrines had been designed to accommodate are gone. Their only trace a fragment of sloughed transparent snakeskin.
You also got to go behind the scenes, backstage, to the rear of the promescium arches of the deserted tanks. You pushed open a door into the access corridors with their splintery wooden walls with broken electric fans and small rough louvered doors that opened into the cases: maybe for cleaning them out, putting in food and water or introducing new captives. Just when you were convinced that you might indeed be behind the scenes of an abandoned reptile house, or some strange private collection or a shop maybe, dedicated to selling rare exotic species, you came upon a work-space at the rear of the building that was filled with the half finished structure of a pond. This took you back yet another stage, behind another scene, and allowed the x-ray flicker of seeing the artwork in construction, the fiction in an unfinished state, whilst at the same time inspecting an unfinished feature of the deserted facility.
For Mike Nelson this work was singular. By this I mean that it offered a (nearly) unitary presence and space, rather than it consisting of a number of spaces that slip from one identity and function and into another in a constant segue of narrative and implication as in the Coral Reef, at Matts Gallery or The Deliverance and The Patience at Venice or even the works that will follow Orwell Street. Here in contrast, Nelson had taken over premises that had recently housed a dodgy 'outback adventure' company - that's where the maybe fake aboriginal pictures came from - and in its place he'd constructed a single fiction: a deserted reptile house/viparium/collecton. In common with his other works however, Orwell Street generated multiple layers of narrative and reference which radiated into the internal histories of the work and out into the surrounding environment. Like Doctor Who's Tardis - or any multidimensional space worth its salt from science fiction - it seemed to contain immense spaces within its boundaries (and within those worlds, other worlds) and at the same time it served to subtly alter the world in which it had materialised.
When you considered this building's corridors and vitrines in terms of these previous works, you became aware that here Nelson had built a sort of model and analogue of those complex fictional environments. The individual dioramas stood in for the deserted bikers bars and Turkish taxi offices but here the ghostly suggestion of human presence had been replaced by traces of another species. This shift initially seemed to position the visitor differently in the mechanics of this work: we seem to be no longer direct players in the piece - moving through the corridors and spaces as stand-ins for the previous inhabitants seemingly just departed -instead we have stepped back, become viewers and now observe from the outside, through the glass wall, rather than from the inside. However this illusion of spectatorial distance was momentary. The vitrines that we were peering into were in turn components of the architecture that enclosed us. Spaces, we deduced that were shared with what ever it was that had escaped from behind the glass. Suddenly the shop becomes overlaid with frames from films like Aliens, the wooden corridors the service shafts and ducting systems through which the protagonists clatter in search of the alien presence; to find that they themselves are prey and are about to meet a sudden brutal death as jaws lunge through a sheet of cladding in a moment of half-seen close-up.
The hunter hunted, the collector collected, such turns and reversals are at the heart of so many stories that talk of the relationship of the human to the non-human: be this in the 'high' literatures of Moby Dick, or the Island of Doctor Moreau or Aliens one to three, reflecting a sort of existential xenophobia as to 'what is not us' and its relationship to 'what is us'. Collecting animals is an act of ordering, a grammar of power expressed in syntax of those who collect and that which is collected. A collection is a dominion, a sort of Imperial hubris. But once you have introduced that which is 'not us', into 'us', by something escaping, or its penetration through exchange or purchase like the cute furry animal bought from the oriental store at the start of Gremlins, all hell then breaks loose, you undermine determined boundaries. Once seepage starts, these syntaxes collapse to be replaced by ideas of miscegenation and contagion: of infiltration and a refusal. A revenge: where structures become unstable, of a world up side down.... of change..of extinction. At the time that Orwell Street was being constructed ideas of 'what is not us' and the definitions of 'us' had been given a particular charge and urgency through the events of 9/11 a few months before and the sudden arrival in the Western mind and imagination of a new pernicious 'other'.
There is no better place for the introduction of 'that which is not us' into 'that which is us' than a port. These are places of transients, for people jumping ship, for rats jumping ship, where sailors and the black death come ashore, lawless and wild. Nelson has always been attracted to such liminal zones: his works talk of the Burroughsian Interzone, places that exist between states and between cultures, where laws become contingent and mutable, ideas viral. Kings Cross, the area of Sydney where 24a Orwell Street was built, is one of these places. High up on the hill you can look down to the water and see which destroyers have drawn in at the Naval base below. The poet Kenneth Slessor said 'Kings Cross will always be apart from the rest of Sydney, still contemptuous of the rules ". From the twenties onwards it was the site of an Australian Bohemia, where new ideas were incubated and introduced into the stifling social matrix of a British Colony trying to erase its convict past. In the 1940's this became the 'Sydney Push' angry young men and a few women meeting in the cafés and bars of the Cross, defining a predominantly left-wing subculture, seeking permanent opposition shaped by the ideas of Pareto and Wilhelm Reich, and regarded as dangerous and 'Un-Australian', a phrase still used in everyday political discourse. At the same time the Cross was the center of crime, bagmen and gambling and drinking dens, the hub of jazz and rock and roll and the red light district. During the Vietnam war it was one of the major stops for rest and recreation for American Troops. It accommodated their needs, be it through the Tête a Tête café renaming itself the GI's Hut, or through the establishment of numerous new brothels. This is where the street kids come to, where black Australians gather in the square to drink and sleep in the shade of the El Alamein Fountain, a center of sleaze where the sex trade flourishes, where heroin has colonised every small side street and alleyway.
Or rather, this is as it was. With the inevitable rise of property prices the area is slowly transforming into another trendy suburb, young professionals moving in with blackberries and balsamic vinegar, lattes and phones. In 2002 the various populations shifted uneasily for position in the area. Since then money has further established its dominance. The Cross is being cleaned up.
In Australia such shifts and histories have a particular resonance, the entire movement of colonial history being one of alien introduction and indigenous dispossession. White settlement changed and devastated indigenous cultures, humans were moved off land in favour of sheep (in a land of marsupials), ecologies and animals were eradicated by the introduced species. Disease, spread by chance or through the vectors of blankets previously warmed by the sweat of convicts and jailers with TB and purposefully distributed to the local tribes in a stuttering rehearsal of germ-warfare, wiped out language-groups, memories and cultures.
At the same time, this settlement was forced, captured and convict. People had been collected and transported away from their environment to small re-inforced conurbations that echoed the places and cultures that had produced them, but were now surrounded by an immense and foreign land. Modern Western Australia can almost be seen as the process of these small isolated simulacra joining up to construct a new cover, a new identity. Mainstream Australia, still sees much of what lies underneath this as 'other'. As a visitor you soon learn that the indigenous fauna - and flora - is talked about in terms of the toxic, the dangerous and extraordinary - regaling with tales of snake bites, jellyfish, blue ringed octopus - the touch of which will paralyse the respiratory system - funnel web spiders killing joggers doing warm-up sit ups in the local park, redbacks, crocs in the rivers and sharks in the sea. Even the cute platypus has a poison spur, irrevocably alien, in implacable opposition to the (migrant, modern) human. Then there is the every day presence of Aboriginal Australians, who have been now made outside and strange by the dominant culture and economy of the land, who move through this new world, regarded by much of Australia as an exoticism, an irrelevancy, a reproach and a danger.
The cramped dusty corridors of 24a Orwell Street and the empty gaze of the vitrines worked as an uncanny container for, and an amplifier of, these endless inexorable narratives. It suggested an ongoing dialectic of escape and contagion but it refused to make any of these narratives solid or overt, nor was any element didactic, symbolic or illustrative. This powerful work made no judgment or statement. The leaky spaces of the reptile house, the small traces of what it may have once contained, offered no such possibility of definition or closure: rather it spoke instead of an ongoing uncertainty and a constant unease.
Richard Grayson. 2005.