August 5, 2004

The List Magazine
5-12 Aug 2004

exterior Pumpkin PalaceArtist MIKE NELSON has transformed an old bus into a series of haunting spaces which raises questions about US and the Middle East, discovers Ruth Hedges

Possibly the craziest thing about the war against terror and East against West and Christian faith against Muslim is that these dichotomies don’t exist. They’ve been made up, become entrenched positions, and connections have become eradicated from consciousness – so, the West never funded the Taliban and Mohamed was never a Christian prophet.

Also, smackheids struggling with addiction in small towns and cities throughout the UK and USA are nothing to do with world economics and the fact that Afghanistan’s only commodity with which to deal is opium. Fields of poppies patrolled by militia, are the gold dust within dust bowls that eventually filter down into a syringe in Pilton.

But artist and Turner Prize nominee Mike Nelson is here to show us that there are – connections that is. His vehicle, quite literally, is a 1954 bus found on a scrap heap in California. It’s a Green Tortoise, a hippy creation (still running) to rival the legendary Greyhound buses that streaked across America’s 50 states. Conceived with the idealism of travel and communal living, the Green Tortoises crawled along next to the greyhounds stopping off for shared cooking, sleeping and exploration.

Entitled The Pumpkin Palace, the bus will reside on Market Street, next to the City Art centre until Sunday 12 September and has just come on the longest journey of its 50 year life. From San Francisco, where it was originally created and exhibited in 2002, The Pumpkin Palace has travelled through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific ocean, the Atlantic ocean, arriving in Tilbury docks near London and driven in a lorry up to Edinburgh.

Like other Nelson works, it is something to experience. With only three viewers allowed in at a time, the bus – 15m long and 3m wide – is a dense space for exploration. Once taking people to places, it is now a world in itself in which to walk, climb, look and think. Nelson has reconstructed the interior so that you can move from travelling hospital to and opium den. References to the old American West are scattered throughout. ‘There’s a feel of carriages on the old trains in the West, where hobos used to hide – there’s a whole library of witchcraft upstairs,’ Nelson says. Meanwhile, the crescent symbol on the side of the bus and opium references within locate it firmly in Middle Eastern landscape.

Since growing up as a teenager in the Midlands town of Loughborough, Nelson has been aware of the interconnectedness of greater world events and private stories. ‘In the early 80s there was a huge heroin boom and I always remember hearing that this was due to the revolution in Iran,’ he says. ‘When the Ayatollah came to power people couldn’t leave with currency so they came with suitcases of heroin.’ But our Mike isn’t anything like a Michael Moore. No way. Nelson is subtle.

‘Usually when you’re looking at art you’re very conscious that that’s what you’re doing,’ he says. ‘Whereas this wrong-foots you slightly because they’re familiar objects and territories but you’re not completely aware of what you’re meant to be looking at. The Pumpkin Palace has a sense of the replicated ready-made. In physical terms you enter into this object in which familiarity is slightly twisted.’ And there’s the rub. In some ways Nelson reassures you by creating scenes which are recognisable – they are things you know from experience or from seeing pictures or reading about, but maybe they’re not quite what you’d expect them to be. There’s also that thrill and trepidation about entering a space that feels recently and unnervingly inhabited. ‘It’s always interesting to transgress or trespass into someone else’s personal territory,’ Nelson says. ‘You become interested in the rudimentary detail of what someone might have left behind.’

interior shot of the Pumpkin Palace

In detail, Nelson is an obsessive. While it may look like a group of soldiers have suddenly upped and left their opium den or an old hobo has just tipped out of his hammock to head along the road, every little artefact and furnishing has been fastidiously thought out and placed. ‘The design on a formal level interests me – the surfaces, like a still life – the colours and textures, not only in terms of meaning but visually,’ he says. ‘You get to the point where the objects know what they are and you’re so comfortable with their comfortableness that you don’t actually question them, so it allows you to read the work in a much quieter sort of way.’ Quieter and more unsettling with forces working on you that operate on a more subconscious level.

The world has moved on an incredible distance since Nelson first created The Pumpkin Palace. Iraq lost 13,000 of its citizens, Saddam Hussein was still shaven and defiant, a coastline of Cuba hadn’t played indefinite host to prisoners without trial, Blair held a modicum of trust and credibility, a leading scientist hadn’t committed suicide, BBC controllers were sitting easy and the American army wasn’t being investigated for accusations of torture.

It will be interesting to see how the Palace has stood the test of time, conceived in those early innocent days when only Afghanistan had felt America’s airpower. Quite possibly it’s force will only be intensified. And the housing of all of this in a symbol of true American idealism, customised to represent a Middle Easter field hospital is deeply poignant.

‘You have these reservations about America and it’s a bit of a contradiction,’ says Nelson. ‘But it’s an incredibly interesting place and one suspects that deep down in the heart there is something good. There is something good in the idea of America and it’s just gone somewhat awry.’ This is a typical generosity of Mike Nelson – it’s what gives his work heart as well as all the deep intellectual and aesthetic choices behind his installations. It is this combination of qualities that has led the lad from Loughborough to make connections between junkies in his home town to political upheaval in the Middle East and to carry on making global links from the small to the massive throughout his working life.

The Pumpkin Palace, off-site project of the Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, 6 Market Street, opposite the City Art centre, Tue 10 Aug–Sun 12 Sep, Tue–Sun, 11am–6pm, free.


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