Knowledge, Kindliness and Courage is the first solo exhibition in North America of Turner Prize nominee, Nathan Coley. This major presentation includes Unnamed (2012), a new commission in the gallery and We Must Cultivate Our Garden, installed on the roof of the Pennsylvania Hotel in the Downtown East Side at Carrall Street and East Hastings Street.
Presented off-site We Must Cultivate Our Garden (2006) a largescale illuminated text work held aloft on a scaffolding structure, evokes just such concerns. Taken from the last line of Candide by Voltaire, the statement is powerful and complex. The use of the plural ‘we’ is inclusive, conveying the sense that a joint effort is necessary for an endeavour to have any effect. The imperative ‘must’ lends an active, almost dictatorial tone. The words ‘cultivate’ and ‘garden’ are loaded with metaphorical weight: we can cultivate our minds, our souls, our relationships as well as the soil. Our ‘garden’ might constitute a house, a spirit, a child or a patch of land. In some ways it can be considered a call to arms, suggestive that a hunger for knowledge and understanding can be satiated through investigation and hard work rather than reliance on fate, tenuous beliefs or social standing. Coley is interested in the idea that the sentence is open to multiple forms of translation and interpretation, this element of ambiguity crucial whereby the onus is placed on the viewer to locate a meaning which interests them. Indeed, through his work, the artist reveals the unconscious of the architecture and cityscapes he interrogates, investigating social as much as physical constructions. Or as Coley says, ‘It’s in your imagination.’
Coley’s practice revolves around investigations into the social aspects of our built environment, working across a diverse range of media. Interested in public space, the artist explores how architecture comes to be invested — and reinvested — with meaning, and how through the competing practices of place these claims and significations come into conflict.
For Coley, buildings are empty vessels given significance by their social history: by the communities that populate them. He is interested in these politics, insofar as they put a political demand on place in the current pluralist climate of enforced equality. Fiona Bradley comments, ‘The gap between the city as built and as experienced, as it exists in the world and in the mind and memory, resonates throughout Nathan Coley’s practice … [he] conjures cities, metaphorically dismantling them.’
Coley’s practice reveals that claims to public space in postmodern society (one marked not by national cohesion, but fragmentation, trans-nationalism, pluralism) are made by groups of people who have different ideas on how it should be used; the structures they erect manifest these desires, values and beliefs. Works such as 28.10.11. or 18.10.11. (both 2012) from an ongoing group of works titled The Honour Series picturing protests taken at various public marches and demonstrations throughout the world clearly engage such issues.