November 2007 Humanitie, the Humanist Society of Scotland magazine
IMAGINE if you'd spent four months building scale replicas of every church in Edinburgh. You'd expect the work to give you an overwhelming sense of respect for the architecture, perhaps even a feeling of religious awe at the holy dedication of it all. Not so Nathan Coley. In 2004, the Turner Prize contender constructed 286 models representing every place of worship in the capital for a stunning exhibition at Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery. Using the Yellow Pages as his ecclesiastical guide, he built a toy-town landscape of spires, pinnacles and domes, all rammed up alongside each other in brown cardboard.
He had already completed a similar feat in 2000, building a miniature village of 161 places of worship in Birmingham, so he knew what he was letting himself in for. His purpose was not some spiritual quest, but an attempt to take a sober look at the place of religion in our society. However accomplished the final exhibition, putting it together was a gargantuan chore in which he took little pleasure. Inspired by John Ruskin's argument that our understanding of architecture is bound up with the sacrifice involved in building it, Coley really did suffer for his art.
"It was a perverse undertaking to remake things that already exist," says Coley, 40, back in Scotland after a gruelling fortnight in Liverpool under the Turner Prize spotlight. "It's like a Biblical fable for me to sacrifice my time and energy to these places of worship – to make them mine as opposed to theirs. There was nothing beautiful or exciting about it. After two weeks it became total drudgery."
For the devoted, it was possible to see that exhibition, The Lamp of Sacrifice, as a celebration of religious achievement. For residents, the congregation of miniature churches made you see the city in a fresh way. But for the artist, who prefers his work not to be judgemental, it was a way of representing the insidious hold religion has on our society.
"The Lamp of Sacrifice was so not about the architecture in terms of the way it looks," says Coley, resembling a younger Rory Bremner with his tight curls of ginger hair as he tucks into a lunchtime sandwich in an Edinburgh delicatessen. "It's about what it means. I'm interested in why was this made, who made it and what does it signify? Religious architecture is fascinating because the conditions in which we are looking at a 19th century Protestant church now are not the conditions in which it was built. Ideas of the church have changed and society and architecture have changed. For everyone who reads The Lamp of Sacrifice as a celebration of these pieces of architecture, there's another person who understands it as a critique: they are meaningless and collectively have no power."
For Coley, who played volleyball for Scotland but turned down a sporting scholarship in the USA in favour of a place at Glasgow School of Art, his job as an artist is to raise these questions. "I deal with the relationship between private and public space, state and church, and personal and political morals because I'm not prepared to leave those discussions and decisions to the government or the church. I don't think they're best placed to deal with it. The role of culture is to deal with those issues."
If you take a trip with Coley around Glasgow's Southside, where he lives with his partner and baby daughter, he'll point out to you which pub is regarded as Catholic and which Protestant. Like the churches that form the furniture of our urban lives, the pubs carry echoes of the religious traditions that have divided communities for centuries. In this way religion occupies an "invisible" space, something he tries to make visible in his work.
"I don’t have formal faith in any of the religions of the world, but I'm fascinated by the fact they exist," he says. "Religion is the issue of our time. Nothing defines space more than a disagreement about where my space ends and your space starts. That space might be moral, physical or religious. It's what terrorism is about and, in Scotland, you don't have to go very far to find arguments about communal playgrounds within the same [Christian] religion. My work is not a homage, a celebration or a condemnation, it's a spotlight bringing it in for discussion."
Born in 1967 to a middle-class Glasgow family of no religious persuasion, Coley is a life-long atheist, although even he will admit to inheriting the Protestant work ethic that keeps him busy all day. He's a nine-to-five kind of artist who went to a Protestant state school, but delights in owning a Celtic season ticket, ironically aware of the football club's Catholic history. "My dad was taken in 1972 when he was a young father by his friend who just happened to be a Celtic fan," he says. "I was the only kid in my school who followed the other team. But it wasn't a badge of honour and I didn't get beaten up in the playground – I've been 6ft 2in since I was 14!"
Upon the death last May of that same father, Coley and his siblings opted for a humanist funeral. "He never stipulated his wishes but he wouldn't have wanted a religious service," he says, adding that his girlfriend's father was also given a humanist sending off. "The humanist burial was fantastic. It made it possible for the day to be about his history rather than some notion of the afterlife or the supernatural. We found it very comforting and, interestingly, a very obvious thing to do. It was not special, normal, almost every-day."
Although human beings feel a need to come together to mark the key stages in life – birth, marriage, death – Coley sees no reason to hand over such ceremonies to the church. "It's foolish to imagine moral guidance can't be decided outwith the institutions of religion," he says. "We live in a time of moral uncertainty. The last thing we want to do is ask the church how to solve that. Their track record isn't very good. We have to look to ourselves. We gather ourselves in cities, we don't seek independence, we seek community, whereas my personal history with religion is that it defines difference. It puts divisions between kids who are six years old."
Like his father's death, the birth of his daughter had huge emotional significance for him but brought out no latent religious feeling. "It reaffirmed my strong attitude towards humanity," he says. "It didn't feel like it was a gift from God. It felt absolutely natural. I feel a big responsibility to her upbringing and I'm not going to give that over to some institution. It made me responsible for my own actions rather than deferring my actions to somebody else."
It would be reductive to describe Coley's work as simply a commentary on religion, but it is an area of life that fascinates and angers him in equal measure. More broadly, he is concerned with social spaces, the way we shape our built environment and feel comfortable in some settings and not others. Had Edinburgh been a banking city, he says, he would have remade the banks not the churches in The Lamp of Sacrifice.
"I'm not someone who makes work about religion, I make work about how our values illustrate themselves in public or private space," he says. "The work deals with how architecture can symbolise the community's beliefs. I've long been interested in how we occupy space. The reason we feel comfortable in this room is to do with scale, temperature, music, how we're sitting, the fact we're familiar with it being a public space but intimate at the same time. These things haven't accumulated by accident – this is Georgian design that has evolved from the idea that as human beings we want to gather publicly. I make work that is really about the human condition."
To read some of the critics, you wouldn't think the human condition had much to do with his Untitled Threshold Sculpture. Seen in his Tate Liverpool show and at Edinburgh's Doggerfisher gallery earlier in the year, this much misunderstood piece is a beam of oak lying at the entrance to the exhibition, forcing gallery-goers to step over it – or trip up. In Edinburgh, it was his way of drawing attention to his own artistic space, distinct from the artistic overkill of the festival, while in Liverpool, it set his area apart from the spaces occupied by the competing Turner Prize artists.
"The stupid argument would be, 'It's just a piece of wood, how does it mean anything?'" he says. "But that ignores the fact that it's in the loaded, conditional space of a gallery. Architects for thousands of years have tried to deal with this issue of the threshold: when does the outside world stop and this particular space start? In classical Roman architecture, the columns and the portico are about easing the transition and blurring the boundaries. Hanging canopies are the same. I wanted something that was both soft and man-made like oak, which also has connotations of being the spiritual tree and has been taken on by the church in Christian furniture."
Also attracting attention in that exhibition was There Will Be No Miracles Here, a 6m-high sign in illuminated light bulbs supported on scaffolding like some Las Vegas hoarding and seen previously in the grounds of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. The slogan, which he has been using in different ways since 1998, refers to an incident in 17th century France when the number of miracles reportedly taking place in the village of Modseine started to get out of hand. The solution was a notice from the highest authority in the land: "There will be no miracles here, by order of the King." It's a funny story that encapsulates Coley's interests in church, state, the public space and the nature of belief. If miracles were taking place, did the king have the authority to stop them? And would a sign be all he needed?
Also seen at Mount Stuart was his Camouflage Mosque, a scale model of the Bajrakli Mosque in Belgrade that's doing its best to disappear by the use of dazzle camouflage sprayed in purple enamel paint. He has applied similar techniques to a Camouflage Church and a Camouflage Synagogue, making familiar pieces of architecture visible as art and invisible by their disguise.
The question of space extends to the places in which human beings gather and from there, he has inevitably been drawn to the question of belief. Nowhere is the combination of religion and religious space more intense than in Jerusalem, home to three major belief systems. That's why Coley journeyed to Israel in 2005 to make his film Jerusalem Syndrome. It focused on a rare psychosis affecting around 20 Christians and Jews a year who are so hypnotised by the Holy City they start acting like biblical characters.
"I travelled to Jerusalem not because I wanted to 'find' myself or 'find' faith," he says. "It was because I'm fascinated by the fact there's this one place which is the centre for the three main religious institutions. It confirmed my belief that they're all as bad as each other. Jerusalem is the most unholy city I've ever visited. There is something magical and fascinating about the discourse and attention manifested by the Wailing Wall, but it's not worth killing each other over."
© Mark Fisher 2007/2009
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