"I'm interested in how we identify ourselves": Artist Nathan Coley on his HOUSE Festival commission

| 05 May 2015

The 2007 Turner Prize nominee references the Brighton bombing, the Royal Pavilion and playwright Bernard Shaw in two new commissions for the city's HOUSE Festival

A photo of a glowing sign which reads you imagine what you desire in a park
© Keith Hunter
"The romantic idea that it’s a solitary existence being an artist is really crazy. I spend my days talking to people, with people talking to me.

I also find myself looking and thinking about loads of stuff that have little to do with what I’m working on – negative research, I guess.

Journeys without a known end are the greatest of fun. I like setting out some ideas for what work ‘might be’, convincing those commissioning the work that it will be great, and then jumping in to see what could be. The project in The Regency Town House in Brighton is exactly that.

My associations with Brighton are very few. One of my studio technicians lives there, it’s full of DJ’s, and the IRA bombed a hotel there when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

I was 17 in 1984, in my last year of school before going to Glasgow School of Art. The bombing had a very strong resonance with me.

It was a time when my city was riddled with sectarianism, and a mainland attack at the centre of government felt very real and very close.

It’s interesting when nowhere becomes somewhere. Dallas, Brighton, Lockerbie. When non-descript places become the centre of the world for a few news cycles.

Politics aside, my thing is a more complex interest in architecture and the build environment. I’m interested in how we identify ourselves publicly, how we illustrate ourselves physically (by building churches, monuments, graveyards and gardens), and, in turn, I’m still fascinated by making objects - objects that speak in our absence.

All of the sculptures in the exhibition take their titles from individuals – a saint, an alias, a terrorist and everyday people that have been caught up in conflict and turmoil.

They are fixed things, real objects; things made to be looked at. They exist in a time of moral uncertainty.

I like heavy things. I like materials that you can manipulate by hand, and I like sculptures that you want to knock with your knuckles, to be sure what it’s made of.

I’d like the conversation not to be around the work, not in front of the sculptures, I’d like it to be over dinner later that night, or at a coffee break the next day.

The idea that the object is not the centre of the work is something that I keep coming back to, and keeps me running away.

I like the Oscar Wilde quote: 'Life is a dream that stops us from sleeping.'"

  • Portraits of Dissension, at Regency Town House, and You Imagine what you Desire, at St Nicholas' Church, run until May 24 2015. Both exhibitions are co-commissioned by HOUSE 2015 and the Brighton Festival. The artist is in conversation at the church on May 12. Tickets £6/£5, book online.

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