ALL IMAGES: Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon, 2007, installation view, South London Gallery, 2009.
Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon (2007), South London Gallery, 7 Jan, 2009.
One day there was a new Time Lord in the newspapers, the next there was one at the South London Gallery. The new Doctor Who may have been younger and less famous than many anticipated, but his art world doppelgänger spent a lot of his time in only his underpants and had to make do with a battered, Sony cassette player for a Tardis. Such were some of the thoughts prompted by Nathaniel Mellors new piece, filling the empty, black walled galleries prior to next weeks arrival of Superflex and a flooded McDonalds.
I used "piece" there after rejecting several other words, like "performance" or "installation." Originally a video installation at the Biennale d'Art Contemporain in 2007, here The Time Surgeon definitely felt like a performance, not least because the audience sat on the floor in the dark, looking forwards at a stage area.
On the right side a small low screen, the image spilling off its sides onto the wall behind. On the left a larger image was projected into the corner of the room. A nice trick, creating an image that warped and stretched in the middle, as well as having a shifting, sometimes mysterious relationship to the architecture. Sound, too, came from various directions, creating the impression of events in front and behind and beyond walls. Despite this sophisticated choreographing of projected image and recorded sound, I felt more like I was watching a play in a theatre than I have at many plays.
That was due, among other things, to the "actors" performance style. It was also due to the fact that The Time Surgeon had a strong although not easily summarised narrative at its core. But let's try. There was a Time Doctor, who could send his patients through time by causing them pain. He wore washing-up gloves, and communicated through the aforementioned Sony tape machine.
The Time Doctor could project people into the past and the future. Mostly, he worked with one woman's voice. The woman shifted from being a willing patient to being inside the doctors stomach to plotting his downfall by overly focussing him on the present - not, it seems, a Time Doctors favourite temporality. So, basically, there was this heightened sense of plot and character and there was also, as my garbled account reveals, nothing there at all.
That said, a storyline like that would have kept me well entertained just presented straight. But storytelling in contemporary art is thankfully not that simple. Mellors choreographed his story between different screens, screen and sound, between the image on the screen and its overspill on the wall behind. As it becomes split in this way, so, like the images in the corner, it stretches and distorts, like the woman's voice that sometimes speaks whilst gargling water.
The plot loses large amounts of its narrative structure and becomes more a matter of tone; the frame extends to include the director giving instructions; actors hold their own sound recording equipment whilst talking to camera. Put more empirically: the Time Doctor takes off his shirt and the Sony cassette player bleeds.
So, too, such changes shift an audience from pleasure into something deliberately more irritated and frustrating. Which explains, too, some of the scenes that appear on one or both of the screens. There are a group of people in a field. They fall to the ground, holding their stomachs and heads as if in pain, whilst large cows and a hiking club pass in the background.
Then, because time travel is complex, it produces a reality where everyone looks like Lou Reed, so the performers wear Lou Reed masks. The director shouts out gestures for them to perform, but I don't read this as pointing up the artificiality of the camera. It's more about everything collapsing into some weird space, both highly articulate and self-consciously dumb, where highlighting a films own material processes just happens, like dogs.
It was whilst we were in this space that several of the audience left, and quite a few others fidgeted. It's also where I experienced some mixed feelings about the whole thing, like the piece seemed to want me to. Its particular world view and stylistic quirks emerge early on, but I'm not sure where it and we all go after that.
The plot in all its warpings and extensions unfolds, and I felt a bit claustrophobic, trapped in some absurdist psychodrama that was anti-drama and not too struck on psychology. Its humour reminded me of Richard Foreman saying he wrote scripts with jokes deliberately as unfunny as possible, because he wanted the structure of humour without prompting the usual responses, principally laughter.
So, yes, a question more than anything else: how does one stay with a piece like this, where does the journey go or not go to? A similar uncertainty applies to the performance style. I'd call it, catchily, a Mike Leigh-Jack Smith hybrid low fi-baroque theatricality. I suspect a lot of the performers antics would be intolerable as a live performance.
So then the decisions about film projection, multiple screens, relationship to sound, become ways of making such material acceptable, watchable, sophisticated, despite itself. But how moronic can the sophisticated be and still be both sophisticated and moronic? And how much faith do you need to have in the transcendent form of the video installation?
All of which, in case it's not clear, is a way of saying that I enjoyed The Time Surgeon enormously, but it cultivates the habit of not being as enjoyable as it could be. Sometimes it felt like day time TV, refracted and re-figured by surrealist neurosis. For all its eccentricity and power it often willed itself to be slightly more a disturbing memory of Woolworth than it was Paul McCarthy.