Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon, 2007, installation view, South London Gallery, 2009.

Last weeks review of Nathaniel Mellor's The Time Surgeon at the South London Gallery responded to the piece as a one-off performance event. The following interview with Mellors by Anne-Sophie Dinant (Associate Curator at SLG), took place via e-mail and was originally published as part of the programme for the evening. 

It explains some of the thinking and intention behind The Time Surgeon and, inparticular, how it was reconfigured for its night at the South London Gallery. I reprint it here, in dialogue with the review, for the information it offers and also towards articulating some qualities of the space between intent and the performance event itself.  

Such a space occurs in any live work, of course, but is strongly felt in The Time Surgeon's own brand of degraded theatricality. This seemed aptly summarised by extracting some stage directions from a page of the script, also included in the programme: 

... voiceover... shaking tape... points to camera audience... stretches word... Blair downward hand gesture, R Mayall tense face. Cups groin, knees together... resigned... Gesticulating at present...   

ANNE-SOPHIE DINANT: The Time Surgeon is presented at the South London Gallery as a one evening event, accentuating the performative character of the piece. Can you tell us more about this aspect of the work? What was your approach for conceiving an installation that uses elements of filmed performance?

NATHANIEL MELLORS: The projections are onto and across 3-dimensional surfaces - it's basically theatrical I think in that the mode of the installation makes the physical appearance of the video more like a set. I've worked a lot with disrupted projection before but previously there have been more physical elements, more sculpture involved. This work is relatively economical in that respect. 

There's an implied level of performance in the installation – you can wander around it, take any position within it and you can physically walk through projections if you want to. There's a sort of provisional quality to my work but at the same time it's also elaborate – that almost oppositional dynamic – a collision between something fairly baroque and something more impromptu. 

Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon.

I try and let that come through at each stage, starting in the script, then in different levels of filmed performance – putting different registers together there – and then in the installation. On the one hand it's just sort of been whacked into the gallery. On the other hand massive effort has been expended in painting and carpeting the place, the provisional quality is not incidental. This seems consistent with the idea of someone travelling through time in a Sony portable cassette recorder.

To go back to the idea of different registers of performance within the work I'd say it begins at a linguistic level: the script might establish one particular dramatic tone and then keep throwing up words or ideas that undermine that tone. And then on a performative level I might direct the delivery of the words or action in a way that is obstructive to that delivery – so the performers have to deal with that. 

In the installation there's the relationship between the two channels of video. There's a main channel (projected onto the polystyrene block), in which the two central actors play out the script, which is about the relationship between The Time Surgeon (Johnny Vivash) and his Victim (Gwendoline Christie). 

At the same time there's a second channel of video projected above and larger than the main channel in which you see other things happening. You see Ashley Marlowe playing the role of GOD as a bored drummer. And you see me playing a role as an artist or director of a second set of actors, apparently amateur performers, attempting to realise certain exercises wearing masks of Lou Reed and George Orwell and shouting bits of dialogue at trees and things. 

The things that are going on in the second channel all relate to the main script in different ways. Everything that is happening is an effect of the words, directly or indirectly. But sometimes this occurs in a reasonably clear way, at other points in a way that seems quite abstruse. 

I'm interested in deliberately confusing things to some extent, but not total confusion, the experience needs to be quite malleable. Maybe in that respect the work is a demonstration of something rather than actually being something.

A-SD: At the South London Gallery, the audience for this piece will all be watching the work at the same time, instead of coming into the space intermittently, as when watching an exhibition. Due to its large scale, this film installation creates a strong, almost physical relationship with the viewer. How do you perceive the work-spectator relationship when working on a film such as this?

NM: I don't really think about it. I try and follow different associations from the root of the words in the script and the ideas behind it, so one thing leads to another in a way that seems organic to me at the time. There are associative relationships between elements of the installation and things you see in the videos. 

When I originally installed the work I knew I wanted the polystyrene blocks on the desk: that made a certain sense to me, in relation to the tape recorder and the blank pieces of paper in the film. With the spillage of the projection on the polystyrene it looks a bit like it's been pulled out of the wall behind, which becomes very dark, relatively – it looks like a big hole there where the film might have come from. 

The elements are quite considered, but I wouldn't fix them too precisely until I get to the space. These physical possibilities are quite specific to working in art and art galleries, which I appreciate. I really like these things that can't happen anywhere else.

Nathaniel Mellors, Profondo Viola, 2004 (Installation view). Video, sound, light and sculpture. Matt's Gallery, 8 Sep- 31 Oct, 2004.   

A-SD: The absurdist side of The Time Surgeon, which is present in all your works in fact, is in this case directly inspired by Chris Marker's La Jetée and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.  What relationship do you see between those two works? And how important were they to you?

NM: I've extrapolated things from them as well as from more contemporary issues. Having said that I think I the idea of a person trapped in a tape recorder originally occurred to me as an image rather than as a concept. I can't remember where it came from, although Dan (Fox) had an idea for a short film about someone who carries a bag of tapes around with them all the time a few years ago (which was about having to soundtrack everything). Maybe that was bouncing around in my head and came out differently. 

I noticed this 'physical torture' aspect of time-travel watching La Jettée –  it struck me as quite horrific and was presented as an atrocity, I thought, well those things could go together. It's primarily a way to make a link between word and effect, to explore it, and the 'person-trapped-in-tape-recorder' idea enables this. 

I realised this absurd idea could be a way to articulate some strange linguistic power-relations. The culture of political 'spin' was certainly an influence: 'spin' amplified through the news and broadcast media. The basic idea that words have a serious effect on reality – this 'tape' device could be a way to express some scrambled word-games that relate to that.

A-SD: You have previously mentioned Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard as film-makers you admire, and who have influenced you. You use similar strategies for editing image and sound, but you have a very particular way of playing with, and incorporating, music and sound in your work, which sometimes works in direct opposition to the image. 

Would you say your work is an extension of those two film-makers' practices? I suppose also that the integration of specific musical compositions comes quite naturally to you as you also have your own musical practice.

Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon.

NM: Yes these artists are influences but I wouldn't necessarily cite them above lots of other things. I have looked at using music and sound 'against' the image, or against dialogue. Or dialogue against image. I love the way Godard does that in Weekend and Pierrot le Fou for example, and other films from that period. 

I wasn't thinking consciously of any tradition, I was probably just responding to my own material. I wouldn't want to set up a comparison! I often see a lot of similarities between ideas and techniques in those 60s Godard films and Monty Python, actually. I wonder if they looked at the new wave? Also in some of the early 80s Comic Strip films. William Klein's Mr Freedom seems to anticipate South Park. But you can theorise forever after the fact. 

Nathaniel Mellors, Black Gold, 2001, installation view.  Video, sound, light and sculpture. Matt's Gallery,  7 Feb- 1 Apr 2001. 

I make connections between different things, some of which can appear quite disparate and maybe that's where the ideas are formed. I do like the idea of using elements of an art work against itself; I like the idea that an artwork can undermine itself in different ways – but in order to expose different points of view on what it's doing. I've tried to apply this to sculpture and other media as well as video. I used to call it 'sculpture sculpture' and maybe in this work there's the idea of a performance being performed. 

Having said that it's important that this thing is a concrete extrusion in and of itself; I'm not really interested in directly deconstructing things, or sampling and appropriation, although that culture is omni-present. I think music is a model for me in that respect, it's just broadly generative, hopefully the influences get sublimated. 

I'm lucky to be able to make music with talented people and that I got involved in bands and things well before art school. That experience was based in industrial music – improvising with tape loops and instruments we couldn't play. Chris Butler, Ashley Marlowe and myself improvised the music for The Time Surgeon in the Rijksakademie by approaching a room as an instrument, sort of 'playing' the room we were in, probably out of frustration towards a straightforward approach to instruments.

A-SD: Your work has focused on explorations of language through technology and communications developments such as television series or pop music. How would you articulate your critique of the use of language and communication today?

NM: I think it's important to be clear about what constitutes a critique. Does something that is critical of something in certain ways necessarily constitute a critique of that thing? I think there are critical aspects in my work but I would try not to say 'it's a critical piece' – because I can't gauge the motivation that singularly. 

I feel broadly critical of many applications of media and communications technology but celebratory of many other aspects. I love the technology and I'm using it myself. And with language: I just enjoy words. I suppose I am trying to articulate issues within the work. That's why earlier I was using the word 'demonstration' – I write a script and the work is a demonstration of different possibilities for that script. But I also want it to be quite distinctive as an experience in itself, with different levels, some dumb or awkward, some more serious or critical. I like these contradictory impulses.

I think with artists' work in relation to the popular media there can be an assumption that the appropriation of a media technique automatically constitutes some kind of critique – like the idea that making an exploitative documentary with 'artist awareness' is somehow more critical than a TV company's 'awareness'. Maybe they're both exploitative, and the art version just more naïve? I think that can be a danger of working with a singular medium type from popular culture: how do you advance the debate beyond its indigenous manifestation?

Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon.

Anyway, to talk in terms of this work, The Time Surgeon, the arc of the narrative involves a battle for the control of language in an environment which is sort of dislocated – it's detached from reality. I don't give too much information about what it is, exactly – it's like a theatre set, it's hermetic, just a room really. There is some inference from The Time Surgeon characters that there is something outside of it – that he is being controlled by a third party (The Futuremen) but it's unclear if that's real or just his egomania. 

Basically, for the purposes of the film, it's just the two main characters (The Time Surgeon and his Victim) and what unfolds from their words. What is clear is that the Victim experiences The Time Surgeon's words as reality; including his descriptions of torture. So what develops is a battle for linguistic dominance between The Time Surgeon and the Victim. 

The Victim is able to undermine and ultimately overthrow The Time Surgeon by playing to his ego and undermining his grasp of semantics. By the end of the film their roles are switched. As The Time Surgeon's grasp of reality comes apart there quickly develops a metaphysical or religious aspect. This is something I've taken further in my new work Giantbum.

Nathaniel Mellor's Giantbum will be shown as part of Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009, 3 February – 26 April 2009.