Nathan Coley opened his talk in the Edinburgh College of Art by confessing his “deeply selfish” motivations in revisiting his work through such public presentations. However, I found his approach anything but selfish as he shared the responsibilities of interpretation and the creative process with the audience (as seen in his emphasis of the importance of a community’s reception to a particular installation, and his claim that “I make objects so I don’t have to talk”). Friday’s audience in particular could interpret the theme of space in his art with special intimacy, as one of his past works recreated what was every place of worship in the Edinburgh yellow pages at the time.
Coley’s unconventional use of space and public space as a medium cohered beautifully with the “Artist Run Spaces” and “Figures in Space” workshops also featured in ECA’s Innovative Learning Week programme. The Glaswegian artist was particularly careful to distinguish the spaces that continue to exist physically from the spaces that cease to exist beyond photographs. The placement of his art seemed to be integral to the art itself, as seen in his exhibition of the text “a place beyond belief” in the space that used to be a Nazi swimming pool.
A common thread of the themes of honesty, authenticity and truth ran through Coley’s colorful portfolio and talk alike, as he playfully challenged us to question what was “fictitious”. He proved himself to be as much of a craftsman of words as of physical objects, in both his physical representations of quotes such as “we must cultivate our garden” and in his stirring narrative of a subway ride in New York City following 9/11. However, even in speaking about his own work, Coley evades the question of authorship, taking credit in saying “I’m not leaving the text ‘text’, I’m making an image of that text” while remaining hesitant to say too much about the finished products themselves. That would be spoiling our fun.