Case Study: A Place Beyond Belief

My first response to A Place Beyond Belief, Nathan Coley, (2012), Illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m:

The text “A Place Beyond Belief” is supported by scaffolding and is formed by light bulbs. It is very reminiscent of the lights and signs of fairground rides. That seems to juxtapose with the idea of a specific “place” in one sense as it looks as though it is designed to move and be a transient piece. On the other hand, fairgrounds are traditionally seen as places of mystery and fun where belief is suspended.

The placing of this text above the silhouette of an obviously religious building makes you question the place of belief in society and in people’s minds. The text alone could mean a multitude of things such as somewhere impressive and breathtaking or alternatively somewhere unbelievably brutal and violent. The placement above a religious building firmly roots this in questioning the notion of belief. It could also be seen as a comment on the building itself. Religious buildings are often centres of community and so have greater relevance than purely as a place of worship.

To make full sense of the piece I am wondering whether this piece is a stand alone piece or whether there are other images that go with it? It would be interesting to know whether it is possible to find out where the scaffold was erected? Is that even relevant or is it intended to be a general statement?

This piece of work could fit into several categories as it is primarily seen as photography and yet contains text that prompts the viewer to question the subject which is a feature of conceptual art. I would be interested to see whether there are other pieces that are linked and whether they are linked by some common narrative.

Further investigation:

Coley exhibited this piece in the National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina in 2012 but it remains unclear where the photographs were taken. It can be seen from some of the other images that it is in an urban environment. In this image the photograph of the sign is taken with the apartment blocks in the background which lends the text a different slant. Not only is it ambiguous where the piece was staged but it is also ambiguous as to what the piece is referring to. This ambiguity could also be echoing the ambiguity on what “a place beyond belief” would resemble as each person’s interpretation will differ.

According to the 2013 exhibition, Coley made this piece in response to a story he heard on a radio phone in show:

A Place Beyond Belief


“A young woman sits in a New York subway carriage, a number of days after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. It is early morning, and the city is grudgingly back at work. Like many of her fellow passengers, she is tired,
emotionally fragile, confused and angry – still trying to come to terms with what has happened to her city.

A Sikh man sits opposite her, wearing a bright orange turban. There is a strong tangible sense of hatred from the passengers towards the man – a feeling of raw anger and disgust. The mans eyes are averted, the commuters stares un-replied. His head is bowed, he is sobbing.

The train travels on, stopping at the next station, the doors open and close, passengers get on and off. After a few stops and more torturous minutes, the man gathers his belongings and gets up to leave. Standing by the exit is a young black woman with a newly born baby. As the man approaches, he reaches into his pockets and takes out a handful of dollars. Without saying anything, he shoved the money into the folds of the baby’s clothes and exits the train. The doors close, and the remaining passengers burst into tears.

At that moment, the woman realises that for New York to get past the attack, to move on and rebuild itself, it has to think anew, it has to look again. It has to get to a place beyond belief.”

This background changes my perspective on the piece. It is interesting that Coley did not choose to site his piece in New York but perhaps this meant that he could lend it a universality rather than being specific to New York. As Kosovo is a disputed territory that only declared independence in 2008 and hence in some senses only made itself “a place” in the last decade, I am now asking myself if the work is also a reference to Kosovo itself. Enough people “believed in Kosovo” to declare independence and in doing so created a physical place. However there is still much unrest as there is tension between Kosovo’s Albanian and Serb populations.

The fact that Coley is fascinated by the idea of inclusion and exclusion has made me reconsider the placement of the words on separate lines. Whereas I had assumed that this was for aesthetic reasons, I can now see that this idea of groupings has been carried through on each line. “A place” as opposed to somewhere that isn’t, “beyond” rather than here and “belief” as opposed to not believing. Within this context is “A place beyond belief” a utopian ideal where there are no divisions between people based on belief? Could this not also be extrapolated to a utopia where there are no divisions? It is making me question whether humanity is capable of that ideal? Whatever the status quo, are there always an element who wish to subvert it?

The review by Charlotte Higgins made mention of the idea of it being sited in Kosovo was made by Kosovo’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Petrit Selimi. This fact makes me question the political influence on artists and whether this is a good or bad thing? I suppose that depends very much on your perspective! Should art be beyond the influence of politicians or is it integral to political statement? Does that make art produced under the influence of governments that have less favoured positions in the West such as communist China, Russia, North Korea, Cuba etc are just as relevant?

I think that while art can be enjoyed purely for its aesthetic, contextual information gives a work deeper significance and allows the viewer a greater understanding of what the artist had in mind. I see it as the difference between reading the synopsis of a book and reading the full text. The first will give you a snapshot of the story and generally allow you to form a first impression of whether you like it but the second allows the reader to gather nuance. You may still like or dislike the work after but the process of understanding what the creator is trying to communicate but it allows the viewer to try on other perspectives that may differ from their own.

The question of whether contextual information is an essential ingredient to contemporary work I feel isn’t necessarily the correct question. Firstly no art is produced in a vacuum and I think that understanding the context of any work will only add to layers of significance and give added nuance. The context is essential for the artist to create work as all ideas come from somewhere (even if you struggle to track the source) much like dreams are a manifestation of your mind attempting to process daily information into long term memory. If you want a deeper understanding of the work it is necessary to understand the context in which it was produced but whether it is essential to understand the context to enjoy an artwork is another question, much in the way some people will always read the Cliffs notes or watch the movie rather than read the original text. Does that mean they enjoy it less? Probably not, I suppose it depends what you get enjoyment out of. If you enjoy the process of research and uncovering information, contextual information is all part of the joy! If not, you are just as entitled to obtain enjoyment from the work. If the contextual information was crucial to the understanding of the work, is it not the artist’s responsibility to ensure that the context is fully accessible?

Selimi, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kosovo is cited in the Guardian (2012) as saying “Sited by the church that Milosevic started to build, it stands as a testimony not to religious belief, but the misuse of religious belief. It is also next to the library: between a beacon of hope and a beacon of destruction.” The interesting thing about that statement is if you apply the adage that history is written by the victors. I would assume here that Selimi is referring to the library as the beacon of hope and the church (which is slowly decaying) as the beacon of destruction as it is seen as a symbol of the Serbian oppression to the majority Muslim Albanian population. However, should the tide ever turn back the church may be seen as a beacon of hope in that it was never totally destroyed and represents a faith that many believe will offer them salvation and the library would be seen as a symbol of destruction (a way of eroding and destroying faith). In that case, the photograph of the text in front of the library could be used to retrospectively change the intended meaning of the work. So in this case, the artist’s intended meaning is vital to understanding the work as he meant it to be seen.

Does this piece achieve the unity that the woman on the phone was alluding to in the wake of the fall of the Twin Towers or can it be seen to be creating or increasing tensions by referring to that particular church and the religious divisions that it represents? Beliefs can also be non-religious and the fact that it has been championed by a politician can also suggest that there are political leanings to the piece. What of those with opposing political beliefs? How do you reconcile the two? I want to believe in the sentiment but can’t help feeling that I would need to research Selimi’s political views and once an artwork has been associated with a political leaning, does it not alienate a portion of the audience who disagree? To my mind political beliefs are just as subjective and contextual as religious ones.

In To the Bramley family of Frestonia (2015), painted steel and 24c gold leaf, 6.3m x 4.3m x 3m, Coley created a sculpture inspired by an apple tree which commemorates the Bramley family. The Bramley family weren’t technically related but all changed their surname to create a family as part of their bid to create the independent state of Frestonia. This piece seemed particularly resonant this week after the fire which burnt down the Grenfell Tower block which is a stones throw from where the Frestonians lived. The project is described here as an “exploration of issues of housing, ownership, history and activism”. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is often seen as one of the most affluent areas in the country and it can come as a surprise that there are blocks or areas within that borough which are deprived. The issues over housing and ownership within Kensington and Chelsea are very pertinent with a pending public inquiry over the cause of the devastating fire after reports that warnings were issued over fire safety.

Palace (2015), illuminated text on scaffolding, dimensions variable. It consists of five illuminated words: Belief, Mind, Land, Wealth and Life. This article explains how it was placed in Bruges as part of the Trienniale Brugge 2015, it references the position of the Stadshallen (City Halls) as a hub of trade and the balcony of the Belfry was where proclamations were announced from. The article also states that the five words are the five necessities of life according to Islam. At the same time, these words are not constrained by Islamic beliefs and I was surprised to discover that fact as Land and Wealth are often considered Western preoccupations. I suppose that Wealth may mean more than solely financial wealth. Here Coley discusses how he sees his works as sculptures and also discusses the fact that there are religious references in his works. He is not religious himself but is fascinated by the fact that so many people are. He also mentions that he disagrees with two of those words as Rights of Man and has picked out the two that I have issue with Land and Wealth. Do we really have a right to those things?

The third piece that caught my eye was You Imagine What You Desire (2015), Illuminated text, scaffolding, 5m x 5.2m x 2.5m (I have linked the version that was sited in a church in Brighton).  Those words are displayed in the same way as those in A Place Beyond Belief, here the fairground connotation is still relevant as historically there is an element of imagination and desire required in the enjoyment of fairgrounds. The juxtaposition of placing this in a church (which was not the original siting) is interesting as although the church is associated with the concept of a desire to go to Heaven, the concept of Hell is prevalent as a deterrent. It begs the question, do people desire Hell? Do they desire Hell as a construct to ensure that they kept to their set of morals? Is the artist being controversial? Often people imagine the things that they most fear so is the artist suggesting that they secretly desire the things that they fear?

In this article the artist discusses the influence of the IRA bombing of Brighton when he was 17, how places that are “nowhere” can become “somewhere” by a news story. Coley discusses how he is interested in identity, whether that is how we portray ourselves or how architecture reflects ourselves. This seems to be a recurring theme in Coley’s work, the notion of identity, how we define and segregate ourselves. He likes the execution of the work itself to be straightforward and for the idea to be the thing that persists in someone’s mind. He is quoted as saying “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.” and also likes the Oscar Wilde quote “Life is a dream that stops us from sleeping”. That quote is fascinating as there is little difference between a dream and our perception of life as in essence both are just electrical signals in our brains.

As the sculptures are often out in the open, Coley cannot make money from images of the works as they are available for anyone to photograph. It seems that in the vein of conceptual artists, Coley’s motivation is far more about posing questions to the viewer and encouraging them to think about concepts such as the notion of identity whether that is personal or based on historical concepts or religion.





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