THE BLACK MARIA / PLACES WHERE SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED
By Nathan Coley.
Curated by Juliana Engberg.
Presented in partnership with Art & Industry Urban Arts Biennial
Works sited within “a particular place… speak in a symbolic tongue about the meaning or use of that place” and The Black Maria’s short-lived presence here cast a long, dark shadow indeed. In preparation for this project, the artist Nathan Coley with curator Juliana Engberg and project manager Geraldine Barlow took the tram round town, taking in the views it afforded them of the city. The neo-Gothic frames of Mountfort’s architecture, the saloon style ‘Vic ‘n’ Whale’ and the Colonial Spanish chic of New Regent Street, led them to conclude that Christchurch is “a city of nostalgic facades… a frontier town” .
Accepting for a moment that geographically and conceptually Christchurch may have been a new frontier for the Scottish artist ‘Way down South’, it must be remembered that we live in an age when the foundational assumptions of any centre/ periphery model are up for re-evaluation and potential re-configuration, most obviously on those so called ‘margins’. As a consequence of this, any gesture towards ‘frontier living’ necessarily provides an opportunity to unmask and interrogate some of the more complex issues that exist below the surface of those cultural constructions with which we surround ourselves, and to which we have grown accustomed.
History can be seen as a social narrative perpetually constructed and re-constructed, and The Black Maria’s presence served to forcefully punctuate the mechanisms of that process through its disruption of the full colour complexity of our lived reality with its monochromatic and anachronistic presence. The Black Maria is a prop that also functions as a proposition, raising questions about the role and ambivalence of mimicry and the story of ‘how the west was really won’. It is precisely the work’s dramatic narrative potential that makes Coley’s gesture so unnerving.
In this instance, the Physics Room can be seen to have both logistically, with Art & Industry, and physically supported Coley’s practice, as the pedestal for his sculptural form looms large, drawing attention to the building itself and the possibilities enabled through contemporary forms of communication. The work itself can also be seen to form part of an expanding network dedicated to the politics of site-specificity and the art of cross-reference.
Avant-garde gestures, such as those fostered by the biennial, can be seen to have “two audiences: one which was there and one - most of us - which wasn’t,” and Coley’s related installation within the gallery space, Places Where Something has Happened plays with this idea, as well as again raising issues about the nature and politics of representation. The Black Maria was a silent ramshackle construction that spoke volumes about the nature and character of our times and through both of his installations Coley compelled us to look beyond the familiar and accepted representations of our culture, to the complex scaffolding and the unstable foundations that we choose to hide beneath those facades.
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This essay originally appeared in
The Physics Room Annual 2002
Published December 2003
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Art and Industry
The Black Maria
Nathan Coley (United Kingdom)
SCAPE: The Art and Industry Biennial
4 September - 5 October, 2002