Hammer Projects: Nathaniel Mellors
British artist Nathaniel Mellors makes irreverent, absurd and hilarious videos, sculptures, performances and writings that challenge our notions of taste, morality, and intelligence. His seminal series, Ourhouse (2010- ongoing), features a cast of misfit characters enacting the decline of an eccentric British family. A more recent work, The Saprophage (2012), examines the literal and metaphoric waste produced by contemporary society.
Mellors’ Hammer Projects exhibition centers around his newly completed film The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview (produced in collaboration with Commonwealth Projects during a residency at the Hammer). The 35mm/HD transfer film features an interview between an ethereal “modern” man (Truson, a character from Ourhouse) and an apparently real Neanderthal. The Neanderthal is cleverer than Truson and plays with him and his expectations of primitivism. The interview appears to take place in a version of the mythic “Eden” (“E-Den”), and was filmed in the historic Bronson Caves in Griffith Park. This site is presented as a metaphoric place—Eden as a metaphor for the shift between a sustainable mode of human existence (hunter-gatherer) in the Upper Paleolithic to a Neolithic mode of existence based on the knowledge of farming and ownership of land which is the beginning of our modern system and the point at which we enter an economy of ownership which is ultimately ecologically untenable. The Neanderthal has been thrown out of the caves by an organization called “The Sporgo,” which, he claims, owns the caves and controls cave art. The work draws on the emergence of art as a marker of human consciousness and the idea that art and religion are hard-wired into the architecture of the human brain. It also plays off the formerly accepted idea that Neanderthals were not capable of making art. Hence the eponymous ‘Sophisticated Neanderthal’ character, who teases his less sophisticated interrogator. Mellors' films are always in a reciprocal relationship with sculpture, often sculpture is written into the center of the scenario, and for the last three years Mellors has been particularly interested in the sculpture and culture of the Upper Palaeolithic, which informs this new body of work.
Organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick.
Nathaniel Mellors was born in Doncaster, England in 1974. He currently lives and works in Amsterdam & Los Angeles. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London and the Ruskin School, Oxford University. Recent solo exhibitions include: Nathaniel Mellors: The Nest, Cobra Museum, Amstelveen, Netherlands (2011); Performa 2011, New York; Nathaniel Mellors: Ourhouse, ICA, London (2011); and Ourhouse, De Hallen, Haarlem (2010). Mellors has been featured in several important group exhibitions including British Art Show 7: In The Days of the Comet, touring: The Slaughterhouse, Plymouth; CCA, Glasgow; Hayward Gallery, London (2011); La Biennale di Venezia - 54th International Art Exhibition – ILLUMinations, Venice, Italy (2011); Un’Expressione Geografica, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy (2011); and Altermodern, Tate Triennial 2009, Tate Britain, London. He is the recipient of the 2011 Cobra Art Prize, the Montehermoso Visual Arts Grant, Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam Production Residency.
Dreams of Forgotten Caves
By Aram Moshayedi
Truson descends a steep and precarious hillside, making his way into the depths of an unknown valley. His steps are naive and apprehensive, more like a series of springy downward leaps and slips that send streams of dirt cascading and shift his baggy powder-blue jumpsuit into disarray. His knitted “nipple-head” costume is in fact the undergarment worn beneath the suits of Russian cosmonauts; its hue contrasts with the rocky brown earth and blends into the pastel-colored sky to place the scene within the tropes of science-fiction film and television. The landscape that Truson has happened upon is a typically foreign terrain, reminiscent of the exotic, otherworldly deserts explored by Captain James T. Kirk and Mister Spock, whose gold and light-blue uniforms were a reflection as much of trends in sixties-era fashion and interior design as of the colors found at Vasquez Rocks in Aqua Dulce, California, where many of Star Trek’s desert scenes were filmed.
As Truson’s descent into this supposedly alien planet continues, he lumbers past a rock with the word Eden scrawled in colorful paint. Shortly after, “Fuck you!” echoes from the distance, triggering an ominous cut to the valley below, and the camera slowly moves in on a writhing figure near the mouth of a cave, surrounded by orange accents and personal effects. This marks Truson’s first encounter with the caveman in Nathaniel Mellors’s The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview, or TSNI (2013). The scene takes place at the Bronson Caves, familiar as the setting of countless movies and television episodes and perhaps best known for its lead role as the Batcave in the 1960s TV series Batman. The shape-shifting location might as well be part of the Neandertal, or Neander Valley, where remains of the extinct species that bears the region’s name were discovered in 1856. But instead it is where Truson will interview his unruly subject, who, it is later revealed, has been cast out of the Cave of Sporgo.
Though Truson apparently hails from the future, descending from the skies above with seemingly futuristic gadgets and a “television camera” gifted to him by his father, it is the Sophisticated Neanderthal who directs the interview. Perhaps it is because of his age—between 58,073 and 37,716, according to the LED readout on a gadgety carbon-dating probe—that Voggen Heidelberg of the North—or is it Voggen Williams of the South? (he can’t seem to remember)—keeps a step ahead of his earnest counterpart. Unlocatable in time, the subject of Truson’s study defies the contestable theory that Neanderthals lost out to Homo sapiens, denying not the fact of their extinction but that of their inferiority. As a historical subject, the caveman in TSNI is far more cultured and cocksure than, say, the lovable, bumbling boneheads who never seem to catch a break in the advertisements reminding us that signing up for Geico car insurance is “so easy a caveman could do it.”
Voggen Heidelberg-Williams’s true charms include a calculated wit and cleverness as well as a penchant for the orange liquid that he calls sherry or ant juice, the colorful Nat Sherman Fantasia cigarettes he can never seem to light, and a pair of fluorescent orange Y-3 sneakers. (The shoes are the product of a collaboration between Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas that Mellors has described elsewhere as “futuristic clothing with medieval cuts,” a hybrid of the contemporary and the past, characteristics that similarly render the Neanderthal’s fashion in TSNI historically adrift. If anything grounds him to a specific period, though, it’s the cutesy rainbow smokes that were popular with candy ravers in the 1990s.) More to the point, the Neanderthal is also an artist whose work used to be “more Sporgoey,” though we never learn if his art lacks the quality, style, contemporaneity, or cultural value of Sporgo. Just as present-day art-world trends tend to be porous and opaque, the Cave of Sporgo—which owns all of Sporgo, which is Sporgo, and which preserves Sporgo—has banished the Neanderthal and forced him to live, as it were, without its comforts and protection. When a doped-up Truson eventually catches on that the Neanderthal has drugged him and plans to eat his face as part of his “arts,” he stumbles off, fleeing into the cave, to be warned, “Don’t go in there, you’ll get Sporgoed!” This marks a transition into the cave’s interior, where Truson’s attempt to escape from the Neanderthal’s misleading interview gives way to a twist in the absurdist plot and a dismantling of any semblance of meaning that may have emerged from his rantings in TSNI’s opening sequences. When we eventually enter the Cave of Sporgo with Truson, the hallucinatory drug trip starts to peak, opening up the “cave in our mind” as we continue to take in the arts. It could almost be a line from the Burning Man textbook.
In many respects, Mellors’s latest film is a descendent of Ourhouse (2010–), an ongoing six-part video series that adopts the techniques and characteristics of serial television. For instance, Truson’s character, played by the actor David Birkin, made his first appearance in Ourhouse as a similarly wide-eyed man-child, and his mention of a father who gave him the television camera to “record anything unusual” is a likely reference to the commands Charles “Daddy” Maddox-Wilson feverishly shouts at his sons and daughter in Mellors’s earlier videos. Mellors has cultivated a working relationship with a steady cast for more than a decade, and actors and characters can fall out of or into any given scenario just as easily as objects, images, and points of reference move throughout the long arc of his videos, installations, animatronic sculptures, and performances.
Knowledge of Truson’s character traits or his fraught relationship with his father, however, isn’t an essential part of this fragmentary Neanderthal story. Rather it reveals the fluidity and ease with which Mellors moves from one body of work to the next, to engage with modes of televisual mediation, broadcasting, and big ideas like the simultaneous evolution and devolution of humankind. The easy shift between the spaces of performance and acting, video and television, sculpture and set design are keys to what appear to be discrete monologues and oftentimes inane dialogue—full of non sequiturs and heady wordplay—that unlock their secrets when strung together in Mellors’s dispersed output like a situation comedy that unfolds over time.
Mellors’s first foray into television to this end came in 2009, when he was invited to produce a work for BBC One as the introduction to the final episode of the documentary series The Seven Ages of Britain, written and presented by the TV commentator David Dimbleby. The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser (2010) was produced within the network system, for an audience of several million, while simultaneously reflecting on the format of broadcast television. In it, two deities squabble over a naturalistic prosthetic Dimbleby face, which the quarrelers believe can control the modern world at the start of the twentieth century. Their bickering eventually causes the face to fall from its precarious ladder and plummet from their stylized world to our own, splashing into the shallow water along the banks of the River Thames, to be picked up by the real Dimbleby, who speaks to the camera: “I’m part of a work of art by the contemporary artist Nathaniel Mellors. He’s used film, sculpture, and performance to make a comment on the role of television in modern society. Whatever you make of it, it shows how much art has changed in the last hundred years, from pictures hanging on the walls of galleries to this.”
Fundamental changes in knowledge and experience in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—of the kinds evidenced by his collaboration with Dimbleby through BBC and the TV personality’s inherent skepticism regarding “this”—are at the fore of Mellors’s thinking. The figure of the Sophisticated Neanderthal in the artist’s latest work poses a link to breakthroughs in archaeology, anthropology, and the study of material cultural that make this understanding of knowledge possible and that over the last century have initiated a series of crises for the privileged status of early modern humans and for ourselves by extension. To this end, the supposedly anachronistic Neanderthal dances around in a psychedelic Y-3 tracksuit with a large plate of magnifying glass over his eyes in the last scene of TSNI. He reminds Truson not to worry about his place in the world, shouting: “There’s more than one way of being human. It’s all a question of resolution. You can’t resolve me.” This is a fitting conclusion to a story that is still being told by history—or at least that hasn’t been told in high enough definition to yet become real. The caveman’s fate and the fate of his “arts” remain in the balance, subject to the whims of new science and forms of historical mediation that have rendered him obsolete. For the time being at least, he is a figure tethered as much to the Neander Valley as to the Cave of Sporgo.
Aram Moshayedi is curator at the Hammer Museum.
Hammer Projects is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Maurice Marciano and Paul Marciano; Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy; and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
Additional support is provided by Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley; the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs; the Decade Fund; and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.
Hammer Projects: Nathaniel Mellors is presented through a residency at the Hammer Museum.
The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview was realized with the generous support of the Mondriaan Fund, Netherlands; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Film London Jarman Award; Matt’s Gallery, London; Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam; MONITOR, Rome; and Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin.