Case Study – Interpreting Nathan Coley’s A Place Beyond Belief, 2012 (illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m)
- Impressive scale
- Desire to engage with, understand
- Inspiring, dreamy, simple(?)
- Simple aesthetic: lit text on scaffolding; white circus lights, sans serif typeface, all capital letters
- Language accessible, yet the meaning of these words together feels slightly out of reach: what does it mean?
- Double meaning of “beyond belief”: colloquial use suggestive of something that’s impressive, or literal use suggestive of something impossible.
- Some key information is missing: city, relationship of the church to the work, cultural context.
- No frame: using the sky as a backdrop: poetic!
- Imagine this piece as more powerful, inspiring by night.
What considerations/questions must I ask to make sense of this piece?
Note: I included any answers, although many of them came later in the case study, after having done research.
- The medium
- bulbs, text on scaffolding
- The positioning of the viewer(s)
- changes, but generally below, looking up at
- The position/location of the piece
- changes, but has been displayed/installed in England, Kosovo, Germany, Belgium.
- What category of art does this fall under? Is it part of a particular movement?
- Installation art, sculpture
- The literal/figurative meaning of the text
- See notes below.
- The actual (physical, cultural, political, spiritual) context surrounding the piece
- Changes with location/setting. See notes below.
- What inspired/motivated the creation of this work?
- A radio story of a woman recounting an experience on the NYC subway, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
- According to the artist, what is this piece about?
- Specifically, the piece is about, or perhaps the sum of, this story that moved him. Otherwise, he resists giving set meaning to the piece.
- What factors inform one’s experience of the piece?
- If it’s viewed out in the world (as in Kosovo) or on a gallery wall (as in London) or in someone’s home (as in New York).
- If it’s been installed outdoors, as in Kosovo, all contextual information informs the experience.
- If it’s seen at day or night.
- If it’s seen first-hand or via second-hand documentation.
- What angle it’s experienced from.
- The language one feels most at ease with. If it’s not English, it might change the resonance of the words.
- Is this piece site-specific?
- For me, no, because it wasn’t designed with a specific place in mind and it moves from site to site. It certainly has a relationship with the space it occupies, though, particularly as installed in Kosovo and Bruges.
- What was the process of selecting the site? Was the piece designed with this site in mind?
- It sounds like a young politician with strong knowledge of the arts felt this piece spoke strongly to a specific cultural/historical moment in Kosovo.
- The piece was not, as far as I can tell, designed with any one location in mind.
What type of work is this?
Having at this point only seen the photo documentation shown above, I would define this work as an illuminated text sculpture or site-specific, text-based installation.
What do I think the text is about?
A PLACE = somewhere specific, a site, a location; ≠ a space
BEYOND = existing outside of, greater than, outside the reaches of, further away than
BELIEF = the human capacity to imagine/accept something we can’t see/prove the existence of; trust/faith/confidence in someone/something
To me, the text is challenging the viewer to hope for something better, higher, than what they can currently imagine.
To get a clearer picture of this piece, I looked at the documentary images on Nathan Coley’s website. The following image was copied from this section of the site.
Response after looking at several images on Coley’s site:
Wow! The image we were initially given provides a drastically different perspective than the other photos shown on Coley’s site. I had imagined a bustling urban landscape with the words “A Place Beyond Belief” appearing to float high and above the shown crucifix. I imagined craning my neck to get a better view as it caught my eye from ground level. My interpretation and general impression of the piece completely changed when I saw the image above. In fact, the setting is urban but tired-looking, almost inglorious, possibly impoverished. Already, this has been a very effective exercise in how “second-hand experiences” of site-specific or installation art can be misleading.
Response after listening to Coley recount the narrative that inspired this sculpture:
Nathan Coley – Monologue [accessed 3/4/17]
Listening to this monologue afforded me a lot of new insight about the 9/11 story that inspired A Place Beyond Belief, ten years after the event. Coley’s monologue—or rather the story he retells here—is very moving, and the choice to leave the story decontextualized (the viewer isn’t told whether or not Coley himself witnessed this story unfolding on a New York City subway, whether it came from his imagination, whether it’s a fictional or non-fictional story he read/heard) is interesting.
Gathering from the course material that this piece is, in fact, inspired by a true story the artist heard on the radio, it’s not unreasonable to assume it is located in New York.
At the end of the monologue, the camera pans out so the viewer sees Coley standing in front of the finished version of the sculpture he’s just told the story of. It’s mounted on the white wall of an otherwise bare-looking room.
The monologue and the video’s final shot actually leave me with the distinct impression that this piece is not site-specific, or intended for anywhere in particular. For me, at this point, A Place Beyond Belief is a stand-alone piece inspired by a site-specific, but rather transcendent, story.
What’s interesting is that the monologue explains how these words were “found,” but it’s still up to the spectator to make meaning of them. What exactly is a place beyond belief?
Additional information about this piece, gathered from Coley’s site [accessed 1/4/17]:
- This is not a site-specific piece:
- This piece was first shown in Haunch of Venison Gallery, London, September 2012.
- It was then installed in Pristina, Kosovo (as photographed above), November 2012.
- It was then installed at the Kunstverein Freiburg, Freiburg, 2013.
- It was then installed (again near a religious site) in Bruges, Belgium, 2015.
- The piece has also been duplicated for a private collection in New York.
- Coley’s text works are based on “found” texts, a kind-of textual “readymade;” (I am fascinated by how far-reaching is the impact/inspiration of Duchamp’s Fountain, as evidenced by just the work I’ve done for this course thus far.)
- This piece is part of a series of (seemingly otherwise unrelated) text-based works.
Where is the piece actually located?
The image we were originally given shows A Place Beyond Belief installed in Pristina, Kosovo, in 2012.
Does this alter my response to it? How have my views changed after listening to Coley speak about it?
Note: The video links on Coley’s site no longer work. I found and consulted only one other interview (linked here; accessed 3/4/17) where Coley discusses this and another text-based work, in the context of the Bruges Triennale 2015.
This question has multiple layers. For me, it’s impossible not to see and project meaning onto the juxtaposition of this sculpture with what looks like a badly-maintained church on some kind of abandoned lot. I don’t know enough specifics about history, culture and/or politics of Kosovo (other than that it was for some time a region under siege and in crisis) and need more information.
What most alters my response to this piece is the realization that in fact it wasn’t conceived of for a specific place; it was inspired by a specific story and the words go on living a life of their own (to paraphrase art critic Charlotte Higgins) in several different locations. As I steep myself a bit in Coley’s creative universe, his text works seem almost unintentional; that is to say, he stumbles on a turn of phrase that gives him pause, creates the sculpture, and affords the spectator agency enough to make of it what they will. Somehow I feel that the story behind the piece is part of the work, in Coley’s mind at least; otherwise he wouldn’t bother with such a carefully rehearsed “monologue” on his site. At the same time, he’s not attached to the idea of the spectator engaging with this piece of the work; it’s more like a bonus for the kind of folks who want more information than what the piece alone can offer.
I find this piece to be most powerful when it’s out in the world, not contained in the space of a gallery but interacting with a land or city-scape, and consequently, a fuller, richer context that can be sought out by someone curious or felt by someone with a particular relationship to the site.
Reading Charlotte Higgins’ “Nathan Coley’s Kosovan sculpture: a beacon in bulbs“
Reading this piece certainly gave me a better feel for the symbolic significance of Coley’s piece in Pristina. It’s located between an unfinished Orthodox church (symbol of previous violent and oppressive political regime) and a university library and the Kosovo Art Gallery. Diplomats and politicians (many with high hopes and ambitious for the young nation) showed up for the unveiling of Coley’s installation, which at this point in Kosovo’s political development, represents a challenge that doesn’t either deny the wounds of the past: can Kosovo create the future it wants for itself?
Is contextual information essential to gaining a greater understanding of contemporary work?
Yes, I believe that contextual information is essential to a greater understanding of contemporary work. For me, it’s comparable to vacationing somewhere versus living there and learning the language. Context is access.
At the same time, not everyone who enjoys and engages with art is concerned about a “greater understanding.” You don’t need context or loads of information to have a meaningful experience or to form a valid personal response.
It’s if you want to go further, and in so doing possibly expand the range and depth of responses you might have to a work, that pursuing contextual information/research becomes worthwhile.
Should it be an essential ingredient?
I don’t think contextual information is essential. It turns some people off and can compromise a perfectly satisfying personal reaction. However, I do think artists do their art and the public a service when they open themselves up to a degree of dialogue around their work. A challenge is one thing, but people don’t like to feel dumb or alienated by art. They want to belong, to identify, to be seen, heard, included, reflected back. I don’t have a lot of patience for unnecessary elitism or pretension or opaqueness in art. The folks who care enough about the subject to try and understand it should be accompanied in their efforts; the rest don’t matter.
What do I think A Place Beyond Belief achieves?
On the first (more or less superficial) level, I think this piece is poetic and thought-provoking. Even if I had seen it in a gallery, it probably would have given me pause: I like that the language is simple, colloquial, accessible and yet just out of reach. For obvious reasons, we struggle to imagine “a place beyond belief.” Is it somewhere in particular? Is it an emotional or mental place we can go to? Is it aspirational–something that can be created? Is it a call to collective action?
That being said, I think the piece is most powerful when situated out in the world, interacting and exchanging its literal and figurative meaning against a specific physical, cultural, historical and peopled environment.
I do think there is a real connective power in Coley’s process of choosing “readymade” words, honoring their original context (through his video monologue, for example) and then lifting the words (and the story that gave them to us) into this extended life of almost limitless possibility.
The words an anonymous woman, and then Coley, chose are quite magical: they speak to what it means to be human: our shared struggles right now (the pain that prevents us from imagining a place beyond, or better) but also what makes those struggles worthwhile (the persistent, collective hope for a future; hope, too, that we will learn from our mistakes and eventually create what today is unimaginable). These words aren’t naively optimistic: maybe the place beyond belief stays out of reach. But just the simple act of trying to imagine a place beyond belief, to me, is proof we are reaching…
Other works, themes, connections:
Looking over Coley’s site, the works I’m most drawn to are the found, illuminated text sculptures. I enjoy thinking about language and feel it’s a real novelty these days to encounter text “outside” that isn’t trying to sell or manipulate. In every case, I am fascinated by the way these pieces are brought to life when photographed in cities or rural landscapes, and how comparatively they seem a bit lifeless in a gallery.
Pieces that particularly caught my attention were We Must Cultivate our Garden and The Same for Everyone, which are built according to the same aesthetic code (all capitals, white fairground-style lights, sans serif typeface, mounted on scaffolding) as A Place Beyond Belief. I did notice several other text-pieces that seemed to juxtapose the God concept with violence or ignorance, and those pieces tend to turn me off. They just seem a bit obvious. I’m interested in pieces that can be read more than one way and that interact with an exterior environment. I noticed that We Must Cultivate Our Garden seemed a bit stuck in its vertical urban landscape (the documentary images don’t offer much range of perspective) whereas both The Same for Everyone and A Place Beyond Belief look very different according to the photographer’s chosen angle and perspective.
Thematic connections seem to include a desire to give new possible lives to a same string of “found” or overheard words by changing their context and location. In this way, one work equals multiple works; one story equals everyone’s story.
My feeling is that some of Coley’s major motivations as an artist are to share and extend the life of stories, and to generate open-ended dialogue about human experience and language itself.
Coley’s site raises multiple questions about the nature of site-specific work: can a work truly be said to be site-specific if it’s constantly moving around and has been duplicated for a private collection in NYC? For me, the course material’s suggestion that this piece is site-specific and/or that Coley had any particular intention for the piece in Pristina is inaccurate. It’s not site-specific because it doesn’t have an intrinsic or necessary relationship with the site at Pristina. Does it constitute multiple works, as in it’s one thing in Pristina and ought it be considered differently when we see it on the walls of a gallery and differently again when in the home of a private collector?