Nathan Coley is a Glasgow-based artist who is well-known for his inspiring, troubling, and haunting illuminated text sculptures. When they aren’t being featured in a gallery, Coley installs these works in public spaces — in parks, over doorways, and on top of buildings — places where they are visible from afar, or as people walk by on their day-to-day business. The words he chooses derive from both research and personal experience; literature, lyrics, historical documents, and overheard conversations comprise some of his source materials. Many of his installations are directly related to religion or private belief-systems — for example, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” and “There will be no miracles here.” Others speak to violent experiences in human public life; “Burn the village, feel the warmth” is a reference to the London street riots of 2011.
As human creatures, it is safe to argue that we have a complicated relationship with language. Language is how we make sense of the world, and a way for us to connect with others. But none of us can deny the frustrating limitations we experience with it. We use language to express our innermost fears and desires, yet somehow the words seem inadequate; we can read a line of poetry and be shaken to the core, but remain unable to articulate why. Coley’s works have a similar effect; made of fairground-type globes set in aluminum frames, his sculptures confront us with their bright, almost garish boldness. “There will be no miracles here,” the sign reads, in the middle of a field; the isolated word “here” signifies a sinking stomach, a staggered thought, the unsettling fear that “miracles” are phantasmagoric events residing only in the hearts of the troubled and desperate. Coley’s work affects us on deeply personal and inexpressible levels, adding notes of hope, doubt, and other emotions into our present moment.
Architecture and context play a very important role in Coley’s work, as well. As Lisa Le Feuvre eloquently states in a monograph on Coley’s work:
When Coley pays attention to an architectural landscape it is always constructed through a singular gaze, sometimes directed where the buildings meet the ground as one walks through the streets, other times looking up or down at the buildings designed to stretch up to their full height, like enthusiastic children in a schoolroom, urgently wanting to say their piece. Architecture fulfills and produces desires, perhaps most explicitly seen in places of production, power, worship, and memory. (Source)
As Le Feuvre expresses, there is no doubt that certain (if not all) public spaces have different and powerful effects on us: stroll beneath the arched ceilings of a church and feel humbled; stand in an abandoned park at dusk and sense creeping loneliness. But what Coley also explores is the way power operates in such spaces; who does the public space belong to, and what is our role within it? How do our behaviors and self-conceptions change when we enter those spaces? As Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; […] he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” If public spaces are indeed “field[s] of visibility” that operate on us via internalized systems of control, than Coley’s integration of art into them is doubly rich for analysis — and also somewhat subversive; the words “We must cultivate our garden,” set atop a hotel in Vancouver, Canada, reinvests local architecture with meaning, transforming our experience of that space from controlled, everyday banality into a new, stimulating process of personal signification: we decide what the “garden” means to us in that particular time and place.