Nathaniel Mellors at TBG&S

Five years ago I reviewed Nicolas Bourriaud’s 2009 Tate Triennial ‘Altermodern’ for Circa Magazine. The concept of the ‘Altermodern’ was promoted as Bourriaud’s follow-on from his famed 1990’s manifesto on contemporary practice ‘Relational Aesthetics’. Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics’ grouped together a host of new and exciting artists practicing in the 1990’s through their interest in interactive and participatory art. Artists such as Carsten Höller, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, created works that espoused audience participation, and they did so in a way that eschewed the framing of art in terms of pure spectacle or archive; these were works that responded to their environments and merged with them. Play became a property of art (Höller installed a giant slide in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern; Parreno filled an entire wing at IMMA with helium balloons), and yet it was play that was codified, and created for the museum: You could play, once you behaved yourself. For Bourriaud, ‘relational aesthetics’ was,

“A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”(1)

With a new century came a new set of artists, this time a museum-allowed ‘play’ felt a little too forced, they wanted to play, but in a less-monitored fashion.  ‘Relational aesthetics’ subsided; mostly because the artists themselves disliked the grouping of their work into what amounted to a new type of genre. Also several younger artists began to develop a performative aspect to their practice that sat awkwardly within the frame of ‘relationality’. No less important is the fact that with the post-Modern globalisation of art, there has been an expectation that contemporary ‘art history’ could (or should) remove itself from the linearity of western male canonical language and splinter into a host of abstractions. As such, many artists that had been lumped into the ‘relational aesthetics’ bracket, wanted quickly to move on from it, and show that their practice was more than what was being ascribed to it by critics and curators.

“Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence. It is the critic’s task to study this activity in the present.”(2)

“philosophy has failed to elaborate a proper language…and poetry has developed neither a method nor self-consciousness”. The urgent task of thought, and particularly “criticism,” is to rediscover “the unity of our own fragmented word.” (2)

Bourriaud’s ‘Altermodern’ at Tate Britain in 2009 sought to explain a new breed of artists that had developed their practice in a generation of globalisation, new media and online social exchange: “They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication” (4). Many of the artists featured were performative, irreverent, painterly (though not painters) and unabashed. Two artist’s stood out (more because of their indefinability); Spartacus Chetwynd (now Marvin Gaye Chetwynd) and Nathaniel Mellors. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, a performance artist that acts in a collective (mostly female), improvisational manner, creating an un-choreographed spectacle that makes use of the entire gallery as medium. Many of these performances terrify you into taking part; a type of student protest where you are embarrassed not to feel aggrieved over something, and take part without having a clue as to what is going on. Chetwynd’s work was an interesting take on ‘relationality’. What if you did just want to look at a work? The biases had been reversed. She then went on to be the first performance artist, in 2012, to be nominated for the Turner Prize. The second artist was Nathaniel Mellors. Mellors’ work ‘Giantbum’ (2009) encompassed sculpture, performance and video. The performance works were well shot and choreographed, though gave the impression that the characters could fall down laughing at any point – or punch each other in the head. For the installation itself, one walked into a long twisting internal pathway, the video performance appearing on the walls as one progressed through, once the end-point came, one emerged into a glistening white room with a set of three mechanical heads.nathaniel_mellors-giantbum-still_from_video2008


Nathaniel Mellors, Giant Bum (2009), installation stills, Altermodern, Tate Britain.

Despite the fact that I had essentially been shit out of a giant art-bum, I enjoyed the work. And after much thought, reasoned that the work dealt with the notion that artistic creation was guttural, un-taught – parasympathetic. The brain is simply a mechanical, blubbing, contagion left over from a nasty gastro-cycle. The brain can be taught to react and say the necessary things (perhaps this a swipe at criticism itself), but the body does as it pleases, and if the art that popped – or pooped out, is not to your liking, than so what? Mellors has since then featured in the 54th Venice Biennale ILLUMinations, in ‘The Great Acceleration’ for the Taipei Biennal, and in 2014 can now be seen in a solo showing at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios.

The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview, opens with a modern man descending what seems to be a post-apocalyptic environment into a cavern surrounding a cave dwelling, the Neanderthal man lying recumbent, drunk. He wakes and finds himself the object of this Modern man’s curiosity.

Do you do art?” Modern asks, “Art? Art?” Neanderthal responds. “Yes I ‘do’ Art!” “ART! ART! ART!” (hopping on the spot).

The Neanderthal is as raw as can be expected, he also rather amusingly has a scouser accent and seems to find the questioning of his ‘Art’ hilarious, if a bit annoying, and from time to time he takes swipes at the Modern, even hurting him physically. The sincere jocularity of the Modern man is offset by the grunting irritability of the Neanderthal. Who is the hairy scouser that remonstrates about the quality of his work one wonders? When the Modern finally makes it into the cave, the setting is very formal (and cob-webbed), evocative of a Renaissance still life. A projected grid appears on Modern and Neanderthal (this time he has an even worse wig on). The stage is set for a movement forward through art-history into the rationality of ‘enlightenment’, the grid at once imposing itself upon the art and forcing what was a lived experience, into the formalism of the two dimensional frame.


Nathaniel Mellors, The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview (still), 2014.

Many of the ideas originated in Mellors’ ‘Giantbum’ appear again in ‘The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview’. Mellor’s work is ambitious in its concepts and he carries them through to the end with an unwavering adherence to the grotesque. This alter-reality that the artist has reassessed and framed within the dictates of art and art-history brings to mind forebears such as LA-based Paul McCarthy (Mellors lives in LA) and the (even) more controversial Viennese Actionists. Less styled than the Chapman Brothers, less visually conscious than Cindy Sherman, Mellors’ work retains aspects of these sensibilities and removes the nuances that attribute beauty or arrangement to a work.

Mellors pries apart the terms of his own demarcation as ‘artist’ and finds new ways to analyse things that have been around since time immemorial. Art is often looked at in terms of philosophy and reasoning, the questioning of one’s attitudes toward the World and the need to explore the liminality, creating new ways of seeing. This is important, and yet what has often been forsaken for this enlightened way of looking at art, is the base, the necessary; which is why we have this need to create. What is interesting is that even within the framing of this work as ‘art’ we are coming at it all wrong, just as the Modern fumbles around, trying to bear witness to ‘creation’, we are attempting to understand that which ultimately cannot be couched in terms of reckoning. The artist here is a gross fantasy, at once gifted yet also rude, unapologetic and beyond analysis.


(1) Nicolas Bourriaud, ‘Relational Aesthetics’, Paris: Presses du réel, (2002)

(2) Giorgio Agamben, l linguaggio e la morte: Un seminario sul luogo della negatività (1982). Trans. Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt as Language and Death: The Place of Negativity (1991).


The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview’ continues in Temple Bar Gallery and Studios until November 1st.



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