journey into space
Louis Nixon is a co-director of Space Explorations, a group of artists who colonise redundant buildings with temporary installations. Both as sculptor and as teacher, he wants to alert people to particular qualities of space .
It is Saturday afternoon in an unremarkable industrial building in east London, and the insistent drone of a mechanically produced noise welcomes us. Here to visit an artist's temporary installation, we begin to notice the building's double-height volume, its platforms and gangways, its pragmatic red bricks, its concrete floor - the architecture and detritus of this former brewery. The low, oscillating sound becomes corporeal, evoking memories and thoughts of the noise, heat, dignity and toil of real work.
Through the least strident of means, we register what might have gone for granted.
This is the work of Louis Nixon, whose medium is those spatial experiences we all might have. 'I am always trying to get the viewer to recognise his or her relationship to a space, to have them realise where they are, ' he says. 'I am responding to the architecture, but in the sense of a space's resonance, its presence. But my relationship to the site is reciprocal. I will have an idea which interests me and the space has to help me realise it. But then, of course, the space will have its own ideas.'
Nixon is the founder and, with Daniel Sancisi, co-director of Space Explorations, a group of artists who put on temporary installations in disused buildings in London. 'There is a core group of artists but then we invite in others just to keep things lively, ' he says.
Their first show was in Arch 346-7 on Beck Road (1990), with, subsequently, 'The Old Royal Observatory' (1991), 'Electric House' (1992), 'One Million Cubic Feet' (Holborn Town Hall, 1994), 'High-Rise' (Euston Road, 1996), and 'Tourist' (2000), which took place in various sites on successive weekends.
'Founding Space Explorations was partly pragmatic, as a way to do our own work - you are taken more seriously if you have a name, ' says Nixon. 'But we weren't cynical.
We didn't just fill buildings with stuff from our studios. We worked in those spaces, often for months. We wanted to get people into those disused buildings, to expand the way in which art was seen. Our first show was not long after 'Freeze', so we were part of a movement where artists were taking control of their creative environment and careers.'
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1965, Nixon grew up in Exeter and later studied painting at Chelsea School of Art. But he stopped painting after the first year. 'The edge of the canvas felt too constraining, so I started working with the canvas and the wooden stretchers to make threedimensional work.'
He went on to postgraduate study at the Slade School of Art but, again, things did not turn out as planned. 'I had applied to the mixed-media programme but when I arrived learned that this meant camera-based work. I was moved to the sculpture department but had never made a free-standing piece of work. This was about the time Rachel Whiteread and Melanie Counsel studied there, and the Slade was open to questioning the role of sculpture. It encouraged experiment, mixing all sorts of media.'
The first thing Nixon did was go to the library where he found a book called How to Make a Telescope: 'I spent the next three months grinding two pieces of glass to make a lens.' But soon he started using leftover spaces at the Slade for installations and his interest in such sites has remained. 'Lots of the spaces I've worked in have been banal but also unusual - they've had a function and a life of some significance - and the work is always made to fit the space, ' he says.
'I'm always looking to site work in a specific situation which then alters it.'
Nixon's own work has been widely exhibited internationally. This year he has had shows in Pasadena in California, as well as closer to home in Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester and, of course, London. Space Explorations took part in the 'Century City' show at Tate Modern. He describes himself as 'definitely a sculptor, not an installation artist'.
He has taught at almost every art and architecture school in the London area. He enjoys teaching and finds a huge difference between architecture and fine-art students.
'With architecture students, I try to get them to come up with something from almost nothing - no brief, no client - to expand the notion of architecture and work experimentally. Most architects find this terrifying. Fine art students need to learn to be professional. Even masters students need to be taught how to prepare a CV and how to write grant applications. There is so much competition out there, it is the only way they can hope to control their own work.'
At Kingston University, Nixon has initiated a masters-level course with Shona Illingworth, called Art and Space, which has just had its first year. It is essentially practice-based, with students coming from fine art, architecture, landscape architecture and spatial design.
Lately he has begun showing more in galleries, but insists he is still dealing with found space. In a group show this autumn, called 'Don't go to work', at the Rhodes + Mann gallery in Shoreditch, east London, a blue steel Esso barrel rolls mysteriously from one side of the room to the other. The recurrent motion and insistent clang as the barrel bangs into the walls forces the viewer to notice the physical effect that it has on the architecture, making grooves in the wooden floor and chipping the white walls.
'Galleries seek to deny space, to provide a void, but the barrel responds to the room's width and literally leaves its mark. It adds time and motion as elements of my work, ' says Nixon. Another development is his increasing use of sound. 'Sound is a way of giving the space more of a role; it expands beyond the space and the object, ' he says.
Nixon has lived in Camden Town with his partner of 16 years, book-designer Georgia Vaux, and their two children. They are moving into a restored Georgian villa in Hackney that they will share with architect Jo Hagan and his family. Does he like architects?
'I wouldn't be living with one if I didn't. But I like architects who make buildings and don't try to make art. I do think art and architecture are distinct disciplines.'