Entering a Mike Nelson installation is like stumbling into a minicab office in the early hours of the morning in the wrong part of a town you don't know - and then things get worse, writes Andrew Mead.
For instead of being the prelude to an erratic, uninsured ride home, the minicab office is just one of a warren of malign interiors: a bad dream of seedy corridors and rooms, whose latent menace suggests the set of a low-budget David Lynch film, with a woundup Dennis Hopper round the corner.
Such at least was the case with the installations Nelson made in the early 2000s - at Matt's Gallery, the ICA, the Venice Biennale - but what at first seemed disquieting rapidly became a formula, with diminishing returns for the visitor (AJ 30.10.03).Nelson needed to extend his art in some way, and in this new show at Modern Art Oxford he does - a development in which the gallery's architecture has been instrumental.
But its configuration of spaces has also been a constraint, which is what registers first. In those earlier installations, Nelson created a continuous self-contained world, with one scene seguing into the next; here, spread over two floors, the show splits into three.
You start in typical Nelson territory, an old, octagonal cinema foyer with four sets of mirrored doors, uncertainty about the way to go and what lies beyond.But as soon as you find the doors that open, the illusion is dispelled - you're back in the gallery.
At the centre of one of the upstairs rooms is a replica of Nelson's studio, looking more like a tip than a place of creative endeavour.A cluttered table and workbench are surrounded by crammed cardboard boxes and shelves, beaten-up filing cabinets, and all sorts of odds-and-ends - fans, helmets, masks - that have served as props in his previous works.Nelson cites D³rer's St Jerome in his Study but the mood is more oddball hobbyist-obsessive.
It's after this that Nelson breaks new ground. In the antechamber to Modern Art Oxford's main gallery, sand is piled to the ceiling, and when you follow the timber-framed corridor that penetrates it like a mineshaft, you come to a larger wooden structure, part-filled with sand, from which you glimpse yet more sand in the big room beyond.
You can see the whole scene from the top of another staircase:
the wooden building almost swamped, the gallery evoking a desert.Cued by the high pitched ceiling and ample volume of the main gallery, Nelson has discarded his usual partitions: his interiors are now seen also from the outside, at the mercy of forces man can't always control.
By coincidence, in its Topographics series Reaktion has just published Maria Golia's Cairo: City of Sand - Cairo: where the built world abruptly becomes the desert and where the wind blows the desert into the city. It's this fragility that Nelson encapsulates: a timeworn theme, of course, but one which gives a new dimension to his art.