Deconstructivism is not his thing. The Amsterdam-based British filmmaker Nathaniel Mellors considers it a standard method, one that contemporary art all too often and easily falls back on. Give him the universal, profound and witty satire of the writer Rabelais. In De Hallen Haarlem, he is showing his latest film, Ourhouse.
This interview took place in early August while Nathaniel Mellors (b. 1974) was in London for his production Ourhouse. He had just finished filming in Wales and had several weeks of editing ahead of him. The interview was punctuated by viewings of various rushes and previous films such as Giantbum (2008) and The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser (2010). As we began to view these works, the conversation revolved around Mellors’ desire to create a single screen work with Ourhouse, despite the multi-channel possibilities that suggested themselves. Discussing the relationship of video to sculpture, he noted that now ‘the challenge was to represent the nuances and layers that you can achieve with physical materials – I want to be able to articulate that within the video.’
As we delved into the footage for Ourhouse, it became clear that the two locations (a country house in Wales and a derelict mansion in Oxford) were not simply used for exterior and interior shots in the standard manner of television or film. ‘In Ourhouse’, Mellors explained, ‘There’s a conflation of the inside and the outside, which is a theme that runs through this story.’
‘One of the things I saw with the Master’s Course at art school was that it was almost as if there were six different styles of contemporary art-making and people would pick one and settle on it. So I came to feel quite critical of this idea that contemporary art-making had become a mode and that it was a reductivist process that has happened over time. I began looking at artists, writers, and stand-up comics who I felt had an inherent sense of being able to draw on things, to respond to what was actually happening in the world and formulate an appropriate language for the time. That was something that seemed not to be a priority in terms of the work I saw in contemporary art which, more often than not, seemed to be quite happy talking about a history of conceptualism or reframing something, citing itself in a line. There was also a lot of assumed knowledge of the history of those things, and I found it problematic and also quite dull, really. It feels like it lacks ambition for the form. In the last few years I’ve been looking at Pasolini [Italian writer and filmmaker, 1922–1975 – ed.], reading some of his writings and looking at certain films. With Giantbum there was an influence of Salò and Porcile, and in the scenario for Ourhouse there’s some influence from Teorema, but it comes to something that is obviously within a much more British-language absurdist tradition and under the influence of TV and film, and these things which feel more natural to me.The art world can be preoccupied with a structuralist approach. I think it can be a bit of a default position – deconstruction – and I’m thinking about that as I’m becoming more ambitious with these productions. Deconstruction is easy, in the sense that it’s natural within the resources you have available.’
‘It might not remain a constant. I want us to do a bit more, because it’s pleasurable in a really base way. Initially the motivation came from ruminating on kinetic art and thinking about how unpopular and unfashionable it was at that point. A couple of years ago it seemed like the worst thing you could do, in the same way that I’d been thinking about ceramics a few years before. But things get quickly co-opted and become fashionable.
I thought if I could make the animatronics actually talk then they could be doing something which was specific to my scripts and the language. It would be about that which my work is and that would be interesting in relation to the actors. So you could make a prosthetic performer and in the case of Giantbum, it’s a natural evolution of that character – the father character – in that, as this cult leader aspect develops, he becomes programmatic and mechanical in his completely unsound ideology, so then making him into a mechanical, unholy trinity felt right for that.And with Ourhouse there is an introduction and conclusion animatronic – there is an animatronic of the Object’s face, which is a fountain of puréed books which it vomits up. And there’s an animatronic from the Daddy character’s face, which is joined together by its own hair. I provisionally titled it “Hippy Dialectics”, although I don’t know whether that title will stick. But it’s joined by its own hair and beard, and I like the idea that this thing could argue with itself – perhaps it’s a bit like the three-headed knight in the Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only a two-headed version. So, maybe for the installation you can see the vomiting sculpture in one room, then you can go and see the film and, in a third room, you can see the hippy dialectic sculpture. It’s nice because it roots the work in sculpture. And I like it in relation to the actors, something beyond the performer, a prosthetic performance. The animatronics also have a very direct appeal to people, which might be useful to present them with various entrance levels to the work. They have the choice of how much time to spend with it or to just enjoy something because it’s a joke or looks good. But you can also chose to spend more time with it and really get inside the script. I quite like the idea that people don’t just bounce off the surface.’
‘Absolutely. I was thinking about this in relation to Bataille (The Big Toe and his other essays), this idea of base materialism and inversions of the conventional hierarchical value system. So, in Ourhouse, the Object has eaten all these grand books and there are abject turd forms that he’s misinterpreting all the time. Some of that reading is in the mix. Originally, the idea of the Object was that it was a kind of printer, but instead of printing, it regurgitated more abject material. I even was calling it the Printer for a while.
I was also reading Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy in the run up to Ourhouse. And what I really enjoy in McLuhan, is the moment when he talks about the idea of the phonetic alphabet. He describes it as a colonising technology. He explains the idea that if you take, say, a Chinese pictogram, there’s contextual knowledge that’s required in relation to its usage to understand it. So there are these more complex linguistic forms, but McLuhan points out that anything could be translated on the basis of its sound into the phonetic alphabet. The point that he makes is that the phonetic alphabet was really suitable for colonising cultures, the western cultures who introduced it. And that it was particularly suited to administration and to controlling people from a distance, even without a thorough command of their language.And so there is the idea that there was something that went from the complexity of real experience or forms close to that, to becoming increasingly reduced. And this was reflected in the growth of administration over the last fifteen years: the Blairite culture of confusing people with the fake democracy of bureaucracy. It gives the impression of having power within a structure, but it actually retains real power completely; it’s actually quite disempowering for ordinary people. So I was thinking a lot about those issues in Ourhouse and The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser. The barbarian character in Seven Ages is called Cadmus, who is the mythical king described by Plato as having introduced this phonetic alphabet. And in Plato I think Socrates says, when this is invented it will be terrible because people will start to believe in it as a substitute for experience, a substitute for reality. It’s the earliest thing I’ve found which is talking about mediation and its dangers. It warns that people will confuse real lived experience (and therefore real knowledge) with a substitute for knowledge. So I decided to make King Cadmus a medieval barbarian who just wants to smash the face with his hammer.’
Francis McKee is a curator and writer, Glasgow
Nathaniel Mellors – Ourhouse
De Hallen Haarlem
18 September – 5 December 2010
Book A / MEGACOLON / For and Against Language, with selected scripts by Mellors and texts by John C. Welchman and Mick Peter, was published in conjunction with the exhibition.