Nathan Coley has worked with the 19th Biennale of Sydney’s title statement, YOU IMAGINE WHAT YOU DESIRE, and two others – YOU WILL WHAT YOU IMAGINE and YOU CREATE WHAT YOU WILL – all derived from the work of George Bernard Shaw, to create texts that illuminate the façades of the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, as well as the Eastern Apron of Cockatoo Island. Set free in the public realm, these provocations plant a message of inspiration and creative challenge in the minds of the citizenry.
Within the Art Gallery of NSW, Coley will also exhibit The Honour Series (2012). Using black-and-white photographs of protests and social gatherings, Coley redacts the placards and demonstration slogans with gold-leaf overlay. This alchemical blank leaves open, ambiguous and potential the space of declaration, so that as viewers we may insert our own meaning. This use of gold, a material of worth, of regal ownership, offers a kind of grandeur and dignity to the public voice.
Nathan Coley’s works are united by their investigation of what it means to be a private and public citizen. They focus our attention on how the individual is controlled in the public realm through structures of authority such as the church, government and institutions of education, and their edifices and communications – architecture, public space and propaganda. Coley seeks to provoke deliberations and decisions about personal choices, and about our private and collective responsibility in the face of these powers.
Coley is interested in the way people invest objects, buildings and places with meaning, as well as how history, religion and political ideologies affect our perception of architecture. An example of this can be seen in his series Camouflage (2006) for which he created models of religious structures: a mosque, a synagogue and a church. The identifying characteristics of the structures were removed and the buildings were painted in a striped pattern, referring to ‘dazzle’ camouflage applied to ships during both world wars. Despite their anonymity the buildings are clearly recognisable as religious edifices, prompting an awareness of the power of religion and a consideration of its relevance to contemporary society.
With his text-based sculptural pieces constructed from lights and scaffolding, Coley uses the device of ‘signs’ in the public domain to send provocatively ambiguous messages to the masses. His installation at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, There Will Be No Miracles Here (2007), which has subsequently been shown in Liverpool, Belgrade, Melbourne and Paris, was inspired by a historical anecdote. In the seventeenth century the village of Modseine in France was the site of many reported miracles, prompting a notice to be displayed stating ‘There will be no miracles here, by order of the King’, implying that miracles existed and could somehow be controlled by an authority. By illuminating the phrase and placing it in a public place, Coley provokes the viewer to question ideas of authority and power in communal spaces. The signs and their messaging deliberately free-float in the public arena, activating the consciousness and imaginations of passersby. Each location provides a different context for the words, and viewers are encouraged to bring their own reading to the works.
Coley studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and has held numerous solo exhibitions worldwide, including ‘Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth’, The Pier Arts Centre, Orkney (2013); ‘Knowledge, Kindliness and Courage’, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2012); ‘A Place Beyond Belief’, Haunch of Venison, London (2012); ‘Appearances’, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2011); and ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (2010). Select group exhibitions featuring his work include 13th Istanbul Biennial (2013); ‘Call of the Mall’, Utrecht Central Station and Hoog Catharijne, Utrecht (2013); ‘Daydreaming with… The Hong Kong Edition’, ArtisTree, Hong Kong (2012); ‘Let’s Dance’, Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Paris (2010); and ‘Jerusalem Show’, Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem (2009). In 2007, Coley was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize.