Case study: 'A Place Beyond Belief'

A case study of A Place Beyond Belief by Glaswegian artist Nathan Coley.

• What’s your first response to this piece?

I find the contrast between the deep shades of blue in the sky and the yellow of the lighting attractive. I like that there is a range of blues in the sky and I like the silhouettes of the framework and the building behind the sign. I also like the angle of view from which this image was shot—it seems more dynamic than a straight-on shot. I don't yet have a firm understanding of the piece, though.

• What questions are you going to ask in order to make sense of the piece?

Where is the piece set? Is the text a reference to something specific? How was the piece constructed? Is it a permanent installation or temporary? Or was the image just found by the artist? (Doubt it.) Does the specific place matter or could the work have been installed anywhere? Do we know anything about the artist's intent? How does the work fit within Coley's body of work? Have any reflections on the piece been published?

• What type of work do you think this is? It could fit into several categories. How would
you define it?

I've been referring to it as an installation, largely because I'm assuming that this is not a "found" piece. It could be site-specific but that remains to be seen. It could be classed as a scultpure, depending on how integral the supporting structure is (or is it just hold the thing up?). Is the work just the text? The entire structure? Or does the building in the background play a part in the piece? If so, is the work the photograph of the installation or the installation itself? Not having any information yet on the role of the site, I'll have to define this as an outdoor installation featuring illuminated text. That's more of a description than a definition, but I'll be ready to adjust it once I have more/better information.

• What do you think the text is about?

It's difficult to land on a meaning. "A place beyond belief" could mean "a place where belief does not exist" or it could mean "an unbelievable place." The text could be referring to the specific location of the installation or it could have broader application. If it is site-specific, the text might refer to the church in the background and offer a commentary on religious belief in general or the Christian faith in particular. 

• What are your first thoughts after listening to the monologue?

My first thoughts are that this is a moving and powerful story and that Coley tells it well. For those of us with strong memories of 9/11, it is easy to remember the feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion and disbelief in the time during and following the event. It is also easy to imagine the tensions in the subway car, both on the part of the Sikh man and the others around him.

• What other information can you find on Coley’s website about this particular piece?

In addition to multiple images of the installation, the website contains details of its construction (illuminated text on scaffolding; dimensions variable), photo credits for the images, locations where it has been installed (Haunch of Venison, London; Art Gallery Kosovo, Pristina, Sept 2012; Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany, Jan 2013), the link to the video of Coley providing background on the piece and a link to a site related to the location in London (the link was broken when I tried to access it on May 7, 2016).

Where is it actually sited?

I am not sure where it is actually sited. The most recent location I can find for the piece was at the Triennial Bruges 2015

• Does this alter your response to it?

No, not at all. Coley has installed the piece in different locations around the world and has often juxtaposed it with buildings connected with religious, political or commercial activity. His message of the need to find a "place beyond faith" is probably a broad concept in his mind and can lend itself to a sort of universal social criticism in many settings.

• Have your views on this piece changed after listening to Coley speak about it? If so,

They have changed somewhat. I've come to a better understanding of the meaning of the piece and how Coley, and his hosts, have used it as a social critique that can lend itself to a number of sites. In a sense, then it both is and isn't site-specific. Given the general nature of the message, the text will also be understood in different ways over time just as it has already moved on from its initial association with the 9/11 attacks. I, like most people, want to live in a world that is free from violence and injustice and on a simple level "a place beyond faith" seems to provide an answer. I am not confident that we can all move to that place, though, as our lives and societies all depend on some form of faith, whether acknowledged or not. If Coley's interviews are anything to go by, he may enjoy just that kind of irony and ambiguity.

• Do you think contextual information is essential to gaining a greater understanding
of contemporary work? Make a note in your learning log.

I think the answer to this question has to be "yes and no." Yes, contextual information is important if we are concerned with the artist's intent: context can help get us closer to intent but it cannot guarantee that we have complete understanding (and it is always possible that the artist has not completely understood his or her own work). Yes, contextual information can be helpful for the viewer in considering a broader range of meanings than a first view might provide. But no, contextual information can never exhaust the evolving range of meanings that a piece might suggest through changes of time and place.

• Do you think it should be an essential ingredient?

I think that contextual information is an enriching and important tool, particularly for those interested in art, culture and the history of interpretation. But I'd hesitate to call it "essential"—I'd be concerned with giving the impression that we can ever arrive at the "correct" reading of any work of art. Some are better informed than others, but none should pretend to be the last word.

Exercise 3: Gallery or site visit

In the last few weeks I have visited three sites that could not be more different in nature or content. Two could be classed as "galleries" while the third describes itself as a museum, but is closer to a cross between a repository and a site-specific installation.

The first visit was to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to see, among other things, an exhibit called "Human Scale." The exhibition is designed

to explore the evolving relationship between the body and sculpture through the work of [...] internationally renowned artists. It reflects upon the persistent question of scale in sculpture, as contemporary artists adapt to new materials, means and technologies for figurative representation. The works on view each vary dramatically in size and proportion, making for a provocative exploration of the physical, psychological and expressive character shaping what it means to be human. (source: Human Scale exhibit web page)

The artists in question are Ron Mueck, Evan Penny, Ugo Rondinone, Karin Sander and the late Louise Bourgeois. Mueck's large-format wood, wire and latex constructions are startlingly realistic—they are often referred to as "hyperrealistic"—and the impression they leave on the viewer is striking. Their scale and accuracy invite us to step up close and examine tiny details in a way that we might not observe a real person. And yet we would not be surprised to feel warmth radiating from the skin, see blood pulsing through the veins and hear breath coming from the nostrils of the oversized newborn portrayed by A Girl. (In fact, a toddler at the exhibit wandered up to the gigantic creature many times her size, pointed and said "baby!"). The sculptures by Evan Penny are also slightly larger than life but it is not their size and accuracy that capture attention, but the way that they have been scaled so that their perspective is slightly "off." When viewed from one angle all seems well; when viewed from a slightly different standpoint the human form has clearly been distorted. The effect is unsettling and shows how much we take for granted in the way we usually view the human figure. And that might be the real benefit of such works: although Mueck's work has been criticized as a "parody" of the body, he and the other artists at this exhibit succeed in making us reconsider the wonder of our own ordinary embodiment.


The second visit was to the Bellago Gallery of Fine Art in the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas. Gambling is of no real interest to me so I was looking for something else to do during my down time on a recent business trip to the city. I was very pleased to hear that not only was there an art gallery on the Vegas Strip, but that there would be an exhibit of photographs by Yousuf Karsh, the Canadian portrait photographer.  Like most people with an interest in photography, I am very familiar with reproductions of his work in books, but I have not had many opportunities to see his large-format prints in person. The fact that Karsh plied his trade in Ottawa also made for a nice local tie-in for me, so I ordered a ticket to see "Icons of the Twentieth Century."

The gallery is a very small facility comprising just two rooms, well back from the street on the ground floor of the hotel. It's not an easy place to find in a complex the size of The Bellagio. But the size of the gallery is not at all the problem: it's the lighting. It is impossible to view the Karsh photographs properly. There is so much glare from the harsh overhead lights that is impossible to view any of the beautifully-printed images without seeing light flares or the reflections of visitors in the glass covering the images. The images themselves are large, with the very smallest being 11x14" and the more common size being 16x20" or larger. Each contains a character study designed to reveal something of the personality of the sitter and, although the style belongs to another era, the work stands among the best of its kind for its time. On close inspection it is possible to see that they have been printed with great care, with clean highlights, wonderful tonal range and deep, rich blacks. This is what viewers have come to expect of a Karsh image (and pay to see!), but the experience is marred by the distracting lighting and presentation of the work.


The third visit was also in Las Vegas: a night-time tour of the Museum of Neon, more colloquially known as the "Neon Boneyard." The site is the last resting place for many of the famous illuminated signs that lit up the Vegas Strip in the 50s and 60s. Rather than sending the signs to a scrapyard or recycling facility, they are being preserved in the dry Nevada air by a non-profit group keen to celebrate local history and... art.  Although perhaps not site-specific in the strictest sense of the term, the signs flourished in the desert city and have a credible claim to being a distinct local art form. Part of what made (and makes) The Strip the experience that it is, neon was employed in Las Vegas on a scale and with imagination seen in only a handful of places. It is now yesterday's technology, having been largely replaced by cheaper, more reliable and ultimately more flexible video screens.


The site itself is a two-acre fenced lot containing a large number of signs that appear to have little order in the way that they have been displayed. Nevertheless, a certain number have been illuminated and turned toward the walkway in a fashion that shows the placement is not entirely random. The signs are constructed of sheet metal and painted in bright colours that supplement or contrast with the neon or incandescent bulbs they hold. Some of the neon signs are "animated," but most contain static lighting displays. All of the signs are intended for commercial advertising, with some simply announcing a service or business and others being more complicated and imaginative in design. The more interesting signs are those that try to convey a sense of style or excitement about the establishment they announce. This is the era of "Mad Men" at its colourful, gaudy best. The museum members had originally planned to restore the signs to their original state wherever possible, but it became clear that this was neither possible (because of costs and availability of materials) nor desirable (visitors to the museum repeatedly said that they liked the patina of age and exposure on the objects). It would be nice for visitors to be left to their own for a few minutes to linger over the design and craftsmanship of the signs, but all visits are guided and kept on a tight schedule. Because the visits are guided, there is also non-stop commentary from the guide.