Case Study ‘A Place Beyond Belief’

Nathan Coley, A Place Beyond Belief, 2012 (illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m)

My first response is that the work is represented with a very good image due to its contrast of colors (yellow and blue), the silhouettes of the buildings and structures, the sky behind it, and the overall composition. After noting this, I can look at the piece itself, which is the large lighted text that spells A Place Beyond Belief. It is visually appealing and works well with its urban surroundings, achieving this without being too flashy despite its materials and size.

The first thing I wonder about is its location. What is this place beyond belief that it refers to? I also notice that there is a cross on a dome below the word Belief and so I assume that the sign is placed above a church. Is it talking about a specific religion or faith? Or about a place with no religion?

I think the work is a site-specific installation that is using both text and place to give it meaning. It also uses the viewer’s imagination, as I feel that this is a piece that could mean different things to different people. I think the text might be dealing with religion(s), the concept of heaven, or a place that is either so amazing or so atrocious that it is beyond belief. I can see it both as a sarcastic phrase or a praising phrase due to its clever play of words, seeing as beyond belief can be either a really good thing or a really bad thing.

After seeing more images of the piece, I realise that it is not actually placed on top of a church but on the ground and next to it. The perspective of that first image made me think it was much bigger and higher than it actually is. One of the images that shows the church and the sign side by side makes me think that people might be led to choose between one or the other. The meaning of the piece can change very easily depending on the point of view.

A Place Beyond Believe is inspired by the 9/11 attack that happened in New York City. I was surprised to find out that the piece is not specifically about the place I’m seeing in the photograph, which is obviously not NYC. After the 9/11 attack, Coley tells us about how a woman in the subway witnessed strong intolerance directed towards a man with a turban. After the man did a good act on the way out, she realised that for New York City to move forward it must become a place beyond belief. I think this is a very common example of what we all do, which is judging people as good or bad based on our first impressions and prejudices. Coley is communicating an idea about tolerance, one of moving past the labels we have assigned to each religion respectively.

The piece is located in a park in Pristina, Kosovo. It stands beside an unfinished Serbian Orthodox cathedral that so happens to remain as a symbol of oppression to most Muslims and ethnic Albanians. I can now see how this piece is both site-specific and world-specific, as it can be placed anywhere in the world and still retain its meaning. The oppression that happened in Kosovo, the attack that happened in NYC, and even the events that are happening now in Syria can be all, in part, connected to this confusion, and sometimes hatred, that people all around the world show against religions that are different from their own.

A part of me can’t help but wonder what the people of Kosovo think about this work. My first impressions towards the phrase shifted between negative and positive because I was unaware of the context. I wonder what the people who walk by it, perhaps unaware of its meaning, make of it and whether it might not initially seem to be against the concept of belief or even against their own belief.

I think contemporary art can work well either way, with contextual information or without. It is the artist’s choice whether they want the viewer to interpret a piece on their own or whether there is a need to provide the information. However, I do think that some pieces are better off with contextual information, such as A Place Beyond Belief, in order to convey messages that would be nearly impossible to understand without the context or to avoid misinterpretations. Personally, I prefer art that communicates most of its messages visually, as I feel that visual art is the most accessible and universal of languages. I do think we lose a little bit of that accessibility when we need to read information or do research about a piece in order to understand it.

I think what the piece does achieve is in bringing awareness to how we sometimes use religion in a way that can be deterrent to peace. The phrase brings forth an imaginary and idealistic place in which belief does not stand in the way. Though I know it was inspired in the 9/11 attack, I still find it difficult to relate it to that one event, and instead I mostly see it as a global and general idea about how we often let out prejudices blind us.

Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens, 2008 (scaffolding and Illuminated text, 6m x 6m x 4m)

This piece is similar to A Place Beyond Belief both in its use of light and text, as well as its location in a public space. Located in Folkestone, England, Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens explores the different definition of the word heaven, including its dictionary definitions, its use in songs and movies, the feeling it brings forth, the name of a nightclub, the name of a farm, and finally Coley’s statement that heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. The phrase invokes, like A Place Beyond Belief, a double entendre; is it a positive remark that inspires peace or a negative one that suggests a place that is not as good as it is thought to be?

Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth, 2012 (powder-coated aluminium with fluorescent lamps, 75 x 120 x 8cm)

Located in the art gallery Haunch of Venison in London, Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth shows us a short and bitter statement. This imperative, poetic and sarcastic phrase seems to be telling us to take comfort in destruction.The inspiration comes from the African proverb, “If the young are not initiated into the tribe they will burn down the village just to feel its warmth”. His choice of words twists the meaning into a seemingly antagonistic order, though the absurdity of such an order quickly reveals a deeper meaning of cause and effect.

Most of Coley’s work deals with the concept of place, whether physical, imaginary, or as part of the context. He does this through the deconstruction and reconstruction of language and particular words and phrases, as well as with an exploration of the relationship between people, public spaces, and architecture. There is often a cynical undertone behind his work that talks about political, religious, and moral issues.


Bibliography

Godwin, M. (2012) ‘Bad religion: A Place Beyond Belief reaches Kosovo – in pictures’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/sep/23/place-beyond-belief-kosovo-nathan-coley (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

Higgins, C. (2012) ‘Nathan Coley’s Kosovan sculpture: a beacon in bulbs’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/sep/23/nathan-coley-kosovo-sculpture-beacon (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

Power, L. (2010) ‘Heaven’s above … A place where nothing ever happens?’ In: The Age [online] At: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/heavens-above–a-place-where-nothing-ever-happens-20100924-15qn5.html (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

studioNathanColey (2014) Nathan Coley – Monologue At: https://vimeo.com/79395527 (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

Studio Nathan Coley (n.d) A Place Beyond Belief 2012 At: http://studionathancoley.com/works/a-place-beyond-belief-0 (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

Studio Nathan Coley (n.d) Burn the Village, Feel the Warmth 2012
At: http://studionathancoley.com/works/burn-the-village-feel-the-warmth (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

Studio Nathan Coley (n.d) Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens 2008
At: http://studionathancoley.com/works/heaven-is-a-place-where-nothing-ever-happens (Accessed on 3 January 2017)

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