Simeon Nelson interview: Lights, sound, sculpture (2012)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 27 September 2014
This interview took place in November 2012.

Over the past two decades, British-Australian artist Simeon Nelson has pursued a practice exploring the complexity of society, culture and the natural world through 2D ornamental cut-outs, arranged into sculptures and computer-based video projection. Over the past six years, his interest has manifested itself in a variety of public art projects in the UK and Australia. Key works have incorporated this interest, and have sometimes collaboratively brought in sound and light, and have been presented along a footbridge built for the XVIII Commonwealth Games held in Melbourne, Australia, an Australian leisure centre, and against Durham, England’s 13th-century St. Oswald’s church. Other manifestations are on view along two Australian highways.

Working between public art and gallery/art centre presentations, Nelson has also put up quite a few solos in galleries over the past decade— including those in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Brussels, and London— and contributed to a number of group exhibitions. Over the years, Nelson’s works have been collected in mainly Australia and the UK, including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, as well as the Cass Sculpture Foundation and Jerwood Foundation in the UK. Since beginning his practice more than 20 years ago, he’s received several awards and grants including Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowships in 2009 and 2000. He lives and works in London.

To learn more, R.J. Preece interviewed Simeon Nelson. The following are excerpts of the conversation:

R.J. Preece: When I interviewed you eight years ago, your work was experimenting along a continuum of art and technology. How has your interest developed since we last spoke?

Simeon Nelson: When we spoke I was making work that did this in some ways, but I would say that my real interest was— and is— in how humans create meaning and pattern from the world via the available technology, whether resulting in a cave painting, tapestry or a computer game.

For example, the massive structure of Desiring Machine is based on a vegetal motif from a 19th century pattern book, adapted to form the base unit of the modular system of this sculpture. Desiring Machine’s recursive plant-like structure unfolds from a single stem, five units long, that branches into four stems which in turn branch into nine stems and finally into sixteen stems. So it is a self-unpacking technological/biological system. It is also a memento mori to the degradation of the Australian environment, the inability of the English colonisers to understand and work with what they found rather than importing a foreign conception of nature.

Meanwhile, Cactal was based on a tree-generating computer algorithm. So the sculpture you see on the side of the building is frozen at a particular moment of the unfolding of it.

R.J. Preece: For your sculptural works like Cactal attached to buildings, and along motorways, to what extent are you working with engineers and safety officials?

Simeon Nelson: A lot. You don’t want a 10-ton sculpture like Cactal falling off a building and wiping out a lawyer’s family!

I have worked with engineers whom I consider to be visionary, poets of structure and also ones whom I consider to be quite the opposite for the lumpen ordinariness of their solutions. But access, public safety etc. are obviously very important and solutions can be worked out without compromising the integrity of the work.

R.J. Preece: What led you to working on commissions with sound artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth? How did the collaborative process work?

Simeon Nelson: We met at a museum dinner and we saw potential in our aesthetics to interact meaningfully. They hired me to do a visual element for a sound-scape they had been commissioned to do for the XVIII Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, entitled Proximities-local histories/global entanglements. It consisted of 30 speakers along a pedestrian footbridge over railway yards forming a new link between Melbourne city centre and the main stadium for the games.

The speakers emitted arrangements of vocal ornament from the musical traditions of various British Commonwealth countries. My visual element looped around them corresponding to the sound, which I executed in a manner somewhere between the reductively linear and the rhapsodic.

R.J. Preece: How did the artistic collaborative process work with the Lumiere festival piece?

Simeon Nelson: Plenum is a computer-generated, real-time, architectural light projection and sound-scape. It tries to depict fundamental processes in nature and states of matter at very small scales, and also large scales.

Plenum is underpinned by a perfect grid of dots arranged in a crystalline matrix; new dots begin to appear, forcing the surrounding dots apart so that after 15 minutes the entire grid is pulsating, swaying and liquefying with particles popping in and out of existence. The top layers of the grid begin to disintegrate into a gaseous state shooting off in seemingly random trajectories so that the projection runs from a frozen state of absolute order through increasing entropy to a state of complete chaos.

This work was developed in close collaboration with composer Rob Godman and digital coder and artist Nick Rothwell. They aligned the soundtrack and animation sequence to the same code, so that there was a perfect mapping of sound and vision. The projection occurred in real time, being non-linear and self-generating: each cycle had different outcomes determined by the code parameters.

R.J. Preece: To what extent do you see your public art works connected, and disconnected, to your gallery art works?

Simeon Nelson: This is an interesting question. Plenum got shown both in public and in the gallery space. Relicario, a gallery work, and Desiring Machine, which is a public work, have similar structures and operate in similar ways. All of my works are manifestations of a continuum of practice, and my ideas may become either public or gallery works.

They inform each other.

I see my studio as a laboratory where I conduct sculptural experiments. A model or maquette for a public project may inspire or be adapted to a gallery installation and vice versa. I see the museum context as limiting in some ways as a public one.

R.J. Preece: With Paratekton Tower and its installation, you seem to be going after something more personal versus monumental, and also encourage viewers, including children, to play with pieces in a box case in a sort of model-making manner.

Simeon Nelson: The Paratekton system does have a large element of play in it. I’ve described it to a friend recently as a “Scalectrix”, which was designed by Augustus Pugin, and is like Hot Wheels on an electric track, but for grown-ups. Paratekton is like Hot Wheels with its loops and track-like forms.

It is also part of what I call my Neo-Neo Gothic project updating the 19th century Neo-Gothic and Art and Craft aesthetics of Pugin, Morris, Jones and Ruskin with their utopian socialist programmes to the 21st century.

The ways in which Paratekton goes together are almost infinite. The randomness is part of the meaning as is letting go some of the authorship, and sharing the creation of various possibilities with an audience. The kits have various laser-cut plywood elements, straights, corners, end-caps, wall joiners and ornaments stored in custom-made cavities. All are complex in design and I was helped by an industrial designer.

The boxed kit shown to the left is an artwork in its own right even without any interaction, and it may be displayed open or closed. The sum of all possible arrangements of the elements contained within the box is virtually infinite. Meanwhile, the tower is an architecturally-scaled version of Paratekton, cut from 25mm plywood rather than 12mm.

R.J. Preece: Which was the most memorable artwork you’ve ever made and why?

Simeon Nelson: Difficult question! But I would have to say Desiring Machine or Plenum. They both seemed to be very successful embodiments of my ideas at the time of making— and still are. With both I faced huge technical challenges. They were both large scale, had big budget and changed the way I work in the studio and collaborate.

R.J. Preece: To what extent do you actually make your own art work?

Simeon Nelson: I make some work entirely in the studio by hand and other work is made in factories, but I am always hands-on. I make study models and work closely with the fabricators and engineers in a process to ensure that what is built is true to my intentions.

R.J. Preece: What art historical, and other influences, do you see in your works?

Simeon Nelson: My work looks at interplays of historical and contemporary art, science and religion. I use the notion of stylistic change, for example from Classicism to Mannerism to Baroque to Rococo, etc. to try to get to a sense of the flourishing and perishing of styles and movements, the waves of vitality and degeneration that characterize the way society and culture develop historically.

Specific examples of particular references would be the relationship between the systematized ornamental practices of Ruskin, Pugin, Jones and other c. 19 designers and artists, and the rise of modernism and the Bauhaus. Also I am interested in the abstract design of Christian and Islamic architecture, surface pattern and ornament— and its associations.

The demise of traditional ornament in the face of mass-manufacture and modernism— and its downgrading to being beneath the sophisticated classes— motivates me to celebrate the vernacular. For example, I consider the most banal piece of decorative kitsch as being intrinsically valuable.

I see Neo-modernism as the new kitsch, the default aesthetic of Western society, much as ornament was in the 19th century.

R.J. Preece: Which materials do you prefer? Which are your least favorites?

Simeon Nelson: I prefer to use types of sheet material, plywood, acrylic, Bakelite, steel, alloy, non-ferrous, MDF, OSB, etc. I am much more of a constructivist than a carver or a caster. Although I do love the traditions and resonances of those processes and have used them.

I don’t have a least favorite material. Every material has intrinsic value and asserts itself in the process of making. The creator has to work intelligently and sensitively with the strengths and limitations of any given material; in fact I would say that I love the limitations of materials as much as their strengths.

I am quite technophobic actually. I detest technical cleverness for its own sake, which as Cezanne cuttingly put it, “elicits the admiration of imbeciles”. My work tries to make the viewer question what they are seeing. I use many hi-tech, computer-based processes, but also work in the studio with hand tools. Some of my best work has been done at a cramped table with a knife and cardboard.

R.J. Preece: What do you consider to be the core issues in your practice— artistically and also practically— at this juncture?

Simeon Nelson: This is a tough question to answer, but I would say that I am interested in convergences between science, religion and art, complexity theory, ornament, stylistic change and relationships between cities and the natural world.

Complexity theory from the science sphere provides a potent explanation of the relations between simple and complex systems; for me, it aligns theology, philosophy and science.

I am becoming more interested in how order emerges from chaos, the notion of auto-catalysis, how organisms, societies and systems of representation become more and more complex and ordered in the face of entropy— and the tendency for energy and order to dissipate. For example with a work like Plenum, which shows order degenerating into chaos, greater degrees of freedom emerge, and this can be read on a cosmological, biological, social and personal level.

On another level, moving into a new dark age of funding withdrawal and decreasing support for the arts, I am trying to align my work more with the work of various organisations that deal with fundamental questions and have different and wider audiences.

This is not to deny the necessity of art autonomy, or the glorious “uselessness” of art, but to try to reconnect art more to society.

R.J. Preece: Future plans?

Simeon Nelson: I plan to expand my practice to encompass more fully what I said in response to your last question— to work more rigorously and in a more genuinely interdisciplinary way with scientific and cultural organisations while keeping my gallery and public art practice progressing strongly.