It is not often that I am terrified by a work of art, but this would not be too strong a description of what happened to me last Friday. I was in London for a lunch time meeting connected with the Girls’ Schools Association, and because I was slightly early, I popped into Tate Britain to explore the exhibits and indulge my curiosity. I don’t always ‘get’ modern art, but I am always open to new experiences, and I thought that perusing works that were acknowledged as great would be a better use of a spare 30 minutes than simply checking my BlackBerry.
I wandered through the galleries, opened my mind, and stretched my understanding – always a good way to refresh the soul – until I came to a nondescript plywood door, with an attendant outside and a board indicating that this too was an exhibit: Mike Nelson’s ‘The Coral Reef’. I had to check that it was all right to enter; when given permission by the benevolent attendant, who must experience such uncertainty on the part of visitors every day, I stepped bravely but cautiously through the door … and embarked on a real journey.
If you have read about this installation, or visited it, then you will know exactly what I saw – small, tawdry rooms with doors which creaked and led to other chambers and corridors – or which led nowhere at all. The installation is entirely enclosed, and there is no map, so there is no sense of where you are headed. Dim lights, 1950’s sofas and shocking artefacts such a clown’s mask build an impression – a very real impression – of a disturbing world which, even if not post-apocalyptic, is a world of unforgiving menace. At one point I became totally, frighteningly, disorientated, arriving in a room which was an exact replica of the first room I had entered – but with no way out. When I found my way back to the entrance, I jumped to see again the benevolent attendant – who must experience this too from visitors every day – and my experience of relief at emerging from a labyrinth of ‘lost souls’, as it is described, was palpable.
The Coral Reef is an exceptional piece of art; it had a physical, emotional and psychological impact on me and the images remain seared in my mind. If you want to hear Mike Nelson talking about his work, look at this section of the Tate Britain website. This was a piece of modern art which I totally ‘got’.