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Independent journal exploring the intersections between material and digital cultures, and broader themes to do with our bodies, labour, and time.
Aims to promote discussion about how technology will reshape ideas around community action, communication, and the arts.


Submit     Contact     Shop     Instagram

Independent journal exploring the intersections between material and digital cultures, and broader themes to do with our bodies, labour, and time.
Aims to promote discussion about how technology will reshape ideas around community action, communication, and the arts.


Purgatories and Potentials :
Mike Nelson’s An Invocation: 530 Books from Southend Central Library

Adam Lazarus
Time of Publication: 8/11/22 - 14:00

1. Introduction: An Invocation

“Tomb furniture achieved apparently contradictory ends, in discarding old things all while retaining them, much as in our storage warehouses, and museum deposits, and antiquarians’ storerooms.
-George Kubler [1]

Andrew Hunt, the director of Focal Point Gallery, describes An Invocation as a “schizophrenic oscillation between post-Conceptual material reality and imaginative fiction.” [2] The unsteady visualization conjured by this sentiment appropriately captures Mike Nelson’s practice and its engaging dialectics. Regularly composed of found objects, his installations evoke places, times, and civilizations where past and present, fiction and nonfiction, are blurred. Nelson most notably fabricates labyrinthian installations which the audience traverses, like stepping into the stupefying fictions from which the fodder of his work often derives. This may evoke the twisted utopias of soviet science fiction to the canonical structures at play in the writings of Kafka. To engage with Nelson’s work is to operate amidst these incongruous spaces. It is overrun with liminalities in which doorways lead to even more disconcerting halls, suggesting multitudes of associations, layers, and realities. These complex themes of thresholds and the bookish which are critical to Nelson’s practice are present within the specific conditions which led to the conception of An Invocation, Nelson’s work which Hunt refers to above, as well as within the characteristics of the work itself.

An Invocation: 530 Books from Southend Central Library (2013) is a permanent commission installed at Focal Point Gallery [3], a contemporary art gallery located in the Essex town of Southend-on-Sea. Founded in 1990, FPG originally resided on the top floor of Southend Central Library which, founded in 1974, was the third library to open in Southend. Spending decades within the same building, FPG and Southend Central Library naturally developed a shared history and community until this was disrupted by the troublesome closure of the library in 2013 and the relocation of the gallery to a newly built complex accompanied by local educational institutions and a replacement library called The Forum. An Invocation is born out of FPGs’ attempt to reanimate the forfeited past through injecting the essence of the original site into the sterile new complex. [4]

Responding to this initiative, Nelson became interested in the archive of the Southend Central Library, the thousands of books weathering on shelves which are castaway from the main collection. This accumulation was intended to be disposed of to save space for the new site. Condemned to be pulled from the shelves and pulped, Nelson carefully chooses 530 books from the archive to make up the contents of his installation. He describes this process as one which allowed him to “navigate a mental journey through the collection and the physical space of the old library, because, ultimately what you are left with…is the remains of the physicality of the old building.” [5]

As the new gallery is being constructed, the archive is placed within the cavity of the walls and plastered over behind a storage cupboard. Therefore, the site specific installation is inaccessible. Unable to be seen, Nelson subverts traditional spectatorship and leaves the audience to confront the limbo of the white cube. [6]

This results in the works second incarnation, An Invocation in book form (Fig. 1), as the sole means with which the audience may directly interact with the contents of the archive. The publication consists of scans of the front and back covers of each of the 530 books within the walls. This book collates the scans into a nonlinear structure where front and back covers are placed disparately throughout it and visual narratives may organically flow in an incalculable amount of permutations. This invites the reader to find their own rhythm, probe into their distinctive sensibilities, and formulate their own associations between the covers.

Slipped into the inside pocket of the plastic dust jacket there is an interview between Mike Nelson and Andrew Hunt in which they reflect on the rich links this project has to local and grander conceptions of the past, their ideological opinions, and Nelson’s own bibliophilic obsessions. The back dust jacket, residing within the transparent sleeve, contains an index of the books from the archive, as well as customary publication details.

Through this ebb and flow of visual narratives which transpires based on the unique ways in which each individual responds to the scanned book covers, the archive departs from its contained state within the walls of FPG and takes on new forms through the book object as a channel into the imaginative. Though, back at the physical site, the presence of the abandoned books is marked by a plaque (fig. 2), which indicates their resting place. Save for this small black plaque on the white cabinet door, you may not even know that the archive is there at all. One can follow its self cataloging “*See Nelson, Mike / E.027.4” to find An Invocation in book form within the gallery bookstore. Like an epitaph no more than three inches across, this plaque inspires one to search for the book like one would in a library, perhaps pointing to the dying field of print and further commemorating the original site through its memorial quality.

It is a peculiar phenomena, the act of entombing the work, as it at once preserves that which has been jettisoned. This paradox mirrors my epigraph [7], taken from Kubler’s The Shape of Time, one of the 530 books within the cavity walls of the installation (fig. 3), which insightfully bridges the tombic and museological through this simultaneous retention of items through their discard. Jacques Derrida extensively analyzes this captivating irreconcilability of archives within his text Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. It will be useful to frame Nelson’s work through Derrida’s spectral conception of the archival as perpetually present and absent, living and dying. [8]

Through this Derridean poetics I will examine how An Invocation is in a constant engagement with and estrangement from its origins. In the first half of this exploration, I will do so by considering the bridges conjured through metaphorical and physical traces permeating within the book as a sort of necromantic object. This will situate the work further into the purgatorial through Derrida’s adoption of Freud’s Death drive which supports the transitional spaces imaged within the publication and its nonlinear structure as constituted by a form of montage, primarily with the aid of theoretician Helen Hughes and her examination of Nelson’s Magazine. [9] In the second half of this analysis, I will explore how the preceding deathly framework can be applied to a politics of the gallery, in which the exhibition space and the invisibility of the site specific archival contents take on a class dimension. Through my interview with FPG coordinator Ruth Hazel, Brian O'doherty's Ideology of the White Cube, and a look into the work's relationship to Dematerialization, An Invocation subversively exposes the white cube. This prioritizes the sense of free thought that is diminishing as libraries verge on obsolescence, and subsequently positions the book form as a space of potential.  

2. Organic Matter: The History Imbued in the Book Object or Book as Body

An Anatomy Analogy

When considering the shared mortality of book and human, the anatomy of the two can be analogously broached. We both, traditionally, have heads and toes, fronts and backs. We have spines which are the central structures holding us together. We wear jackets when cold, our fashion choices possibly reflecting that which is within us, similarly to judging a book by its cover.

This comparison continues as books, like bodies, are organic material- fibrous entities which decay, housing dust, and perhaps mold. Twofold, in its essence, a book is the embodiment of the intangible organic material of thought, the tender translations of aging brains onto the page through word, line, and other markings.

Through time, as that which physically decays becomes a domicile for other forms of life, such as moss, bacteria, or corpse fauna alike, so can the immaterial aspects live on through memory. This continuation of matter, the old producing the new, may be embodied through one’s engagement with the lost through remembrance of it. In this way, a tomb is a place of eternality, not an end.

We can liken this to books and their shelvic crypts. One can picture a library as a fantastical place of necromancy where dead and dying books are reanimated through each hand or eye which passes through them, shelving them into their minds, and, subsequently, reviving the past through this interaction with a work from a former time. A library, like a cemetery, is a “timeless [space] of generational and accumulated time,” [10] where histories boundlessly converge into new histories, fictional and not. We can effectively view this bibliographic collection of history as a form of collage in which multiple spatiotemporal zones meet and overlap. This synchronization extends beyond the metaphorical when we find modest, though notable, physical traces of this phenomena throughout the scans within An Invocation in its book form.  

The Steel Wire Loop

Within the innards of An Invocation in book form, we can see residues of moments of convergence between reader and book. These idiosyncrasies are revealed in the scanned covers, most commonly in the form of folds, wrinkles, tape, stray pen marks, pricing stamps, etc., which evidence the lifespan of the book object and evokes the people whose hands and minds have passed through them.

Take, for example, the scan of the front cover of a Rolleiflex Guide to Twin Lens Cameras (fig. 4). There is a paperclip nestled behind the cover. Though a small, relatively insignificant item, it is a relic of someone, somewhere, who placed that paperclip within it. I can’t help but speculate what is it from their life that they have entwined within the life of this book. It is a profound realization that a moment of and from this person’s life story is woven with this camera guide ad infinitum because of this fragile, steel wire loop. This exemplifies how the work subtly reveals the histories imbued within it, in which we can see tangible trails of the community of the initial Southend Central Library marked on the book objects. [11] I hope this attention to these features of the scans may provide a pathos for books in which we can see the depth with which these everyday objects are interwoven with our lives, their forms evolving just as our brains and bodies do. 

Stratum and Skin

Derrida also discusses this connection to the textual and the bodily as a record of time amassed. He elaborates on this semantics of the archival while considering a bible with an inscribed binding passed down to Sigmund Freud from his grandfather. He states that the personalized heirloom points to “memory and of the memorial, of conservation and of inscription which put into reserve (‘store’), accumulate, capitalize, stock a quasi-infinity of layers, of archival strata which are at once superimposed, overprinted, and enveloped in each other. To read…requires working at geological or archaeological excavations, on substrates or under surfaces, old or new skins, the hypermnesic and hypomnesic epidermises of books or penises.'' [12]

Beyond the usual associations of an archive as an entity which pertains to remembrance and history, Derrida proposes how qualities and methods of print are used synonymously to epidermal inscription. His example speaks specifically of circumcision which provides a provocative viewpoint where, like the bible is an archive passed down generationally, so is a circumcision an archive of the bible passed down on the body as a fleshy inscription emblematic of Mosaic tradition.

More broadly, his interuse of words which pertain to printing surfaces and skin invites us to view the textual or typographic like a scar. As he describes reading as an archaeological feat, this may refer to the possibilities of syntactical meaning which can be deciphered from digging through words, word groupings, and their multiple interpretations. Further, as stratums serve as records of times and places in which each layer is preserved while also being covered by time, so do scars on the body evidence a specific time, keeping it present, while also healing it and marking that event no longer. [13]

Through these micro-histories we encounter an uncanny temporality in which the connection point of person and book, in this case the paperclip, exists in a suspended state of presence where the time and space of their merging has passed, but the trace still exists today. There is a poeticism within this in that An Invocation can reveal physical-temporal links to the past archive. These humanizing treasures, such as a doggy-ear crease on the corner of a page or a coffee stained spread, are susceptible to being overlooked, but as Borges, whose writing we find in the archive of An Invocation (fig. 5) states, “There are no two identical books.” [14] This testifies to the significance of each specific edition behind the walls, and “the particular histories we carry with [them]: marks they receive over time and the stories we imbue with them…The book on your shelf with the decaying spine, for example, falling apart since you left it on the balcony of your hotel room and it was caught in a rain storm and swelled up like a textual marshmallow.” [15]

3. Passages and Passageways: The Death Drive, Janus, and Montage

“Because I know that time is always time/And place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time/And only for one place.” -T.S. Eliot [16]

The Paradox of the Death Drive

In my previous section, I considered how traces of people exist in a suspended state of presence through physical residues left on the book object. Like a bug preserved in amber, these archives keep record of themselves while also marking the moment that time surpassed them.

Nelson’s An Invocation functions within this archival paradox of being alive and dead, as it is in a constant state of memorializing the lost library and its histories while also giving the archive the means to continue living within expanded permutations.

This reflects Freud’s Death drive, which, to Derrida, is the root of the impulse to archive. The Death drive describes the archival act as a result of the impetus to chronicle memory in anticipation of or response to inevitable impermanence. Through archival preservation, this practice concerns perpetuity and continual rediscovery of historical associations through the retained contents of an archive pervading within new forms and frameworks. Simultaneous to this hunger for eternity, the salvaging impulse is also characterized by “an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia.” [17] Thus, archives may be backwards-looking as they concern a yearning for their place of commencement. [18]

Though, contradictorily, an archive cannot capture a whole origin because there is an inescapable filtering of the event, experience, or contents which is attempted to be retained. So, it exists only in fragments which succumb to the constant possibility of being uncovered, reinterpreted, and recontextualized. Paradoxes such as this conflicting simultaneity of the archival as both forward and backwards looking, conservational yet destructive to origins, are what constitute le mal d’archive-- the archive fever, the problem of the archive, its sickness. As Derrida’s conception of the archive examines this state of simultaneity, this framework may help to characterize Nelson’s An Invocation as similarly engaging with this living-dying dichotomy, both theoretically and structurally.

Magazine and the In-Between

To aid with this interrogation I’d like to make a comparison between An Invocation in book form and Nelson’s 2003 publication with Bookworks London titled Magazine (fig. 6). Other than the title, back-cover blurb, and details on the spine, Magazine has no text within it. It consists only of close-up photographs of Nelson’s previous large scale installations. Mostly black and white, though there are disjunctive bursts of color photographs, the book provides glimpses into liminal spaces constructed by Nelson. This publication produces a continuum in which works from Nelson’s past recycle into new contexts which have “no end point, no definitive reading but rather [are] a visual non-linear narrative which suggests an interzone.” [19]

Through the detail shots and non-chronological page order Nelson blurs the context needed for the viewer to discern which photos derive from which particular installations. This engages with the Derridian paradox above because the photographs simultaneously document the installations yet they do so destructively through obscuring which photos depict which installation and by providing only glimpses of the installation’s entirety or ‘origin’. Perhaps unbeknownst to Nelson, Magazine does not only attempt to archive his past installations, it may also serve as a physical record of his Death drive in action, as he speculates that while compiling Magazine he had “an ambivalence between wanting to undermine or desecrate what [he has] done, and at the same time obsessively document it.” [20] This fittingly embodies archivization induced by the Death drive which “produces as much as it records the event.” [21] That is, it produces a new contextualization for the installations through the publication, as much as it defiles them from their original physicality and configuration. Additionally, these active dichotomies are at play beyond archival theory and into the actual contents of the publication itself.

Writer and academic Helen Hughes introduces Magazine as a publication populated by images of the in-between. She says that “the entire book is haunted by empty corridors and doorways” whose images appear with ample consistency (fig. 7) [22]. She frames these spaces of transition as concerning the domain of Janus, the ancient Roman two-faced god which represents and rules over middlegrounds and dualities such as past and present, discard and retention, to forget and to remember. Hughes states that “the transitory spaces over which Janus presides can therefore be seen to hold together multiple temporalities in a non-linear fashion.” [23] We see this in the liminal spaces represented within Magazine, the contents of which are taken from multiple spatiotemporal zones of previous installation sites, as well as through its nonlinear structure. It is not coincidental that academic Aakash Suchak observes that the Derridian archival paradox described earlier similarly “[entails] an always situated or embeddedness in a Janus-faced relation to time and space: both looking backward and toward the future.” [24] This links the representations of transitional spaces in Magazine, which evidence snippets of whole installations, as reflective of the Janusian qualities of the Death-drive as an entity which preserves and discards at once.

Montage and Multiplicities  

An Invocation, like Magazine, employs Janusian symbolism as it includes passageways represented in the book covers which are scanned within it. For instance, a vortex on the cover of a science fiction novel depicts a wormhole to cosmic dimensions, one on artificial reality shows a mystical doorway to outer space (fig. 8), stalactites behind a round rock cavity frame a title on caves and caving in Great Britain. Similarly, there are plenty of books whose covers show places of transition -  motorcycles on vast highways, planes in mid-flight, spaceships landing on far away planets, and oceanic passages for ships (figs. 9 & 10), which call to mind local seafaring cultures of Southend and grander contexts of expeditions. These people and machines in relocation reflect themes of departures and destinations, ideas of which are undoubtedly present within the conception of An Invocation as the result of the disruption and relocation of a building, as well as within the Derridian perspective of origins and their finitude. Further, the scans show a blurring of temporal linearity in which, like Janus is capable of omniscient vision, we may view early industrial technology and post-human dimensional travel all within the same visual narrativist space.

Regarding Magazine, Hughes frames the way in which it “[holds] together an otherwise impossible constellation of…works from disparate times and places” as constituting the experience of reading it being like that of montage, or a form of cut-up literature [25]. In An Invocation, separate book covers reflective of different times and places are sutured together to create an incredible amount of potential meta-narratives based on the way in which the reader chooses to negotiate its nonlinear structure, as well as the reader's own phenomenological associations to the contents itself. Thus the experience of traversing its expansive narratives supports Hughes characterization of montage.

Though, easy to overlook yet striking in their frequency, the most recurrent purgatorial spaces depicted within An Invocation are of a much less literal conception than those previously mentioned. These halls take form as scans of blank book covers which An Invocation is permeated with (figs. 9 & 10, left). Often all that can be seen of the covers are their colors and textures as well as minimal signs of wear and tear. Some are colored brightly with solid oranges or blues. Others are beige, dull red, earthy brown, or pine green. Textures can be smooth like leather or glossy paper, others bumpy and stippled like canvas or linens. Some are stamped with identification numbers which associate them to an institution or an ex-libris, others are unidentifiable.

At its base level, a book cover is, in fact, a doorway into the contents of a book. However, within An Invocation we do not have access to the textual insides of the books, only their covers. So, how may they still function as a doorway of sorts, and  continue to enrich our understanding of this ‘in-between’ characteristic of the work?

Characterized by their absence of traditional representative form, like image, illustration, or word, this emptiness of recurrent blank book covers should not be thought of as a lack of contribution to narrative substance. Titleless and wordless, the context of these books is determined by their position to each other. We can perceive each of them as an in-between space, they can serve as a hall or a door for the reader (or viewer) to pass through as we continue onto more covers along our serpentine book journey. This may emulate the experience of browsing which occurs within a library space, in which, like a form of wandering, associations are made freely, almost thoughtlessly. Further, we may view these recurring blank pages as a gap between visual material which may separate or bridge two narrative points together. In this way, they are like the void segments of film which join two frames together to create a montaged sequence, or a narrative.

The Chasm (The Opening)

This concept of blank book covers within An Invocation functioning as a space to enter into or to depart from aptly aligns with Hughes' consideration of chasms as quintessential to montage and its narrative potential. She states that “the chasm is both the gap that separates and the mechanism that holds elements together in comparison. In this way, the logic of the chasm can be associated with that of montage.” [26] Chasms, like doorways, may separate two places or meanings, while being the entity which glues them together, transforming them into a space for new meaning. This reveals how montage, like the reductive documentation of Magazine, may dismantle the initial meaning of the environment it was pulled from while creating fragments that can alchemically accumulate into a new continuum of possibility.

In the case of An Invocation, we see that the function of lack--empty book covers and books without content--is subversive. It does not simply gate-keep information, rather it provides an expansive engagement of the book experience where fictions can spiral out into more stories. Thus, as Hughes expresses, montage “opens meaning rather than closes it.” [27] It is precisely this aspect of the viewers' unique reimaginings which renders this library archive alive. Similarly, to Derrida,  “The archive is never closed. It opens out of the future.” [28] That is, the future unavoidably redefines the archive, so it is a product of the future as much as it presupposes it. Though, it is this severing from the unified origins of the archived, collaged, or montaged material which marks it as destructive, and thus the archive is dying while it takes on new life. This paradox of forgetting while formulating anew is what constitutes An Invocation’s status as a ghost or specter, a purgatorial entity which mimics the halls within the publications’ contents and nonlinearity itself.

This spectral quality of the archive and its relation to montage can be furthered by French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman. Helen Hughes discusses how documentation of installation art renders the physical experience null and, as previously specified, continuously negotiates amidst problems between partialities and wholes. This withdrawal from origins, whether it be times, places, or installations, fits into Didi-Huberman's evocative statement that montage “transforms the partially remembered time of the visible into a reminiscent construction, a visual form of haunting.” [29] Through an engagement with that which is no longer, or, not in the same form at least, the archive is a ghost of itself, in which we may browse the covers of the archived books but not within the library space. We may engage with the flow of narrative but not with the texts themselves. We may lay eyes on relics of their physicality, their creases or stamps, but only through scans. As we commonly associate ghosts as occupants of intangible realms, An Invocation’s scope of narrative possibility also occupies the domain of the imaginative or intangible, because the work refuses to be apprehended in its physical form and remains contingent on the individual’s distinct interpretation of it. This reflects Didi-Huberman’s remark that montage is “situated at the level of thought,” [30] a level which Nelson’s work attempts to preserve in a time of overstimulation and automation. Next, I will continue to discuss how the purgatorial nature of the work carries over to the site, and how the inaccessibility to the archive at FPG subversively prioritizes agency of thought through the book object.

4. Sight and Site: Invisibility, Dematerialization, and Democratization

“I had walled the monster up within the tomb”
-Edgar Allan Poe [31]

An Interview with Ruth Hazel

Unseen, invisible, perhaps sensed or felt yet hidden from the eye, this archive of books exists at the site of FPG yet we do not have access to it from a traditional lens. Through this invisibility of the archive behind the walls, there is a disruption of the accepted mode with which art is experienced via immediate perception of sense data: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. As we will see, this effectively renders the audience as a phantom, wandering through the vacuum of the white cube.

During my visit to the installation, I got in contact with Ruth Hazel, a lifelong lover of Southend Central Library, the FPG coordinator, and Mike Nelson’s assistant for the project. I conducted an interview with them to enrich my perspective on the burial of the library archive. In an excerpt from our interview, they poignantly articulate the discursive quality of the installation in which the concealed library archive, absent from the five senses, leaves the audience to confront the traditional gallery space as one of liminality and blindness, both experientially and institutionally [32]:

Ruth: “[Nelson’s installation] definitely feels like a tomb. I think about every time we install a new show into gallery one, because [An Invocation] is just to the side of gallery one. Which is the big white box gallery, the flashy gallery..where we can build and destroy…Almost a tomb itself is gallery one, the white wall gallery, you know, is that a tomb?”

Me: How do you mean?

Ruth: In that it is an empty space that you fill… that creates a moment in time. And that exhibition will never exist the same…you can go back to what Susan Sontag said about photos, the death of the moment. As soon as that photo is taken, it is passed. You kind of entombed that moment. But next to that white box you have this actual tomb, this thing that is never moving. It is just collecting dust, maybe some bugs. It has been seen by so few people and it is almost like a grave. People come and visit and they read the little plaque… all there is is the book. You can imagine it as you want.”

Me: Well that really is a key access point to this work, i think, how people deal with information and knowledge now. I’m thinking about how [the archive in the walls] is a subversive trapping because what it really does is open up imagination for so many people, so the work actually has a lifespan in a less commodifiable way.

Ruth: “Yes, absolutely….I’m really interested in those out of sight places in functional buildings. For working class people like myself, they become our lives, our homes. The store cupboard is a place I come to catch my breath…it is so nice to have that space, and I think it is so interesting that it has been given innovation through having an artwork placed inside it. We lovingly call it the Nelson Cupboard…It gives the space a different life.”

Hazel elucidates that though the library archive is entombed behind the walls, the traditional gallery space may additionally be thought of as a tomb because of how exhibitions relentlessly pass through it while the white walls remain inanimate. This is key to the audience's experience at the site because when attending FPG, what you are met with is not simply a hidden work, rather the impeding presence of a standard white-walled gallery (fig. 11).

Brian O’Doherty, academic and art critic, details this conception of the sepulchral condition of the gallery when he describes it as follows:

”Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial…[the gallery spaces’] ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion.” [33]

O’Doherty describes the passage of time in the gallery space as one which does not include period. By this, he means that as periods elapse art-historically, the white cube remains fixed in sterile rigidity. He proposes that the gallery, then, is an irresolute space, outside of time, which the body enters into. Witnessing the invisibility of the archive at the site engages with the Derridian schism of the work not being able to be seen in the present. The archive exists in the past, at the original site of the library and gallery, and via subsequent interaction of the work in book form, but it may not be perceived first hand at FPGs’ new site. This forwards-backwards facing dichotomy which I discussed in Chapter 3, then, prevails twofold as the audience at the site intrudes into the ‘limbo’ of the gallery space which O’Doherty recounts.

The Spectator as Specter

As the audience must confront the timeless space of the white-walled chasm, the spectator is pushed into the position of the specter in which art is expected to be taken in via the eye, but Nelson’s hidden archive will not allow it. [34] This is an example of how visiting the work at FPG makes participating in a problematized system of value actually a questioning of that very system because, through negotiating the invisibility, you must interrogate the institution as a site where knowledge is curated and filtered through a bureaucratic lens, essentially blinding one of their own imaginative promise.

Ruth Hazel touched on this elitism of gallery spaces and how the out of sight places within buildings may function as a sanctuary for them. While the invisibility of the archive may be perceived as deathly in one framework, it can also be perceived as class invisibility in the other. This goes to show how in-between spaces, such as the depictions within Magazine and An Invocation, are also at play at the site itself, as the storage cupboard (fig. 12), acts as a liminal space between the white cube as a symbol of a suffocating ethos and the hidden books as a beacon for an egalitarian approach to knowledge.

This class divulsion is expanded upon by Thomas McEvilley in his introduction to O’Doherty’s book when he expresses that the gallery as a “construction of a supposedly unchanging space, then, or a space where the effects of change are hidden, is sympathetic magic to promote unchangingness in the real or non-ritual world; it is an attempt to cast an appearance of eternality over the status quo in terms of social values and also, in our modern insistence, artistic values. This eternity suggested in our exhibition spaces…suggests the eternal ratification of the claims of the caste or group sharing that sensibility.” [35] Contemporary art galleries can be elitist spaces which perpetuate their own myopic social and artistic prowess. Here, I propose that we momentarily shift our perceptual vantage point and consider that Nelson has not hidden the books so much as they cannot be seen because the white cube obstructs our vision. Through this hiding, Nelson’s installation evokes the sinister eternity of the gallery space and exposes the power structures at play within it. Below, I will continue to unpack this rejection of the institutional space and, as Hazel and I discussed that Nelson’s work rejects the commodity lure of art, I will delve into how it does so through the book as an object which amicably prioritizes thought as medium. 

On Dematerialisation and Democratization

We can think of this complex existence of the installation’s invisibility in terms of dematerialization. Dematerialization, paved by figures such as the multifaceted art writer Lucy Lippard, refers to a movement which took place in the late 1960s which negated emphasis of the physical art object to a degree that heightened conceptuality to an ‘ultra-conceptuality where the ideas, the communicative and imaginative qualities of the work, are the principal medium. [36] Artists of the period were creating empty showreels, locking galleries, and thus “denying conventional art by emphasizing emptiness, cancellation, the vacuum, the void, the dematerialised, the invisible.” [37] Through this focus on the immaterial, the de-materialists disrupted object fetishism which allowed for art to function outside of the traditional modalities deemed for it.

Through Nelson’s concealment of the library archive there is a material dialectics at play regarding the object not quite being there, though it has not been dematerialized, rather made inaccessible. An Invocation exists in a post-Dematerialist moment where the library archive functions beyond the systematized standards of Conceptualism because, subversively, the existence of the art object is essential in multiple ways. [38] As stated, it produces conditions for the exposure of the white walled void. Through incubating this environment in which you cannot directly or explicitly appreciate the library archive that has been hidden at the site, the work plays with the value systems which are implicit within that of the art gallery. This antagonizes the scopic regime of art, confronting the historical notion that art must be a bourgeois commodity served to the audience on a silver platter.

Additionally (and more optimistically), the art object, An Invocation in book form, is crucial because it is only through viewing the scans within it that the audience can know which exact volumes are hidden behind the wall. Through our primary engagement with the archived material taking place via this book, outside of the archive itself, Nelson symbolically gives it back to the audience to engage with in spaces of their choosing. This is another example of how the work exists in a state of suspension, constantly surpassing the confines of its own form. Further, Nelson is tapping into the wider history rooted within the artist's book as a democratic medium. According to Johanna Drucker in her comprehensive study of artists books, this historically common engagement with the book form was overwhelmingly utilized from the sixties through the dematerialist movement as “an alternative artform, one which was able to exist outside of gallery or museum structures.” [39] This is because books can be interacted with in virtually any space, private or public, inside or outside, and by a large demographic of people. This situates the book as the holder and emancipator of knowledge and its positioning outside of the institution, or, its return to the non-curated thought which libraries may represent.

This is crucial to Derrida who posits that “there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.” [40] Through the book's ability to function out of the gallery sphere and its contents teaming with infinite abundances of associative prospects, the archive opens itself out to the public, functioning as “an object and space of potential rather than a vehicle for limited exposition or particular representation.” [41]

However, if this is democratizing the contents of the original library away from these stifling systems, how can we reconcile that the physical archive is inaccessible and that the book is still, to a degree, a commodity object that belongs to a fixed edition number? [42] Would digitization, for instance, be a more efficient medium for the democratization of the archive because of its accessibility?

I don’t believe so. Firstly, in insisting on the book object as the holder of the archived information, Nelson chooses to value books within a time of technological supremacy. This is a performative gesture which centers around the history imbued by and curiosity incited through books and libraries. [43] Secondly, within the index tucked in the back sleeve of An Invocation, there is a “complete bibliography of the books that Nelson had saved from destruction, a practical tool meaning that every object in the archive would remain accessible in a virtual sense.” [44] This reveals that while Nelson’s work provocatively withholds our access in numerous forms, it does so in order to challenge our standard modes of perception while still providing information on the exact contents of the archive. Lastly, this irresolute dynamic of objecthood and the archival holds true to the authors of The Archive of the Future, who state that “the archive as a place, a collection, a history, a concept, and a practice has always been unstable and more intimately about intangible ideas, discursive practices, and performative gestures rather than the accumulation of cultural objects.” [45] This acutely sums up the tumultuous relationship An Invocation has to the object and its tactical refusals which manufacture the conditions for the audience to access the imaginative while concurrently reanimating the original site through refreshed connections to it. The book object, then, acts as a cipher into these layers which the work operates throughout. Thus, the book serves as a “kind of switching station…between two-dimensional, representational [surfaces] and that much more rich, unpredictable, three-dimensional zone of people and situations, politics and relationships.” [46] This convergence of dynamics at play further reflects the spirit of the library, as well as Nelson’s practice, as nurturers of multitudes.

5. Conclusion

“The library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.”
-Jorge Luis Borges [47]

Through a Derridean analysis of Freud’s Death drive and a comparison with Nelson’s Magazine we develop an interrogation of the archival in An Invocation as that which preserves its contents as much as it constitutes its decay, like the simultaneity of Janus’ perceptual scope. This space of paradox carries over to the site of FPG which leads us to delineate, through my interview with Ruth Hazel and study of O’doherty’s Ideology of the White Cube, that the traditional gallery space is in between time, mimicking the montagistic book covers within the publications and further relegating the spectator to a specter. This negation of gallery orthodoxes helps to reveal the subversive quality of the book object where, building upon dematerialist tropes, the true incentive and medium of the work is its creation and cultivation of an imaginative domain which reflects the objectivity and freedom of the Southend Central Library space which has been lost. Within this view of the book's function, the purgatorial characteristics which permeate this investigation may depart from their ghastly tone and flourish as a vehicle for unconstrained imaginative potential. The excitement of these envisioned possibilities is reflected by William Burroughs, who writes at the end of his invocation in Cities of the Red Night, “Nothing is True- Everything is Permitted.” [48]

6. Endnotes:

1. George Kubler, "3. The Propagation Of Things", in The Shape Of Time: Remarks On The History Of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 71.

2. Andrew Hunt, "Focal Point Gallery: A New Institutional Model?", Architecture And Culture 4, no. 1 (2016): 99.

3.Focal Point Gallery will hereafter be referred to as FPG.

4. Hunt., 95.

5. Mike Nelson, An Invocation: Five Hundred and Thirty Books from Southend Central Library (Southend-on-Sea: Focal Point Gallery, 2013), interview booklet, 3.

6. I develop this notion in Chapter 4 through an analysis of theorist Brian O’Doherty’s conception of eternality and the eye. See Brian O'Doherty, Inside The White Cube: The Ideology Of The Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986).

7. I first encountered this quote not in the original Kubler text, but used also as an epigraph in Robert Smithson’s “Some Void Thoughts on Museums”. See Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 41.

8. Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, "Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression", Diacritics 25, no. 2 (1995): 54.; An Invocation exists in a plethora of combative modes within which times are intertwined and archived objects conjure contexts which are no longer physically or temporally present as they were at the point of their archiving. I expound on this dynamic in the Chapter 3 of this document.

9. An Invocation’s open-ended, nonlinear structure reflects the ‘cut-up’ literary technique, where texts are cut-up and rearranged to disrupt and enrich narrative. The title of this work, An Invocation, references William Burroughs, a figurehead of the cut-up technique in the 1960s, who wrote an invocation at the beginning of his book Cities of the Red Night which he dedicates to “the nameless gods of dispersal and emptiness.” See William S Burroughs, Cities Of The Red Night (Picador Fiction, 1982), 13.;
Nelson, a fan of Burroughs, elucidates that this “collection of books isn’t simply a prayer to an idea or a specific belief; it’s an invocation of a building [Southend Central Library] that embodied many histories.”  See Nelson, interview booklet, 3.; This provides context for Nelson’s naming of the work and how it  engages with its own histories.

10. Leonie A Kellaher, "Studying The Living In Cemeteries", in The Secret Cemetery, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2005), 6.

11.  I wonder what other personalized histories are preserved within the book insides that we do not have access to, such as makeshift bookmarks, marginalia, or love notes. For example, I recently visited Nelson’s exhibition The Book of Spells, (a speculative fiction) at Matt’s Gallery. The gallery, transformed into a small bedroom, invites one member in at a time to interact with hundreds of travel books on the walls. As a native Californian, the first book which I opened was a travel guide to my home state. Written on the endpage was a note which read “Orla, California dreamin’ Love, John.” Within minutes, I found multiple other handwritten messages within the books, all of which evocative of distant places, peoples, and timelines, as if they were ghosts with me in the room.

12. Derrida, 20.

13. A link could be made between Derrida’s metaphor of the stratum and Foucault’s concept of the heterotopic which fittingly describes places such as libraries, museums, and cemeteries as “most often linked to slices in time” within which “time never stops building up and topping its own summit.” See Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, "Of Other Spaces", Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 26.

14. Jorge Luis Borges and Andrew Hurley, "The Library Of Babel", in Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions (New York: Viking Press, 1998), 115.

15. Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan, The Thing The Book: A Monument To The Book As Object (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014), 12.

16. T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday,” in Selected Poems, 2nd ed. (repr., London: Faber, 1961), 83.

17. Derrida, Archive Fever, 57.

18. Appropriately, one possible usage of archives’ root word arkhē, circa 1600, is "beginning, origin, first place." See "Archives | Etymology, Origin And Meaning Of Archives By Etymonline", Etymonline.Com,

19. See "Magazine", Https://Bookworks.Org.Uk/,

20. Bradley and Nelson, “Mike Nelson Interviewed by William Bradley,” (leaflet, London, 2003). Cited in Helen Hughes, "An Editorial Approach: Mike Nelson’s Corridors And The Deliverance And The Patience", Electronic Melbourne Art Journal, no. 6 (2012): 10.

21. Derrida, 17.

22. Hughes, An Editorial Approach, 6.

23. Ibid., 9.

24. Aakash M. Suchak, "The Place Of Consignation, Or Memory And Writing In Derrida's Archive", Journal Of Comparative Literature And Aesthetics 41-42, no. 1 (2018): 55.

25. Montage can loosely be described as a compositional technique in which multiple images are collated or edited together to form constructed whole(s). See Hughes, 9-10.

26. Hughes points to British writer and curator Jeremy Millar for “[flagging] the symbolic resonance of the intermediary space of the door to Nelson’s work in a catalogue essay for his 2004 exhibition Triple Bluff Canyon” in which Millar expounds on philosopher Edward S. Casey’s elucidations on the chasmic qualities of doorways. See Hughes, 9.

27. Ibid., 9.

28. Derrida, 45.

29.  Georges Didi-Huberman, Images In Spite Of All (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 138. Cited in Helen Hughes, "An Editorial Approach: Mike Nelson’s Corridors And The Deliverance And The Patience", Electronic Melbourne Art Journal, no. 6 (2012): 13.

30.Didi-Huberman, Images, 138.

31. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat,” in Tales Of Mystery & Imagination (New York: Calla Editions, 2008), 335.; Nelson spoke of his affinity for this story as a reference point in An Invocation. As it is the idea of the phantom cat which drives the protagonist mad in Poe’s story, the invisibility of the archive, according to Nelson, similarly produces “the effect of knowing and believing that something is there; physically you see nothing, and physically, there might be nothing, but we know there is something.”
See Nelson, interview booklet, 5

32.  It is important to note that Ruth’s views are their own, and are not spoken on behalf of Focal Point Gallery.

33. O'Doherty, 15.

34. Thomas McEvilley elucidates on this dynamic of the spectator-turned-specter in his introduction to O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube by explaining that, within the white cube, “one does not laugh, eat, drink, lie down, or sleep; one does not go ill, go mad, sing, dance, or make love.” Thus, one may not really live, remaining a changeless fraction of the self within the gallery space. McEvilley continues that the sole part of the body welcome within the space, then, is the eye of the spectator. Yet, one is not permitted to even view Nelson’s hidden work. This exemplifies Nelson’s denial to participate in gallery norms and standard modes of perception.
See Thomas McEvilley, introduction to Inside The White Cube: The Ideology Of The Gallery Space, by Brian O'Doherty (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), 10.

35. Ibid., 9

36.Lucy R Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization Of The Art Object From 1966-1972... (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), vii.

37. Lucy R. Lippard, "Curating By Numbers", Tate Papers, no. 12 (2009): 3.

38. Perhaps this unexpected necessity of the art object is one way in which Nelson goes beyond the accepted conceptual mode when he speaks of “a given imaginative space that traditional conceptual work refers to, a standard perception of something that exists in a space beyond. Although this is still relevant, its an accepted mode of production, and we need to steal away from this with another idea of what invisibility can do. [Nelson hopes] this book will open something up beyond that accepted formula.”
See Nelson, Interview Booklet, 11-12.

39. Johanna Drucker, The Century Of Artists' Books (New York City: Granary Books, 1995), 70.

40. Derrida,10-11.

41. Drucker, 309.

42. Ruth communicated that Nelson was adamant on its affordability. Despite this, there is still a level of purchasability which should not be entirely ignored.

43. In our interview, Ruth and I discussed how books provoke a spirit of inquiry. They condemn how much of art today “must be bigger, louder, more digital.” They express that “by not putting the middles of the books in there, [Nelson] is saying go out and discover what is in the middle, I’ll only give you the front and back…it is an invitation to find your own books, your own story, your own archive. To explore and not take these things for granted.”

44. Hunt, 98.

45. Aubrey Anable, Aviva Dove-Viebahn and April Miller, "The Archive Of The Future / The Future Of The Archive", Invisible Culture, no. 12 (2008): 1-2.

46. Yve-Alain Bois, “El Lissitzky: Radical Reversibility,” Art in America, (1988): 171. Cited in ‘The Thing The Book: A Monument To The Book As Object’ (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014), 18.

47. Borges and Hurley, 113.

48. Burroughs, 13.

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