He made a replica of the Lockerbie trial witness box and called it art. But, as Nick Barley discovers, it’s terrorism, religion and architectural space — rather than a desire to shock — that inspires NATHAN COLEY.
athan CoIey is a funny guy. He has a cat he describes as ‘a cut‘n‘shunt job‘. a Dennis the Menace hairstyle and a passion for sending celebratory text messages to his friends just at the moment when their football team has conceded a goal. He even sees the funny side of living in Dundee. a city whose cultural reputation he and his curator partner have made great steps to improve since moving there live years ago.
But when it comes to art, Nathan Coley is deadly serious. Perhaps it is because of his seriousness that recognition within Scotland has been longer in coming than it has for some of his contemporaries. despite being among the most widely shown Scottish artists elsewhere in the world. It‘s almost as if those who know him can‘t reconcile the two sides of the man: the life and soul of the party versus the artist whose work takes its cues from terrorism, religion. and architectural space.
While Coley‘s star on the intemational art circuit burns as brightly as that of his college contemporaries Christine Borland. Simon Starling and Roderick Buchanan. only now. 15 years after leaving the Glasgow School of Art. is Coley receiving an exhibition in his home country of the scale his work deserves. The result is an extraordinary survey full of work that has never been seen in Scotland.
It promises to be a controversial show. Most notoriously. Coley has made a replica of the witness box from the Lockerbie trial. And called it art. Is he not prepared for the vitriolic articles in the Daily Record?
‘I was horrified by the bombing. and there's nothing sensationalist about my piece. I wanted to explore the search for truth. I certainly didn‘t wish to make artistic capital out of people‘s suffering] says Coley. ‘The project began when I discovered that the Lockerbie trial was to take place in the Netherlands, but under Scottish law. In order to make this possible. the authorities agreed to sign over Karnp Zeist to Scottish territory for the duration of the trial. I was intrigued by the idea of working on Scottish soil. but in mainland Europe.
20 THE LIST 13—27 May 2004
so I persuaded the Kamp Zeist authorities to let me be a “court artist".‘ After a series of extended visits to the trial. during which Coley heard the testimony of witnesses and Crown
prosecutors. he became interested in the trials definition of
‘truth‘. ‘What was at issue here was not necessarily an accurate picture of all the events as they happened when Pan Am Flight l()3 fell out of the sky. The trial was only set up to test the truth of the prosecution's claims about Abdel Baset aI-Mcgrahi and AI-Amin Khalifa I‘himah. There were questions. rumours and conspiracy theories which ﬂoated around the court room. but which could not be included in the judges' deliberations because they did not relate to the aspects of the "truth" that they were trying to interrogate.‘
The focus of C oley‘s ‘reconstruction‘ of truth was in the witness box itself. Here. the witnesses stood and withstood the claims and counter-claims about what had happened. while many in the court believed that the Lockerbic bombing had in fact involved much bigger players. Coley began negotiations with the Imperial War Museum in London. He wished to acquire the witness box once the trial was complete. and have it displayed at the museum as part of its Weapons and Firearms collection. Meanwhile. he built an exact replica of the witness box. Although imposing and beautifully made. the result is a straightforward piece of furniture. albeit fitted with computer screens and a slick chair. But its presence in the gallery provides a potent symbol of the ordinary spaces in which events of internatiorml significance can take place.
Space and place. These are exactly the things Nathan Coley has spent his artistic career thinking about. When he was in the German city of Munster. one of the places bombed intensely by allied planes during World War II. Coley discovered that allied bombers were instructed to use the cathedral as their targets. In response. he hired a helicopter and ﬂew in circles over all I4 churches in the city. filming as he went. The result is a vertiginous view of a city from the air. looking down in a god-like fashion at the roofs of its medieval churches. ()r are
‘I WAS HORRIFIED BY THE BOMBING, BUT I WANTED TO EXPLORE THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH'
A selection of models from The Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 places of worship, Edinburgh, 2004 (top). Additional works to be shown at the Fruitmarket include (from top right) I don’t have another land (2002), The Land Marked (2002), and Lockerbie (2003)