Places of nowhere & everywhere: Mike Nelson & Isamu Noguchi
Two exhibitions in south London, Mike Nelson at Matt’s Gallery and Isamu Noguchi at White Cube Bermondsey, have a shared relationship to other places, finds writer Matthew Turner. Here, riffing away from Joan Didion, he explores place, time, and nowhere.

‘Where are we headed?’ Joan Didion describes constantly being asked in her 1977 essay On the Road.[1] She’s on a book tour driving hypnotically between department stores for signings and visiting television stations for interviews, where people are constantly asking the mantra-like and, we come to realise, meaningless question. Time becomes blurred and places look the same, she desires the infinite repetition for stability. The proliferation is a kind of rapture. With generic views of telecommunications aerials and runway lights being the only anchoring points, she doesn't know what time it is, or where she is.

Didion is looking forward to her much missed home, yet the real answer to ‘Where are we headed?’—the more universal one hiding behind constant travel and pulsing communications signals—seems to be everywhere and nowhere. There is movement without a sense of destination, and content with no clear aims.

Lockdown may be largely over and possible routes of travel are opening up, but the response to that question would be the same now, and two exhibitions, A New Nature showing the work of Isamu Noguchi at White Cube and The Book of Spells by Mike Nelson at Matt’s Gallery, explore the extremes of being ubiquitous and placeless. Both providing an experience of being nowhere and everywhere at the same time, a weird inertia, of not really knowing where you are or where you are going—even if the possibilities are ostensibly endless.

A New Nature takes it name from a talk Noguchi gave to students where he urged them to forge ‘a new nature’ from the materials of urbanisation and technology they encountered around them. Within the works on show and accompanying texts, it’s unclear whether this is in criticism or praise of the materials that now, in the anthropocene, coat the surface of the planet.

The exhibition is full of the pollutants associated with environmental collapse and mass-production: concrete, galvanised steel, plastic and fibreglass. Unlike, for example, in the work of Dan Graham they are not used in a way that riffs on the weirdness of the corporate and commercial environments they would usually be a part of, there is simply an embrace of man-made nature.

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In the courtyard and entrance corridor of White Cube’s Bermondsey space is Octetra (1968, 2021) bright red hexagonal prisms arranged to interlock in different formations. Modular and reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, they look ready for application in a variety of settings and are similarly ambiguous when in comes to particular function – despite suggesting it with drainage grills. Though scaled and coloured for monumentality, Noguchi intended them to be both public sculpture and a playscape for children to use as they wished. The originals were made in concrete for Spoleto Cathedral in Italy in 1968, but numerous fibreglass editions have been installed all around the world since. They are déjà vu inducing; I felt like I had seen them in a children's play area somewhere, but I couldn't be sure where.

Reconfigured in the gallery’s largest space is Ceiling, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York (1956–57), a work commissioned by architect Robert Carson for the lobby of a skyscraper was designing opposite the Museum of Modern art. It’s a room of fluid forms that Noguchi envisioned would transform the hardscape of the installation’s original location - 114 aluminium louvres reshape the ceiling into waves, a shifting sky, or, as the artist worded it, a ‘landscape of clouds’. To underline this association of nature and retreat from the urban, there is a waterfall that was originally intended to block out the noise from Fifth Avenue.

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There are voids in the work where columns would have once been, their layout a prompt that enables the viewer a level of freedom to imagine a version of the building it once decorated, leaving it strangely adrift in multiple variations and locations. It brings to mind Michel Foucault’s concept of Heterotopic spaces which he defined as being absolutely real, relating with the real space surrounding them, and absolutely unreal, creating a virtual image. Noguchi’s work does this, it’s a world within in the urban and within the corporate, it mirrors aspects of the natural beyond the space while abstracting and upsetting it.

Many of the other sculptures across the gallery’s spaces are made for particular places but the materiality and lack of contextual identifiers could have them look at home anywhere in the junkspace landscapes that proliferate wildly in and around cities and towns. Even the Akari ceiling lamps that Noguchi is perhaps best known for, more domestic and homely in appearance, can now be found as cheap replicas in almost every slumlord-owned rental property in London.

These connotations may sound negative, however, unbothered by big ideas they have a serene quality that does not impose much on the viewer or lead towards a particular reading - a freedom one might find in nature. As a consequence the works can be easily overlaid with memories of places usually deemed too generic to be associated with memory: play areas at motorway service stations, the lobby of a corporate headquarters while waiting to start a new job, that flat with the rats. Was the service station outside Oxford or Manchester? The job, was it the one in 2016 or 2017? That flat could have been either in Camden or Islington. All these times and places blur together, personal initially, impersonal when it comes to specifics.

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While Noguchi’s sculptures could be placed everywhere, Mike Nelson’sThe Book of Spells (2022) takes the viewer nowhere. It is typical that Nelson’s work gives the visitor an uncanny feeling they are trespassing in a space not made for them, moving through something they should not exist in, and it’s disquieting to imagine whohis spaces belong to and when the occupant might return.

On a row of old terraces in Bermondsey, someone’s front door is open. Inside there is one dimly lit room and all the walls are lined with guidebooks, well used Baedekers ordered by location with bookmarks sticking out of them. There is not much else until your eyes adjust to the details as though they are compensating for darkness. Like votive offerings, small piles of sticks and bones have been placed in front of the books, and there is a fragile bed made from a prayer mat and almost fossilized walking sticks.

It feels like the last bedsit standing in the chaos of surrounding gentrification, containing the souvenirs of person trying to imagine what travel is like, or what freedom was once like. The bed is that of a dreamer wanting to forget their current crumbling circumstances, attempting to access the world mediated through the quasi-fictional cultures espoused by travel guides and the spells they cast over readers. Even if we do manage to travel, this is probably all we have anyway.  

To the north side there is a window with a tight view of a wall, a vantage point from where nothing is visible, and in the gap between the two there are the concrete fragments of Noguchi’s ‘new nature’ - but rather than being generically universal the proliferation of travel guides point to specific locations, ones the imaginary inhabitant of the bedsit will presumably never visit. On entering, the space initially seemed parallel to the street, but the strange angle of the gap between window and blank wall reveals it to be at an angle to the surrounding urban environment. The room is flung out of space. There are parallels here to life in lockdown and fantasising of far-flung adventures, but something more subtle at play is life after lockdown, that sense of having carte blanche yet not knowing what to do with it.

fig. x

In both exhibitions proliferations of many positions all in the same location undermine traditional notions of movement and fixity, echoing a conception of place that Gerald Murnane outlines in his short story First Love.[2] The narrator imagines himself sitting on a chair in his childhood home and recounts the story of seeing his first love on a train travelling through Russia. Gradually he declares that time does not exist, but only space. He describes how the room he is sitting in is not one location, instead a succession of constantly changing places, much the same as the view from a train window. The room is a new place from moment to next. The shadows change, the person within it changes what they’re thinking about, moving forward while staying still.

It’s this sense of place that is suggested by Nelson’s babel of travel guides and warped touristic trinkets. Nelson is known for filmic sequences of spaces, his labyrinthine installation The Coral Reef (2000)[3] is well known, and The Book of Spells is unusual in his body of work for being just one singular room. But, with the multiplicity of imaginary destinations, is this really just one room? Perhaps everyone walks around with this room inside of them, and imagines they want to be somewhere else.

Both Noguchi and Nelson void their current locations in favour of multiple notions of a somewhere else that is always just around the corner. People worry about what we are doing to the environments that surround us, they want to mitigate what is perhaps a connected problem, the tandem disasters of climate change and experiential engagement before it’s too late. These exhibitions present a world already degraded, only available as a notion, something that has already slipped away. ‘Where are we headed?’ The potential for being everywhere all the time might mean we always end up nowhere.

fig. xi

[1] On the Road can be found in Joan Didion’s book The White Album, published by Harper Collins in the UK:
[2] Included in Stream System the Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2018:
[3] The Coral Reef (2000) was first installed at Matt’s Gallery during the final three months of 1999. A summary of the work can be found here:

Matthew Turner is writer based in London. He is a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts and his first book of fiction, Loom, was published by Gordian Projects in 2021. He can be found on twitter at: @MjTurner_

Mike Nelson (born 1967) is a contemporary British installation artist. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and has twice been nominated for the Turner Prize. Nelson makes large-scale sculptural installations, which immerse the viewer in an unfolding narrative that develops through a sequence of meticulously realised spatial structures. The weaving of fact and fiction has always been fundamental to Nelson’s practice and his constructs are steeped in both literary and cinematic references whilst drawing upon the geography, history and cultural context of their location.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Noguchi was an idealist whose timeless work blended ancient and modern ideas. An itinerant cultural synthesizer, he consistently rejected categorization and the false dichotomies of his time, espoused globalism and anticipated the social practice of art by several decades. Primarily a sculptor, Noguchi’s expansive, interdisciplinary practice included public projects, gardens, playgrounds, furniture, lighting and set design, all informed by an abiding view that nature was of fundamental importance to the human condition and a determination to make work which encouraged this belief.was published by Gordian Projects in 2021. He can be found on twitter at:


figs.i-ix, xi Isamu Noguchi, A New Nature, White Cube Bermondsey
4 February – 3 April 2022 ©INFGM/ARS. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).
fig.x Mike Nelson, The Book of Spells, (a speculative fiction), 2022, detail. Courtesy of the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London.

publication date
15 March 2022

Anthropocene, Architecture, Robert Carson, Joan Didion, Michel Foucault, Matt’s Gallery, Interior, Gerald Murnane, Nature, Mike Nelson, New York, Isamu Noguchi, Nonplace, Place, Sculpture, Travel, Matthew Turner, White Cube