An Expedient Sculpture

Reinstalled in a former limestone pit outside Malmö, Mike Nelson’s concrete sculpture produced for Malmö Konsthall in 2012, is left with a tenuous relationship to its site.

Mike Nelson, Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry, 2016.
Mike Nelson, Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry, 2016.

While traveling by bus to Limhamn’s Kalkbrott, the site of British artist Mike Nelson’s first permanent public sculpture Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry (2016), one passes through the center of Limhamn, a small but affluent district at the southern edge of Malmö. With boutique-lined streets, quaint row-houses, villas and sprawling parks, the area feels just about as removed from the concerns of the contemporary art world as it does from the recently-instituted security protocols regulating travel between Sweden and Denmark. In contrast to the neighboring town of Hyllie, whose fenced-in train station and Emporium complex have been charged by the human mobility ‘crisis’ in Europe, this context seems strangely insulated from the intensifying frictions within the Öresund region: xenophobia, racism and the proposed re-branding of Malmö as a part of ‘Greater Copenhagen’, to name just a few. This sense of displacement and anachronism likewise suffuses Nelson’s sculpture, which is situated on a swath of asphalt at the bottom of a decommissioned limestone pit.

Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry is a re-installation of Nelson’s 2012 work, 408 Tons of Imperfect Geometry, a site-specific sculpture made in response to the architectural features of Malmö Konsthall, that also tested the building’s load-bearing capacity. Spread flat over the floor of the Konsthall, the cast-concrete sculpture – alluding to the artist’s formative work from the early 1990s, and borrowing its motif from the Muslim tradition – marked a significant shift away from Nelson’s labyrinthine and densely referential installations from recent years. Indeed, the appropriation of Islamic tessellations notwithstanding, 408 Tons of Imperfect Geometry read rather like a formalist exercise that couldn’t quite hold its own inside the gallery space. Four years later, set in the context of the former industrial site, these weaknesses are amplified, albeit to a paradoxically greater effect.

Detail from Mike Nelson's 408 Tons of Imperfect Geometry at Malmö Konsthall 2012.
Detail from Mike Nelson’s 408 Tons of Imperfect Geometry at Malmö Konsthall 2012.

Operational from 1866 to 1994, Limhamn’s Kalkbrott was reopened to the public as a nature reserve in 2011. Approximately 1,4 kilometers in diameter and 65 meters deep, the former quarry currently houses an estimated 1400 different plant and animal species – including approximately 450 types of beetles. Punctuated by features such as graffiti-strewn concrete elevators, and massive drifts of slag spilling over sheer terraces, the quarry offers up the ruined visuals of post-industrial decline. Against this backdrop, Nelson’s sculpture stages tensions between the ideal, mathematical infinity of pattern and the finitude of material resources. On another register, its pattern can be seen as an allegory for the complex and interlocking relations between plants and animals that comprise the quarry’s ecosystem. Dominated by the visuality of the site, the work seems to embrace its own insignificance – perhaps as a meta-commentary on humanity’s hubris.

In this sense Imperfect Geometry recalls seminal land art works such as Concrete Pour (1969) by Robert Smithson, and likewise traffics in entropic potential, deferring its visual impact until fifty or a hundred years from now when the sculpture is fully incorporated into its surroundings. Yet, Nelson’s piece in Limhamn has a tenuous relationship to its site. On the basis that limestone is a key ingredient in the production of concrete, the work is couched by the gesture of returning industrial material to a former site of extraction. Indeed, part of Nelson’s method involves reusing or recycling old works to produce new ones. For his 2008 exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, he produced an elaborate reconstruction of a work from 1999, which in turn was reused for an exhibition at Villa Arson in Nice later that year. In a parallel move, a significant portion of Nelson’s 2011 British Pavilion in Venice consisted of a reconstruction of a previous installation made for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. Yet, despite the fact that Nelson’s projects are frequently configured by acts of restoration or reclamation, the gesture nonetheless comes off as static, and highly formal.

Mike Nelson, Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry, 2016.
Mike Nelson, Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry, 2016.

It’s in this respect, that Imperfect Geometry is perhaps most disappointing. Where Nelson’s works typically establish close relationships to site and architecture, the sculpture in Limhamn is instead more indicative of «plop art», a derisive term coined in the 1960s by architect James Wines to describe ornamental modernist artworks situated in public spaces to which they are largely inappropriate. This problematic is compounded by unresolved questions surrounding the work’s accessibility to a broad range of publics. Currently, the work can only be accessed via guided tours that are either bookable through the Kalkbrottet website, or available during the so-called «kalkbrott days» held twice a year. However, the sculpture can be seen from an overlook located on the quarry’s Northeastern rim, on a site adjacent to Victoria Park, a new development of «lifestyle condominiums» whose amenities include an on-site spa, tennis courts, wine-cellar and 800 square meter putting green. Visible from Nelson’s sculpture, these pristine structures raise the specter of art’s instrumentalization as part of broader development and regeneration efforts. Indeed, one gets the sense that the project is an expedient: for the city, a solution to a storage problem; for the roadworks department, which manages the nature reserve, a way to increase the number of annual visitors.

In The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era from 2003, cultural theorist George Yúdice argues that in the increasingly stratified age of neoliberalism, culture is not only viewed as valuable and empowering, but also as an inexhaustible resource. If Nelson’s sculpture proves anything, it’s that this resource too can be depleted.

Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry, 2016.
Mike Nelson, Imperfect Geometry for a Concrete Quarry, 2016.