Mike Nelson draws on agricultural roots of Parma palace in visceral exhibition
Mike Nelson’s site-specific installation, ‘The House of the Farmer’ blends the historical design codes of the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore with natural materials
Contemporary British artist Mike Nelson is inspired by his environment for site-specific installations that invite the viewer to immerse themselves in his labyrinthic worlds. In ‘The House of the Farmer’, a project curated by Didi Bozzini, Nelson draws on the historical design codes of the Palazzo dell’Agricoltore in Parma, Italy, in a corporeal juxtaposition of bureaucracy and wildness.
The exhibition, on show until 12 June, encompasses all floors of the building in a vast consideration of both the palace’s social history and its viscerality, with raw materials drawing parallels between the natural and manmade worlds.
‘I was keen to evoke, or perhaps invoke, the histories of the building, and the rural site of clearance, bringing to the fore aspects of their past and present,’ says Nelson. ‘The historical dissection of a known history - that of Italian Fascism in the Thirties, juxtaposed with the raw but largely unseen history of the trees and rocks, their past evident in their growth and the visible violence of their removal. Fascist architecture is sometimes described as rationalist, and it is this rationalism that I think played a strong role in the communication of the work: it became increasingly evident as I made the work that the twisted roots and branches piled up with rocks had a strong relationship to the folkloric, to a ritualistic drive to mark time and space.’
‘This impulse historically has been underpinned by such forces as magic, witchcraft, religion. It struck me that this inhabitation could be seen as an expression of the irrational, a fear of the unseen. In a world where there is a political shift away from democracy - and where it remains democratic a shift to the right - the idea of a conflict between the rational, and its extremity as represented by fascism, and the irrational in an era of misinformation formed from the conspiratorial seemed highly pertinent.’
The agricultural roots of the building, which was constructed in 1939, formed the key inspiration for Nelson. Under a fascist government, the palace became a hub for those organising agricultural endeavours, and its status as a cultural centrepoint is again emphasised here. Nature’s integral role is translated into installations that sit throughout the palace, their organic forms in dialogue with the building’s ornate design codes.
The natural materials used in the installations are taken from land cleared for the purpose of easing the agricultural process; tenacious materials such as rocks, tree trunks and branches draw tangible connections between the natural and the cultural.
‘There is something very visceral about the “clearing” of a space,’ says Nelson, who created a sculptural collage of Britain’s industrial age for Tate Britain’s annual commission in 2019. ‘The objects take on a particular urgency or importance that had lain dormant hitherto. The ripping and taking from the countryside could be seen, or felt, as a brutal gesture somewhat in keeping with the building’s relationship to a totalitarian past. It could also be a reminder of the dehumanisation of agriculture by mechanisation through the 20th century and the environmental ills that have come along with that.’
The exhibition marks a new era for the palace itself, which is set to undergo a transformation that will rethink the building’s role in society. There are plans to turn it into a hotel, with co-working, retail and cultural space – a hub of local regeneration.
’I was inspired primarily by the sense of scale and positioning in the town, coupled with its history in regard to Agriculture which was evident in the plaster reliefs and the occasional mural in the building,’ Nelson tells us. ’This led me to consider the equation of its square meterage to wild or agricultural land: 1.6 acres approximately, as the building emanates the sense of an era when the relationship of the populace to the land was reimagined. I then imagined this piece of land, its transformation into farmland. I recollected the large piles of rocks and tree roots that I had often admired gathered in the fields in sculptural piles, and it occurred to me that these objects might form the sculptures that could ‘inhabit’ the building.’
‘The bringing back of these natural forms, ostracised because of their obstruction of agriculture, seems strangely poignant in such a building,’ he adds. ‘Artistically, the natural forms [are] framed against the severe and brutal lines of the building’s architecture; the marble veneers and floors will gaze upon and support their unruly relatives – the rocks strewn across the floor. Whilst the heavy wooden doors will act as guards to the twisted boughs and roots of trees.’ §