Throughout his work, Nathan Coley expresses curiosity about how we relate to public spaces and architecture. He is also interested in what we believe. His research informs drawings, photographs, sculptures and videos that often contain words or phrases.
His work There Will Be No Miracles Here (2006) explores belief. The phrase is spelled out in lit bulbs on bare metal scaffolding. The brightness and size of There Will Be No Miracles Here make it a spectacle, while the gaps in its frame include its chosen backdrop as part of the work. The factor of surprise in this piece, like much of the artist’s work, also expresses an element of humour. The words seem like a regulation – Coley adopted them from a sign that was once erected in a village in seventeenth-century France by order of the King.
The Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh 2004 is an installation of sculptures made up of all 286 religious and spiritual buildings that were listed in the 2004 Edinburgh Yellow Pages directory under ‘places of worship’. A mammoth task, Coley had previously undertaken a similar work with The Lamp of Sacrifice, 161 Places of Worship, Birmingham 2000. In Birmingham, Coley made the models over a course of seven weeks in front of visitors to the Ikon Gallery.
Coley adopted the idea of an architectural ‘Lamp of Sacrifice’ from the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who wrote in his famed 1849 essay The Seven Lamps of Architecture: ‘It is not the church we want, but the sacrifice … .’ Coley explores Ruskin’s idea that buildings and architecture are two separate things – one being functional and the other art. Coley strips all religious insignia from the buildings and reconstructs them to scale in simple brown cardboard. He unites the buildings as one group or community. As fewer people go to church and the diversity of different areas shifts, the cardboard models offer a playful and abstract perspective on the buildings. Physically they represent buildings but emotionally they are religious architecture and in equal measure baffle and enlighten people. Nathan Coley doesn’t provide answers but he does inspire those who see his work to ask questions.