West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 15 | September 12 - 18, 2007

A Psychic Vacuum, by Mike Nelson
Installation for the Essex Street Market
117 Delancey Street, at Essex Street
Through October 28, 2007, Friday to Sunday, 12-6 PM, free

Ethan Andrews

British artist Mike Nelson has transformed a derelict wing of the Essex Street Market into a public art installation, “A Psychic Vaccum.”

Essex Street Market is transformed, yet again

By Kelly Kingman

Just south of Delancey Street, steps from the bustling, renovated Essex Street Market now filled with gourmet grocers, sits the derelict D building of the original market complex. Unused for the past 13 years, it’s been temporarily reincarnated as the first, large-scale U.S. installation by British artist Mike Nelson. Called “A Psychic Vacuum,” the work is the result of a partnership between the artist and the city’s own Creative Time, an organization known for its interest in revitalizing disused spaces through public works. In a talk he gave Monday night at KGB Bar in the East Village, Nelson commented that “A Psychic Vacuum” “is the kind of title that makes no sense and absolute sense — it describes the presence of absence.” In fact, “Vacuum” is a ghost museum of the now-absent market’s past inhabitants — including clairvoyants, a bar, and tattoo parlor — through which Nelson frames motifs of patriotism and occult spirituality. Nato Thompson, a curator and producer at Creative Time who worked closely with the artist, said Nelson “was taken with the phrase ‘modern primitive’ — the idea that in searching for origins or for meaning we resort to myth and how this reflects the current mood of America.”

Nelson, who has been shortlisted twice for the Turner prize, creates installations in various cities using detritus he collects locally, like the Brooklyn junkyards he scavenged for his exhibition in the L.E.S. market. His works are three-dimensional narratives that are completed by the viewer, who must move through and become completely submerged in them. Visitors enter “A Psychic Vacuum” through the dusty entrance of a long-shuttered Chinese restaurant on Delancey St. Picking one’s way through the littered debris eventually leads to a maze-like warren of small rooms where the artist’s hand is subtly evident as an ordering force. In one small room, a ceiling fan whirs, ticking out an eerie heartbeat over large animal bones (the building once housed a butcher shop among its vendors) and a stained, nearly decayed American flag. Every room seems to have three doors and the disorienting, non-linear progression through the space adds a dreamlike anxiety of not knowing exit from entrance.

Degraded surfaces in one space give way to freshly painted walls in the next, creating a mixture of present and past, part film set and part archaeological dig. In one wine-colored room, an altar-like arrangement on a countertop of a small alligator head, cobs of dried corn, and feathers sits next to pamphlets on La Magia Negra — black magic — and is echoed by a pile of antlers in a far corner. Feeling as if the proprietor may return any moment to sell you a spell, one enters a hallway under the sinister, peeling light fixtures and then an old bar, dressed only with a dusty beer logo clock and a mug emblazoned with two flags and “May we ever love and defend it.”

In the end, the personal gives way to the universal in a kind of memento mori. Emerging from the labyrinth of outlying rooms that ring the market, the viewer emerges into a warehouse-like space with skylights, filled nearly to the ceiling with an avalanche of sand. “The idea of a sea of sand,” Nelson says, “with its desert-like connotations, represents a shift from an economic structure to an ideological structure.” It feels, both physically and mentally, like emerging from the darkness of underground, providing a kind of release, a moment to reflect, before retracing one’s steps back out through the passageways to the clang of everyday life at Essex and Delancey.

This is the artist’s achievement, to bring about this transformation in both the space and the viewer. “I expose these things with voltage, and the space becomes charged,” says Nelson. “It brings out an empathy, and you read it more on an emotional, perhaps subconscious, level. You’re experiencing it to the point you almost forget you’re viewing art. It’s almost meditative.” At the conclusion of the exhibit, the installation will be dismantled and the building will re-enter the vacuum of the City’s possession, to await its next incarnation.

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