Nathaniel Mellors, interview by Rebecca Wright conducted at the time of Ourhouse, E3 Feat. Bad Copy at Matt's Gallery, London, 18 April - 27th May
'What would Withnail be like if he had a massive trust fund and had been able to construct a kind of Xanadu, then been left for thirty years, and now it was 2010. What would he be like?' asks Nathaniel Mellors, discussing his latest addition to the Ourhouse series, Episode 3: The Cure of Folly, currently on view at Matt's Gallery in London. Well, if Mellors was the steward of the estate, we could only imagine that this new 'Xanadu' might have a few medieval sexists, a pregnant mystic 'The Hek', an 'Object' that constantly ingests books, an aged hippy Charles 'Daddy' Maddox-Wilson and his young wife Annalise Babydoll Wilson, a stone of madness... I could go on. This Xanadu would no longer be set within the hard-edged, gritty aesthetic from which Withnail and I tumbled in 1987, but instead would follow the 34-minute episodic structure of TV series such as Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and countless other sitcoms. Within this (very British) country estate, questions of narrative, art history, cultural consumption, magic and art production are continually chewed up, swallowed, and spat or shat out, the whole Ourhouse series being a macro-digestive system for recycling these issues. I spoke to Mellors about its complicated, unique digestive tract.
Formally trained in sculpture, Mellors turned to scriptwriting due to what he describes as his ‘frustration with the expressive potential of certain materials in a kind of deskilled contemporary art culture, which I am part of.' This, he thinks, might have something to do with the hegemonic narratives of the historical avant-garde which dominate contemporary art, making all literary art seem unfashionable. To counter this Mellors suggests that ‘the scriptwriting is about enabling a certain kind of autonomy. Sort of prioritising the imagination and the idea that you can construct your own language, you can construct your own world, you can construct your own fiction. You can do your own version of contemporary art, which is not hermetic. I mean, it might have a peculiar logic to it, but it can be a form of realism, a direct response to what is going on. And my means of responding is in the idea of language as a kind currency, to make a subject of the manipulation of language.’
It was important then, when Mellors came to develop Ourhouse, that the story for six episodes was in place before he wrote any dialogue. Mellors had initially approached the acclaimed British screenwriter Tony Grisoni for advice on making an artwork using the TV series format. Grisoni urged Mellors to develop a complete series, rather than a conceptual fragment. He observed that in contemporary art-production the fragment commonly stands in for the whole, but that such a methodology would be impossible within contemporary televisual production. From the start the production of the Ourhouse series had (both out of functional necessity and formal choice) to work with the mechanics of TV production. This method also developed through the involvement of people such as Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) and Ben Wheeler, who Mellors met making a TV sketch for a clip for David Dimbleby's BBC show The Seven Ages of Britain. Wheeler had been Director of Photography for popular TV sitcoms such as Peep Show and the Inbetweeners, and his involvement in the Ourhouse episodes resulted in an exchange of skills that manifested organically into a hybrid art-TV style. The close-up framed shots of David Mitchell (familiar to any Peep Show fan), when used to capture the bizarre scene of ‘The Object' (played by Brian Catling, Mellors’ former sculpture tutor) gobbling up books on Flemish painting, extrudes a perverted familiarity, enabling an objectification of production codes and techniques.
This production style reflects the way the Ourhouse series constantly consumes and regurgitates cultural references. Mellors suggests he may be reacting to an era where the dominant model ‘has been a form of administration and re-framing of pre-existent culture; like pointing out cool or interesting things as a mode of art production.’ This, he posits, may be aligned with a kind of ‘New Labour’ sensibility, in which ‘art has manifest itself as something that is inherently mediated.’ Instead, he argues, ‘I would take that mediation as my subject matter. But I think that quite a lot of post New Labour-era artists manifest this mediation without reflection. So the art can often be a form of cultural administration, and it can be very close to PR. You get this kind of conflation of the idea of consumption of cultural material with some position of production, which I think is inherently New Labour-ish and perhaps also a condition of late capitalism. People are sold the idea that by consuming lots of stuff they are somehow expressing some individualism. This is something that I feel it is important to work against.’ Resisting the danger of assimilating the very thing he critiques, Mellors tries to respond to what is around him rather than what is offered to him on ‘the hipster’s bookshelf’. The Ourhouse series ‘looks like relatively recent television. It doesn't, for example, look like some French new wave fragment, or ‘70’s structuralism. These have become a kind of stylistic shortcut for a contemporary art approach to film. Maybe some of my older videos reflected those influences, but I feel quite critical of these approaches right now, because I can’t really distinguish between recycling the culturally obscure and Oasis' relationship with the Beatles. Like, I love film history and I love Pasolini and Antonioni. I am a fan of everything too. But it seems ridiculous to me if I am sitting in 2012 really excited about Mad Men, or watching Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Breaking Bad or whatever and then to make ‘art’ films that perpetuate the style of an underground moment from 1968 or 1985. I think there’s a danger in that kind of consensus – a ball of consensus, and subversion becomes a kind of tastefulness, it becomes conservatism.’
In Ourhouse the TV episode acts as a storage device for a plethora of narratives which are constantly reformed within the series, each character acting as a complex feedback loop. For example, Annalise ‘Babydoll’ Wilson (Gwendoline Christie) is spotted by her husband Charles ‘Daddy’ Maddox-Wilson reading ‘Intercourse’, a theoretical text by the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin. But instead of recognizing its radical message about pornography and violence, Charles thinks she is reading a sex-manual and complains “Oh not that again, I told you I’ve already done everything.” In Ourhouse communication fails, the message is misunderstood and nonsense reigns supreme, creating a gulf between the sender and receiver. The collective hysteria caused by the ‘medievalist’ characters over the 'stone of madness' suggests the traction these different languages of power have over the characters in the film. In the accompanying exhibition the 'stone of madness' is presented as a disco mirror-ball, a literal objectification of its own discourse. In the final scene of the Cure of Folly, as the neighbour Mrs Crust appears to undergo a 'quasi-labotomyesqe operation to retrieve the stone of madness' (performed by Maddox himself) it becomes apparent that the film’s characters are empty vessels ready to be filled with whatever pseudo-discourse (even if that be nonsense) comes their way. The animatronic sculpture which accompanies the film, slowly rotating to reveal its empty shell, reiterates the feeling that within the walled community of Ourhouse all that exists are processing 'machines' for one discourse or another.
Alongside the plethora of pseudo-discourses, Ourhouse is also imbued with a sense of magic enhanced by the amulet (a replica of The Venus Hohle Fels, the oldest known figurative sculpture) which appears in the film and the accompanying exhibition. These objects remind us that art, like most human experience, reacts to the spiritual. There is a danger, Mellors suggests, that ‘the strange, the mysterious and the eccentric get processed out of the routines of everyday life.’ Mellors relates this to the observation of one of his heroes, Italian film-maker Pier-Paolo Pasolini, ‘that commercial structures tend to destroy mystery, they often flatten and homogenize culture… So Pasolini was trying to make films that would reinsert this mystery. He described himself as “a non-believer with a nostalgia for belief.” He could be speaking for a lot of artists in that respect.’ In Ourhouse then, discourse is revealed in its objectified political form, but at the same time the eccentric and the sacred are given a de-politicised space.
When I asked Mellors if he aimed to get his Ourhouse series aired on TV, he responded that though this had once been his intention, he now feels it is less important. Due to its tricky content, he imagined, it should probably be broadcast late at night, on some pirate TV channel, somewhere like Norway. I disagree. Like the Australian TV series Round the Twist that I remember fondly from my childhood, the bizarre, nonsensical and eccentric has often been found somewhere just before the evening news. It is only by entering into Mellors' film without knowing what it is and thinking that everything is just so, that we become increasingly decentralised when things no longer appear familiar. When this realisation occurs what becomes apparent is not that Mellors' films appear contrary to a contemporary TV sitcom but that, in fact, all cultural models act as recycling machines; like Ourhouse, they gobble up and digest fragments of culture, chewing and spitting them out. The difference is that when you sit within the little cave (which resembles ears) at the back of Mellors' exhibition, looking out onto the film projection like Plato looking at images in the cave, the digestive organs are revealed, making evident the mechanism through which these shadows are projected. It is indeed a strange, strange Xanadu.