Nathan Coley

Nathan Coley is a Scottish artist who creates work that questions how we relate to public spaces and architecture. His work is driven by research centring around the social aspects of our built environment and the communities and individuals who occupy it. Born in Glasgow in 1967, Coley studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1985 to 1989. He currently lives and works in Glasgow.

As a graduate of Sculpture and Environmental Art, Coley was encouraged to explore ideas rather than a traditional artistic medium such as sculpture or painting. This course began in the 1980s and Coley and his peers, including Ross Sinclair, Christine Borland, and Douglas Gordon, experienced the freedom of working in new contexts beyond the traditional gallery setting. As Coley noted, it was a place where the students could be a gang.

Coley views himself as someone who makes objects, working across a wide range of media including sculpture, photography, and film. Often looking to recognisable pre-existing architecture, Coley is well known for his sculptural work which investigates the underlying political, social and ideological systems of communities. Whether creating sculpture, photography or film, the artist sees his work as a form of communication within itself; ‘Objects can speak in my absence’ (Quoted in TateShots video 2010).

Solo exhibitions of Coley’s work have been held at Parafin London (2017), Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany (2013), Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam (2011), and Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2004) among others. In 2007 Coley was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize award, and his work is held in private and public collections internationally.

Public Spaces

Coley is interested in how we relate to public spaces. Often he looks to existing, recognisable architecture, while at other times it is the physical place itself which serves as the starting point of an idea or a work. He is intrigued by how places can become imbued with meaning, and through the process of making physical objects.

In 2005 a temporary exhibition of new artworks, Thinking of the Outside, was commissioned in Bristol City. Curated by Claire Doherty, Coley was among six international artists invited to respond to Bristol’s historic landscape. He visited Bristol to gain an understanding of the dynamics and history of the city, but decided to ignore specific information about the place when creating the work. Working against the usual way of making ‘art in context’, the artist decided that rather than the work coming from the place, the work would come to the place. As he notes ‘I have very little time for work which attempts only to reveal its context, illustrate forgotten histories or show you what you don't know about this place’ (Quoted Doherty 2005, p.31).

In the centre of Bristol stands St John’s Church and graveyard. The last burial in this site was in the 1880s, and despite its central location it sits unused and undeveloped. Coley was interested in the duality of local and international tied to this place; the graveyard is local in terms of who is buried there, but dealing with the dead is a universal concern. In order to reactivate the site Coley placed a sculpture of a scaled down four-story housing block titled Iceman 2005 in the graveyard. Constructed from painted plywood, the exterior of Iceman is untouched except for a blue graffiti tag on one side. Spelling out ‘Iceman’ the tag is a colloquial word referring to a place to buy heroin, and was appropriated from graffiti on a building in Dundee which the artist had previously photographed. The artist disrupts a sacred space by referring to an illegal substance, but the graffiti also points to the acts of the individual and identity by marking an otherwise uniform structure. The object doesn’t fit in the context of the graveyard and it is not a perfectly rendered copy of a building. In this way the questions the work raises become more focused on the scale, materials and the object itself: ‘I realised that it was a good thing to forget the starting points and try to resolve it as a work’ (Coley quoted in Doherty 2005, p.33).

Nathan Coley, Iceman, 2005 (detail), painted plywood, 3.2m x 4.8m x 2.7m. Photo: Jamie Woodley, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.

When commissioned to create a work for Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park just outside of Edinburgh, Coley was instantly drawn to a particular area in the grounds. This is a departure from how the artist traditionally works; when the idea comes first, followed by the site. Installed at the edge of the woodland, In Memory was Coley’s first permanent work. The work resembles a small family burial site, commonly found on the grounds of country estates, but which Jupiter Artland, built on the estate of Bonnington House, does not feature.

In Memory consists of concrete walls the height of the artist’s reach, which create a square enclosure without a roof or covering. A narrow entrance the width of Coley’s shoulders provides the only point of access. Inside the four walls are numerous headstones which are real rather than imitations, some of which are quite weathered while others appear newer. All have names redacted leaving only dates of birth and death, and phrases of loss and mourning etched on their surfaces. The erased text draws a parallel to the absence of the people themselves, and leads us to consider the title In Memory not in the context of an individual, but in terms of the practice by which we remember and acknowledge the dead in public spaces.

Coley considers In Memory as existing in the middle of his practice. Each detail is considered down to the width of the entrance; ‘There may be four of you going to see it but only one of you can enter at a time, so it’s about you in isolation. In a very simple way it’s about moving from one type of space to another and changing your mindset a little bit’ (Coley quoted in Maxwell 2012).

Nathan Coley, In Memory, 2010, Poured Concrete, Grass, Gravel, Steel, Dead Tree, Recycled Headstones, 7.5 m x 7.5m x 2.4m. Photo: Keith Hunter, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.
Nathan Coley, In Memory, 2010, Poured Concrete, Grass, Gravel, Steel, Dead Tree, Recycled Headstones, 7.5 m x 7.5m x 2.4m. Photo: Keith Hunter, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.
Nathan Coley, In Memory, 2010, Poured Concrete, Grass, Gravel, Steel, Dead Tree, Recycled Headstones, 7.5 m x 7.5m x 2.4m. Photo: Keith Hunter, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.


The use of the ‘ready-made’ is a recurring idea in Nathan Coley’s work. In his practice a ready-made refers to an already existing object or element. The headstones used in works such as In Memory or Unnamed are considered to be ready-mades as they are objects with a previous purpose. The list of places of worship in the Yellow Pages which was a starting point for Lamp of Sacrifice 2004 is also considered a ready-made element of the work.

One of the most common ready-made aspects which Coley appropriates is existing pieces of text. Using text from various sources such as historical documents, plays, and overheard stories, Coley re-contextualises phrases or words in sculptural pieces. ‘I don't translate texts. The difficulty and the success is that I am never the author. The texts always come from the world so they have to be truthful to the origin. You have to keep that power’ (Coley, quoted in The Independent 2013).

A Place Beyond Belief 2012 consists of a scaffolding structure with four words; A Place Beyond Belief, spelled out in illuminated light bulbs. The words don’t make up a traditional sentence as there is no verb or punctuation and it is written in capital letters. The work immediately makes the viewer question where this ‘place’ is, and what belief does the artist mean?

The source of the text for A Place Beyond Belief is a story the artist heard recounted on a radio programme commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Sitting on the Subway a few days following the attack on the World Trade Centre New York, a woman noticed a Sikh man sitting across from her wearing a bright turban. His eyes averted and head bowed, the woman recalled the collective hatred and hostility directed towards him. Feeling shame and sadness over how this man was received and treated, the woman noted that for New York to recover it needed to become ‘a place beyond belief’.

Nathan Coley, A Place Beyond Belief, 2012, Illuminated text on scaffolding, Dimensions variable, Installation view,Haunch of Venison, London, Photo: Peter Mallet, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.

This story emphasises an ideological divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. By plucking the phrase ‘a place beyond belief’ from the story, Coley’s sculpture considers belonging and community. This work has been shown in a number of places and each time the text takes on a new meaning as it interacts with a new site. In 2012 A Place Beyond Belief was installed in a park in Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo. Sitting beside an unfinished church built during the oppressive regime of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, the text can be read in a number of ways, including as a potential testimony to the misuse of religious belief. The work has also been shown in Freiburg Germany and at Haunch of Venison, a contemporary art gallery in London.

On the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art stands There Will Be No Miracles Here 2007-2009, an illuminated text work by Coley. Similar to A Place Beyond Belief this sculpture is made of scaffolding which supports illuminated light bulbs spelling out its title. It has also been displayed in different places and it now stands as a permanent installation in Edinburgh. Coley notes that the work needs a backdrop, which its current location delivers with  dramatic scenery of Edinburgh Castle and a church spire framing each end.

The text for this work is appropriated from an historical anecdote about a small village in France, Modseine, in the seventeenth century. There were unexplained bouts of hysteria in the village that the local administrative powers called ‘miracles’. To combat this, a large notice was put up saying ‘There will be no miracles here. By order of the King’. As is common in Coley’s work, There Will Be No Miracles Here doesn’t refer to personal or private belief, but rather public belief. Standing on public grounds, the authoritative origin of the text is a reminder of the tension between public space and the law that governs it. A contradiction is also felt between the material of the sculpture and the text as the light bulbs are reminiscent of a fairground, while the message appears quite serious. Speaking of Coley’s work, curator and writer Lisa Le Feuvre notes, ‘In his hands, words become images, and objects are placed in the public to be read’ (Le Feuvre 2014, p.9).

Nathan Coley | The Lamp of Sacrifice

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Coley expresses a curiosity about how we relate to architecture and public spaces. He researches and considers the architecture of a city or space before dismantling it to reconstruct the meaning in a different way. Often he uses architectural forms and buildings that are immediately recognisable such as religious buildings, shopping centres, or holiday homes to unearth our political, social and ideological systems.

The list of every place of worship in Edinburgh, as printed in the Yellow Pages of 2004, is the existing object, or ready-made, which acts as the starting point for Lamp of Sacrifice 2004. Scaled down cardboard replicas of the 286 religious buildings in Edinburgh are clustered together in an order that doesn’t represent how they appear in real life. By taking existing churches, mosques and preaching halls, Coley abstracts the architecture from the real world. The buildings are familiar but are presented in a new context, ‘of course, the material, the scale changes a relationship with those things. So that slippage between it being the real world and being my world, for me is really important’ (Coley, National Galleries of Scotland interview, 2016). The title Lamp of Sacrifice refers to the labour and skill employed to create these scaled down replicas. Speaking of the title, Coley notes ‘I spend my time remaking what has already been made by the community to articulate who they are, so there’s a perverse almost, continuation of sacrificing time and money’ (Coley, National Galleries of Scotland interview, 2016).

The artist often researches and reconstructs religious communities and architecture, and he created a similar iteration of Lamp of Sacrifice in 2000, scaling down religious structures in Birmingham, titled 161 Places of Worship, Birmingham. Other recognisable buildings and architecture have also been challenged by Coley. On the outskirts of Freiberg, Germany lies a young neighbourhood, Rieselfeld, which was built in the 1990s and is mainly occupied by families. Commissioned to create a work in this suburb, Coley created Bandstand 2012, a large sculpture made out of a single pour of concrete which takes the traditional outdoor public bandstand as its inspiration. The structure doesn’t resemble a bandstand as it consists of a raised concrete surface accessible via four sets of steps, with two overlapping walls on one side. The work directly references an existing piece of 1950s architecture in a city square in Brasilia, Brazil, which the artist visited in 2004. While bandstands have much deeper associations in Britain rather than Germany, or indeed Brazil, it is these gathered meanings and uses of architecture which interest Coley.

Nathan Coley, Bandstand, 2012, Poured Concrete and Apple tree, 3 x 15.5 x 7.9m, Platz des Wettbewerbs, Rieselfeld, Germany, Courtesy Studio Nathan Coley.

Bandstand is a work that inhabits the community in Rieselfeld as it is used by local residents. Coley took into account that 40% of the local community were under 10 years old at the time of the commission, so that Bandstand would work as a civic space as those residents grew up. By referencing existing pieces of architecture directly and indirectly, and considering the existing community, Coley creates a work which challenges ideas of what a sculpture means and how it occupies public space.



Further Reading

Claire Doherty ed., Thinking of the Outside: New Art and the City of Bristol, University of the West of England 2005

TateShots Edinburgh: Nathan Coley, 2010

Peter Maxwell ‘Interview with Nathan Coley’ in Critical Writing in Art and Design, Royal College of Art 4 February 2012

Karen Wright, ‘In The Studio: Nathan Coley, artist’ , The Independent 7 September 2013

Lisa Le Feurve, Nathan Coley, Germany 2014