Mr. Nicholas Brooks
Purfleet is a strange area. It’s one of those odd English centres masquerading as a periphery. During the 18th century, its vast gunpowder stores helped fuel wars all around the world, while it also acted as a sanctuary for criminals wanting to escape the tower of London. In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Count Dracula even had his estate there.
Perhaps it seems fitting that Purfleet is where Nicholas Brooks has his studio: his body of work pursues material and visual narratives both in the medium of film and through installations and object-making. They create an architecture in the gallery space which is tightly edited and ordered, but within these reference points a new type of spatial order emerges; one which has more to do with the suffocation of information networks and the delirium of modern life than it does with our usual conceptions of architectural space.
(Above: 'Friendly Things from the Future', 2014)
I meet the artist at Purfleet railway station. Walking to his studio past fly tipped wastelands, through narrow alleyways and a church that’s home to some kind of cult religion, we reach a view which seems to sum up the strangeness of the area and his work. A 15th century house and barn sit opposite post-war council housing, compressed against one of the biggest factories in the world. In the distance a modern, slender bridge over a Thames hidden and blocked off by industry seems to protrude from the roof of one of the barn buildings. And quietly in the background sit typically English rolling hills. Surrealism was once thought of as a weird altered psychological state, but in Purfleet, due to the excesses of neo-liberalism and globalisation, it’s become a built reality.
(Above: 'Transit of the Megaliths', 2013)
This is quite a strange landscape isn’t it?
The strange thing is to see ships going by.
Made stranger by the fact you can’t see the water either.
Yes, it’s just a sea of cars, and then you see these boats moving by like buildings. They sometimes even carry fragments of buildings which are rotated at weird angles. It’s a surreal place.
A kind of transitional state seems to be an important facet of your work. Do you think this type of liminal environment, between urban and rural, has influenced your work?
I haven’t really been here long enough for it to influence my work but I liked this space because it already seemed to fit into my world. There are a lot of places you can choose on the outskirts of London but this place seemed right up my street. I remember driving over the bridge a lot and I always wanted to stop and look down. Purfleet reminds me of the last scene in Solaris when the lead character, Dr. Chris Kelvin, is in his grandfather’s house and he realises it’s not where it should be. You are similarly stranded here.
(Top Image: 'Transit of the Megaliths', 2013; Images Above: 'Nest of the Wild Stones', 2014)
Your work seems to encompass many bodies of knowledge: do the objects that you make relate to archaeology?
Yes, it’s something I’ve really tried to work with over the years and actively cultivate. I never used to think of objects as stories but I increasingly do now—at least the process of making them. Sometimes I use incredibly old objects. One of my sculptures has a 5,000-year-old alabaster vessel in it. I find myself fascinated by the different temporalities of objects. The ambiguity means they inhabit an opaque space where you are not sure about the origins of the object.
This comes from talking to people about phenomenology in archeology. This is slightly different from your usual phenomenology as you conduct historical research by making objects and in doing so, find out how people experienced them. It’s an attempt to try and examine objects as experiences.
(Above Images: 'Nest of the Wild Stones', 2014)
Your room-based works—or sculptures—are constellations of these objects on frames, which also suggest narratives or stories. What are you trying to do with them?
I think site-specifically in these works; they are an opportunity for me to bring other types of actors into the space without using film. Specifically I’m interested in exploring static sculptures as a time-based medium. It’s been discussed since the 70s but I feel that it’s more relevant than ever now. We are so encumbered with time-based media that we need to find other time-based mediums which aren’t screen-based to throw things out of sync.
I noticed that some of the things you construct in your gallery spaces look domestic; I can make out a table in one of them. Why do you reference architectural focal points like this?
The mixture of the familiar and the ever-receding unknown-ness of things we encounter is really exciting for me. There is a similar thing happening in film when you have a cutaway which is incidental to the main action. Some of my favourite moments in film are when you are looking at something which should have no part in the film whatsoever.
(Top Image: 'Sump', 2016; Above: 'Nest of the Wild Stones', 2014)
What kinds of experience are you trying to sculpt for the person viewing these installations?
I don't really try to designate any particular experience for the viewer. But I am trying to activate the space for them in some way. Not all the objects are strictly the main subjects of the work but they perform some type of action within the work. In films you have all sorts of things which are active that don’t have to contribute to the overall narrative or subject of the film. But still, they are the kinds of oddments which make up a film in its entirety.
In architecture we don’t usually have these minor ‘actions’ within the space so I guess you’re introducing dynamic supporting roles to the architecture in quite a filmic way. And by doing this you provide distractions within the architecture.
I want to provide disturbances within the architecture. I like this idea of supporting roles within works—these formulas of distractions: things that only resolve later into a whole work, in a whole spatial experience.
(Top Image: 'Sump', 2016; Above: 'Nest of the Wild Stones', 2014)
To me, these ‘distractions’ disrupt the stability of the architecture. Do your installations transform the gallery space into an architecture that is emblematic of the time we live in, a time of disruption and distraction?
I would identify with those sorts of fractured narratives and worldviews. I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s book The Crying of Lot 49 again recently and there is a passage where the protagonists are standing on a hill, a bit like the one we are standing on, and one of them is trying to imagine what the city is and where it begins and ends. Then, there is a brilliant line where the writer describes it as some weather system of order:
"a moment's squall-line or tornado's touchdown among the higher, more continental solemnities – storm-systems of group suffering and need […] San Narciso had no boundaries. No one yet knew how to draw them. "
The city is ordered by gradients of relationships instead of a defined grid with borders and ends?
Yes and it is this completely heteronomous mess that you can’t really put together into an homogeneous whole. I like to challenge myself to put things together that don’t quite fit and see how different orders emerge.
–Images courtesy of Nicholas Brookes: 'Friendly Things from the Future', 2014, HD video; 'Sump', 2016, Multiple HD video, sound, lighting, monitors, jesmonite, steel, speaker (by Benedict Drew and Nicholas Brooks); 'Nest of the Wild Stones', 2014, HD video, monitor, steel, perspex, plastic, jesmonite, foam, wax; 'Transit of the Megaliths', 2013, HD video.