Ebb Tide exhibition reveals stories from the hidden depths of human history

Mike Nelson and Professor David Allan Mellor at the University of Sussex exhibition The Ebb Tide

Robert Louis Stevenson’s final novel and rare objects from the enigmatic Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) are the inspiration behind an exhibition of objects at the University of Sussex curated by British artist Mike Nelson.

Nelson, who represented the UK at the Venice Biennale last year and who has twice been shortlisted for the Turner Prize, is best known for his environments that equate suggested literary fictions to spatial structures in immersive, atmospheric installations.

Perhaps his best known work is the prescient, pre-9/11 installation The Coral Reef (2000), a series of dead-end receptions connected by a maze of corridors that allowed the audience to become lost in a world of lost people whose beliefs lay as an undercurrent of the prevailing economic structure.  These other worlds alluded to other religions, a Muslim minicab office or an evangelical waiting room, to drugs, pornography and various cult-like groupings.

Within the University of Sussex Library Gallery, Nelson has conceived an exhibition of objects that will reside in the vitrines in the space. 

The Ebb Tide takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson’s last novel, which is set within the subterfuge of the imperialist and capitalist expansion of the late 19th century and the amorality that surrounded the greed for the treasure uncovered by the movement of such people – rather like the ebb tide of the title. 

Within the vitrines and in his accompanying text, Nelson makes allusions to another text; the ‘Invocation’ from William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, the form of which is emulated in Nelson’s own text and formally in the display of objects.

The exhibition forms part of the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations and marks its special connection with contemporary art history and practice. The Ebb Tide follows on from Turner Prize winner and alumnus Jeremy Deller’s Sussex Incidents exhibition, which drew its inspiration from materials in the University’s own archives.

The Ebb Tide will include a series of ‘historic curiosities’ (objects and images provided by the London-based AMC) that evoke tales of lost cultures, mysterious places and the transformation of human experience by technology and conflict.

Objects include the keys to the infamous island prison of Alcatraz, a piece of the first transatlantic telecommunications cable, plans for a Victorian time machine (that subsequently “vanished” without trace) and others that relate to humanity in conflict with itself and its environment.

But the overall impact of the installation remains under wraps until it opens for a month-long run to the public on Wednesday 23 May.

Art historian Professor David Allan Mellor, a long-time admirer of Nelson’s work, suggested the idea of a collaboration with the London-based AMC, whose world-class collections include photographs and paintings, plans and objects relating to tribal histories and technology. The Archive’s collections are currently being used by students on the University’s MA in curating degree programmes.

Professor Mellor says: “Mike usually likes to form the environment himself, as he’s a gifted builder and designer, so this is quite a tough brief, given that the Library space is intimate and that there are glass and steel cases to negotiate.

“Mike visited the space and then set about selecting objects from the Archive. I think what he’s worked out is a very poetic rationale built around his choice of objects.

“Like Jeremy Deller, Mike is an interdisciplinary artist who complements the Sussex agenda – to connect networks of meaning. Sussex has always had a connection with people who practice and who are intimately involved in the process of art and it is wonderful that artists of Mike’s calibre are engaging with the university and its students in this way.”


Notes for Editors

The Ebb Tide runs from Wednesday 23 May to Friday 29 June, 10am-5.30pm daily (closed Sundays and Bank Holidays).


There will be an official opening of the exhibition on Monday 28 May at 6.30pm.


See How to Get Here for directions and transport links to the University of Sussex campus.

Follow the campus map (look for building no 20) for directions to the Library exhibition space.

About Mike Nelson

Born in Loughborough (UK) in 1967, Mike Nelson lives and works in London and has been presented in major group and solo exhibitions throughout the world. Over the past 20 years, Mike Nelson’s work has centred on the transformation of narrative structure to spatial structure with the intent to immerse the viewer in their own imaginative realm.

The work

These include exhibitions and projects at: The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2001); 49th Venice Biennale (2001); 13th Sydney Biennale (2002); CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco (2002); 8th International Istanbul Biennial (2003); Modern Art Oxford (2004); 26th São Paulo Bienal (2004); MAMCO, Geneva (2005); ACCA, Melbourne (2006); Creative Time, New York (2007); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2008); Hayward Gallery, London (2008); Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (2008); Tate Triennial (2009); 3rd Singapore Biennial (2011); and PS1, New York (2011-12).

A recipient of a Paul Hamlyn Award in 2001, Nelson has twice been short-listed for the Turner Prize. One of his large-scale installations, The Coral Reef, originally commissioned by Matt’s Gallery, London in 2000, was acquired by Tate in 2008 and was recently on show as part of the Collection Displays at Tate Britain, London. His most recent work I, IMPOSTOR, was conceived and created for the British Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. Nelson is represented in the UK by Matt’s Gallery, London, and internationally by Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, and 303 Gallery, New York www.mattsgallery.org / www.franconoero.com / www.303gallery.com

Art History at the University of Sussex

The Department of Art History is highly-rated and well-respected internationally and nationally both in terms of its research and its teaching, ranked in the top three departments in the UK (RAE 2008).

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

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Last updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2012