Mike Nelson ‘The Coral Reef

Mike Nelson’s The Coral Reef was first shown in 2000 to huge acclaim at Matt’s gallery in east London. Epic, serious and troubling, it ushered a generational turn away from the pop sensibilities of the YBA’s.

Walking around The Coral Reef at the Tate Britain it feels historicized by the events of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’. The labyrinth installation depicts a specific type of ‘non-place’; the rooms, corridors and foyers are places we know but have never visited, places lifted from our collective nightmare.


The rooms allude to certain belief systems, articulating a cast of outsiders and extremists; characters that have been discarded onto the periphery of society. To an extent, the installation is a portrait of disempowerment and how this manifests itself in increasingly potent ways.

Specifically, The Coral Reef feels very american, its codes and symbols taken from the vernacular of american horror films.  The space that The Coral Reef occupies between fiction and reality is disentangled, its success lies in making willing participants of its public.

The characters it describes are archetypes that depict a moment in culture where we don’t really understand who we are and what we are fighting against. As viewers we succumb to the fiction, wandering around the empty rooms feeling victimised by an implied enemy, like the ongoing ‘war on terror’ the enemy is at once invisible and highly dispersed.

The Coral Reef is a work made at the turn of the century and articulates much of what has happened since. Like the greatest novels, its fictions point towards greater truths.

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About georgevasey

George Vasey is a curator and writer. You can contact him at georgegrahamvasey@gmail.com

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