On your next trip to Preston, I urge you to visit the imposing Brutalist bus station on Tithebarn Street. Recently saved from demolition by some tenacious locals and the vital voice of The Twentieth Century Society, it serves as a backdrop for Nathaniel Mellors’ newest film in the ‘Ourhouse’ series, titled Ep. -1: Time, made especially for the Harris’ collection after they won the £40,000 Contemporary Art Society Annual Award in 2014. The work is currently on show at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery (a Grade I listed neoclassical behemoth also worthy of a visit) as part of Nothing Happens, Twice: Artists Explore Absurdity. Mellor’s work is shown alongside new commissions and existing works by artists Pavel Büchler, Broomberg and Chanarin, Sally O’Reilly and Bedwyr Williams, among others, which share a dark sense of humour and a keen sense of the absurd.
The title of the exhibition, taken from a famous description of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as ‘a play in which nothing happens, twice’, offers a clue to the curatorial logic. Parallels can be drawn between the selected works and the style of fiction writing and theatre that emerged in 1950s Europe known as the Theatre of the Absurd, of which Beckett was a major proponent. Experiencing Nathaniel Mellors’ Ourhouse Ep. -1: Time certainly feels analogous to watching an absurdist play, as bizarre situations and nonsensical scenarios are played out in settings that often bear no obvious relationship to what is happening. Variously described as a ‘mutant soap opera’, Mellors’ Ourhouse series combines elements of TV melodrama and situation comedy to create something entirely unique, deeply disturbing and utterly compelling. Characters act regardless of the usual motivations and cause-and-effect reactions and the worlds created often feel incoherent, frightening and strange.
I was still recovering from my experience of the previous Ourhouse films at the British Art Show in 2010 and the ICA in 2011, and I felt equally bewildered as I watched the escapades of Ep. -1’s highly dysfunctional family unit. At the head of the family is Charles Maddox-Wilson, a loquacious and somewhat dominating father figure played to perfection by Richard Bremmer. Charles is an artist with the transformative powers of an alchemist and a hair-brained scheme to travel back in time using prehistoric faeces as fuel. With me so far? Good, because its about to get a lot stranger and much more scatological. His companions on this adventure are his sons Truson (aka ‘True son’- his biological offspring) and Faxon (his Fake or adopted son). Word-play abounds in Mellors’ writing, who takes obvious pleasure in slippages of meaning.
Charles’ vivacious girlfriend Babydoll is the apple of his eye until she gets kidnapped by a group of marauding cavemen and replaced by a lavatory. Charles and his sons ostensibly go on a rescue mission to save Babydoll, a mission that is sometimes aided, sometimes hindered, by a miscellany of characters including the deeply terrifying Sergeant Jobbins, who acts as a kind of gatekeeper. Sporting syphilitic sores on his face and wearing an army uniform adorned with scout badges, he has a rather distracting habit of thumping the desk with a dildo to hammer a point home.
Their home is the Preston Bus Station, which gradually reveals its Tardis-like innards, spitting them out into ever-weirder locations. They eventually come across a maniacal genius whose stolen Charles’ idea for time travel. However, in Mellors’ universe the Delorean Time Machine has been substituted for a porcelain toilet fuelled by human excrement. Brian Catling (English sculptor, poet, novelist, film maker and performance artist), makes a few short but memorable appearances in the film as ‘The Object’, a creature that gorges on the torn pages of books and then regurgitates them in pulpy globs. Mellors has hinted that ‘The Object’ ingestions may be altering the reality that the other characters are experiencing. Either way, it’s an iconoclastic gesture that seems to mirror Mellors’ approach to art-making.
In this latest episode of Ourhouse, Mellors takes a running jump and lands outside of the confines of good taste. The film relishes in body functions and the obscene, which is not to say that it is merely puerile but should be viewed in the Rabelaisian tradition of grotesque and scatological realism. Excrement being something both comic and sobering – a reminder of the indignities of our shared bodily condition, as well as symbolising the link between our bodies and the earth into which this inert material will eventually return. Mellors’ commission for the Harris is a visceral viewing experience, a successful attempt at plumbing what he calls ‘a deeper weirdness.’
Nothing Happens, Twice: Artists Explore Absurdity is on at the Harris until 4 June 2016. Nathaniel Mellors and guests will discuss Ourhouse, Ep-1: Time on 7 May, more details here.
Image: Nathaniel Mellors, Ourhouse, Ep -1: Time, 2016 (film still). Courtesy of Harris Museum and Art Gallery.
Holly Grange is a curator and writer based in Sheffield and gallery manager at S1 Artspace.