nick mangan: ekphrastic obolus

Studio 12, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces
25 October - I 6 November 2002

Nick Mangan's the obolus takes his work to a new level, not only extending his range of materials but also his technique and thought. Mangan is certainly drawing on ideas familiar from earlier works, but putting them to new uses: the industrial objects (oil drums, dumpsters) of previous efforts are not so evidently industrial; the allusions are recalibrated here to new ends.

The obolus, which resembles a gigantic car speaker, it’s woofers distorted from the raw force of whatever the hell is blasting out, squats soundlessly on its little legs, hood open to reveal that there is nothing there but fake routers. No wires, no transistors, no nothing. At once minimalist (a single object displayed a gallery cube) and surrealistic (bizarre encounters of the disparate), the obolus has a genuinely weird presence. Part of this weirdness is that the obolus treats supposed quotidian objects, like cars and speakers, as what they actually are - highly designed objets d'art. This is a crucial aspect of Mangan's ekphrastic process, to reveal the art in objects that seem not to have any.

lt is also worth saying that there is something very blokey about this work of Mangan's: not only in its blocky, imposing presence, but also insofar as it draws from stereotypically masculine obsessions with speed and noise and to the enormous systems that sustain them. There is not a place on earth that roads and rock music have not penetrated, not an isolated jungle or icy waste that has not seen 4WDs or rocked out to Jimi Hendrix. Exemplary of the cutting up of the body of the earth into asphalt, oil routes, energy zones, and multinational commerce, cars and rock are two of the mass-movements of technological globalisation, which move and put into movement, radically de-localising people, places, affective states, and, in these movements, making possible all sorts of unexpected encounters. Hence the hybrid quality of the obolus, at once handmade and medium-tech. car and speaker, everyday junk and cult object.

The work evokes that strange suburban spirituality that involves groups of men communing, staring fixedly at the metal and wires revealed by the open hood of a car, only now and again murmuring - helplessly if lovingly- 'Rip out the diff' or 'Check the carby'. The spirituality of cars is most obvious and intense when they have broken down. And the rapture of heavy rock only permits thought when you have pulled the plug. Perhaps these are among the central things that art does now: immobilises and silences. While everyone and everything else is clamouring for representation, for public attention, for recognition, art has been covertly heading the wrong way down the one-way street, evading notice and keeping the stereo turned right down.

So immobilisation and silencing are also ways in which events can be sustained, registered, transmuted and transmitted. The involutions of Mangan's sub-woofers, for instance, are the re-presentation of a computer-rendered image of a sound-recording of a flock of pigeons taking flight in an urban space. In Mangan's previous work, drums were hollowed out, as if enigmatic excavations into substance, suggested infinite, non-standard geometries; or as if a mad cybernetic mole had been burrowing into the white plinths of modernism; or as if bifurcating radicles had been extracted from their environment and then induced to ramify in the void of an exhibition space; or, again, as if the demented loops and struts of an impossible roller-coaster were twisting according to another, as-yet inconceivable, logic.

In the case of the obolus, this tendency is incarnated in the striated negativity of the sub-woofers. But it is also this aspect of the obolus that is a little dissatisfactory. If anything, Mangan has not yet managed to integrate it adequately with the 'positive' elements of his construction. In previous work, you tended to find one or the other; the oil drum, for instance, was so striking because its familiar industrial form had been internally and unexpectedly resculpted. So the obolus tries to do a little too much: I can sort of see the point of recording a flock of pigeons, but imaginatively they are too distant from the cars and speakers to really support each other. On the other hand, it is probably also this aspect of the work that gives it such drive - it will be interesting to see if Mangan's forthcoming work manages to overcome this particular divide. But you can certainly congregate admiringly around this monstrous ekphrastic obolus, to stare at the fake routers, or re-routers that produce the work, and pretend to pretend to keep its exploded collision in place.