Nathan Coley’s The Lamp of Sacrifice: 286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh (2004), which models in cardboard all 286 places of worship listed in the Edinburgh Yellow Pages, is one of the most beloved works of conceptual art in Scotland. It is both lighthearted and very serious: there is something childish about it, about the use of cardboard, about the atmosphere of the model village (Legoland, Madurodam, and countless smaller seaside attractions), gamelike about the attempt to identify each church. At the same time, the title hints at the act of devotion or at least the effort involved in its building. It could be taken as an act of homage, or a parody of all the useless work involved in constructing places in which to worship a god who does not exist.
Born in Glasgow in 1967, Coley graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1989. Since then he has lived and worked in Dundee and Glasgow. He has exhibited the length and breadth of Scotland, as well as Stockholm, Christchurch, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Freiburg, Vancouver, Singapore, and Bexhill-on-Sea. He was shortlisted for the 2007 Turner Prize, which was won by Mark Wallinger. As well as cardboard churches, he is known for works in text, spelling out messages in light such as There Will Be No Miracles Here, constructed in lightbulbs and sited in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. A similar 2012 work spelled out A Place Beyond Belief in Pristina, Kosovo.
The Edinburgh Lamp of Sacrifice was a development of a 2000 project, The Lamp of Sacrifice (161 Places of Worship, Birmingham), in which he modelled 161 places of worship in Birmingham. Also related is a self-explanatory video work, 14 Churches of Munster, made the same year as the Birmingham churches.
The title comes from Ruskin, who saw the effort involved in making a building as being integral to our appreciation of the building, and specifically the effort involved in constructing a church as replicating in some way the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture he wrote of “the spirit which offers for such work precious things simply because they are precious; not as being necessary to the building, but as an offering, surrendering, and sacrifice of what is to ourselves desirable.”
Ruskin felt in the nineteenth century that this was already an idea with few followers, and it is still less popular now in an era of functionalism. Coley shows how far the notion of effort has become divorced from modern art practices, where a few words or an empty space can be an artwork, and even real constructions can be contracted out to fabricators.
Ruskin wrote “Ornament cannot be over charged if it be good, and is always overcharged when it is bad.” Yet the dominant characteristic of Coley’s models is their total lack of ornament, their bareness. This might be considered simplicity, but they clearly have something of the aura of the cardboard box. You can easily buy cardboard models of churches and cathedrals with far more detail that Coley has produced. He used heavy-duty corrugated cardboard which cannot carry fine detail. He does not paint or texture, he merely cuts, as though it is only the first stage of a construction awaiting a schoolful of children with poster paints. Ruskin emphasised the importance of valuable materials as a form of sacrifice, yet Coley is using the most basic of building materials.
The work is therefore more parody than exact duplication of the Ruskin cathedral with its beautiful decoration and enormous expenditure of effort. Coley described it thus: “It was a perverse undertaking to remake things that already exist. It’s like a Biblical fable for me to sacrifice my time and energy to these places of worship – to make them mine as opposed to theirs. There was nothing beautiful or exciting about it. After two weeks it became total drudgery.”
As with many conceptual works, he foregrounds the process of creation as much as the finished product, exhibiting the pages torn from the telephone directory that he worked from. Its interest in the passage of time, it relates to other works such as Waiting on the Scottish Parliament, in which he is depicted lurking in central Edinburgh awaiting the building that will house the new Scottish government. A similar work Searching for Crystal Palace pursued the famous, long-demolished London landmark.
Coley critiques Ruskin, but is it a critique of churches themselves, or a celebration? So much of his work is about religious ideas that he must have some interest in the divine, yet again and again, in There Will Be No Miracles Here or A Place Beyond Belief, he is explicitly referencing irreligiosity and faithlessness. His work is a mapping of the limits of the religious, an attempt to find out where the divine does and does not exist. Even though not religious, Lockerbie Witness Box and Lockerbie Evidence, both 2003, approach the sublime in their failure to evoke any of the true horror of the event to which they refer. Like Ruskin, who failed to convert his critique of capitalist society into any kind of political system, Coley offers no specific critique or program in his works about religion, Lockerbie or Kosovo.
The best of recent Scottish art, as with Jim Lambie’s crazy brightly-coloured works informed by pop music and fashion, treads unexpected routes between high conceptualism and fun. Immediately enjoyable, yet reflecting deeply on artistic tradition, Coley’s art multiplies meanings and significances from childhood joy to high Victoriana. If it offers no higher truth, art which offers higher truth is often terrible, and perhaps we must construct our own meaning through months of painstaking cardboard cutting.
Nathan Coley, The Lamp of Sacrifice: 286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh, 2004. Cardboard. Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Photograph by author.