Mix a childhood spent in front of the TV with the British industrial music scene and an MA in sculpture: Nathaniel Mellors describes the origins of his medieval-tinged mutant soap opera Ourhouse
Jacob Fabricius: When and how did you begin the films that make up Ourhouse (2010–)?
Nathaniel Mellors: The initial idea was to come up with a scenario that could work for a mutant TV series – a kind of hybrid conceptual artwork and TV show. It came out of a long-standing preoccupation with TV that I had been exploring in various potentially inappropriate ways (in video installation and sculpture) since I was student. I grew up watching a lot of great British and American TV, and in my teens, before art school, I was involved with various local music scenes. So as I ‘learnt’ art – which is a peculiar process – I found myself pulling away, trying to collapse and expand the logic of certain artforms (some of which felt like they had become quite rule-bound) with ideas that I could run with almost unconsciously. And looking back, these more unconscious ideas tended to be steeped in the influence of TV and music, particularly the sensibility of British industrial music. Cinema comes in more consciously – I think – later on.
Coming out of my MA in sculpture I was working with a ‘total installation’ form with a lot of fragmented video projection and improvised sculpture and sound, filming strange video narratives with friends – mixing up actors and nonprofessional performers. The process developed and I found a kind of methodology in it. And then I made more of a commitment to writing, at first because I wanted the dynamics and potential I had found in the installations I had made – in works like Profondo Viola (2004) and Hateball (2005) – to occur in the films. At a certain point I thought I should try and approach the form not as a kind of deconstructive exercise but as a ‘closed text’. I started to feel that deconstruction could, in some ways, be a default position for an artist – deconstructing the forms of the day – and that to make something that could hold its own relative to its inspirations I perhaps needed to more thoroughly generate something formally distinct, from the bottom up. Maybe I needed to go backwards to go forwards. I was looking at a lot of Pasolini as this was developing.
There was a specific opportunity, too – in 2009 Jonty Claypole, a producer at the BBC, invited me to make a short work for BBC1, to kick off the final episode of David Dimbleby’s The Seven Ages of Britain series. The show is a potted history of British culture, and the final episode covers the entire twentieth century. So I made The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser (2010) an artwork about broadcasting and history, featuring David Dimbleby performing with a highly naturalistic silicon prosthesis of his own face. Gwendoline Christie (‘The Operator’) and Johnny Vivash (‘Kadmus’) play two crap deities who are battling for control of this Dimbleby-face – they think they can ‘control the Modern age’ through the icon. This was my first experience of working in TV. I'd been making work inspired by TV and then I was able to make a work that took TV as its subject and was also broadcast to several million people. The work has the production values of BBC TV but it’s also resolutely an artwork – Dimbleby describes the status of the work itself within the work – which makes it even stranger: it’s a hybrid. There’s a seed there that I wanted to grow and grow. I was already working repeatedly with excellent actors – my friends Gwendoline, Johnny and David Birkin – and suddenly I wanted to do a lot more work with this BBC crew – the DOP, Ben Wheeler (who was shooting Peep Show for Channel 4 and The Thick of It for BBC2), the actors and I all felt a really good connection. So I went off and thought it would be great to have a scenario that could generate a potentially endless stream of episodes, like in a soap opera or long-running drama – something like Twin Peaks.
Then this very sculptural but literary image occurred to me – a person that eats books at the centre of a story. This person is not recognisable as human by the other characters. It is referred to as ‘The Object’. It’s a kind of device – the books ‘The Object’ eats, half-digests and regurgitates influence the story. It’s a fleshy, human printer engaged in the grotesque egestion of a literal 'neverending story'. I came up with this core idea for the Ourhouse scenario and then I asked my friend Dan Fox to help me with the character and story development – because he's so good a writer and editor, very precise where I am very messy. We did that for six months and then I wrote the first set of scripts – about 70 pages or so – in a few weeks. The first three episodes of Ourhouse emerged, with two animatronic ‘Ourhouse’ sculptures for exhibition at De Hallen Haarlem in September 2010 – Xander Karskens commissioned the work for De Hallen with Tom Morton and Lisa Le Feuvre for British Art Show 7. That helped keep me on track during quite an intense period of work.
Could you describe what you were looking for in a few of the main characters?
NM: It's sort of soap-opera or sit-com cliché – it's a dysfunctional family unit. There were a couple of things that felt key – the 'Daddy' character 'Charles-Maddox Wilson' (played by Richard Bremmer) is a man of the late 1960s/early 70s – he sees himself as a hybrid playwright-poet-alchemist-artist. But really he's an eccentric of enormous hereditary wealth, and he has created 'Ourhouse', this giant, sprawling property of ambiguous geography – it sort of grows and shrinks like it’s part of his mind. It's TARDIS-like. He has these two sons – Truson (played by Birkin) and Faxon (played by Benedict Hopper), one a biological son and the other adopted – and a young wife, Annalise 'Babydoll' Wilson (played by Christie). He does not appreciate his biological son, Truson, enough, although Truson has semimagical powers – he's a kind of savant, an innocent-savant. He fetishises his adopted son and fails to recognise the intelligence of his wife. He's a self-absorbed man, and we wanted him to represent the idea of failed radicalism, ideologies of individualistic liberation from the late 1960s failing through the reality of middle-class economic growth. There's another character that's very important too – 'Bobby Jobby', Robert Jobson (played by Vivash), who is the family's Irish gardener. He is at the bottom of the Ourhouse family structure, a relative outsider – which gives a lot of narrative possibilities. There’s a point in the story where the family indentify Bobby as the source of their problems. But Bobby is a good man – a potential hero. So I wanted to use these familiar forms and structures and then excavate them and fill them with different content – for lots of reasons. Maybe it’s an awkward thing, but I like that active quality of something not sitting too comfortably in its form. I'm happy that it works in its own way.
The films draw on many genres, including horror, slapstick, sitcom, theatre (what did I forget?), and it’s amazing how your narrative, language, setting and costumes seem both medieval and contemporary, even sci-fi…
NM: That started in an earlier work – Giantbum (2009) – which is a play in which some medieval explorers are lost in the bowels of a giant. The characters are wearing modern sportswear but with a medieval feel – the coprophagic 'Father' wears Puma. There are lots of childish puns in Giantbum – mostly in the verbose script – but I put some into the visuals: Puma = Pooma = Poo Ma = Poo More. Ourhouse Episode 3: The Cure of Folly (2011) is the 'medieval' episode, and the medieval characters in this episode are again wearing cheap contemporary sportswear mixed with some medieval elements – like Addison's knee-high leather boots, or ‘The Hek’s leafy crown. I pick the specific items of sportswear quite carefully, looking for items that I feel work within this hybrid-schema. Adidas & Yoshi Yamamoto's Y3 is a kind of high-end version – futuristic clothing with medieval cuts! It’s not overtly retro at all, I love it. But I also think this mixture of cheap contemporary sportswear and historical costume detailing reflects certain class divisions. My central narrative device, the character called 'The Object', has this glistening new sportswear look – it is wearing a white tracksuit and big baseball boots. One starting point for this was the idea that he was some kind of avenging angel – like the underclass who wear a lot of cheap sportswear – rearing up against a bourgeois culture with a more knowing, historicised approach to clothing. The original version of 'The Object' was going to be this filthy tramp, all covered in shit and straw, that the family don't recognise as human. But that seemed too literal, so it became this more distinct-but-mysterious thing, less easy to decipher, with its own language of sportswear, baseball boots and watches. And then the 'medievalists' – they appear and their sportswear links them back to ‘The Object’. I wanted that to give a sense of a pattern without confirmation or clarification.
Mysticism seems to be embedded in the films and how you write – a Kubrick-like mysticism… But they somehow also remind me of Molière's satirical plays. Do you recognise that?
NM: I think the idea of spending time putting something together from the bottom up, writing a script with its own interior logic and working through those ideas in different ways with collaborators who really know the work and get into the method… it’s very consciously put together – it’s a lot of effort – there’s a big technical side – which for me enables an incorporation of chance and accident in a way that begins to feel organic. I think systematising these almost oppositional processes can be related to mysticism. It’s a question of embedding things that keep on generating meaning, creating forms that resist total interpretation. Kubrick seems to be all about that. He exemplifies the discipline of mysticism. The work keeps giving. I think that many people would feel that by comparison my work looks cheap, confusing, pretentious…
I don’t really compare my work to historical writers because I make this material for a different format. And I like that in making art I can decide what the rules are. I tend to naturally make links across things and make things up. I think you can write Theatre of the Absurd from a schooling in Saturday morning kids TV. Like Tiswas vs Beckett. “Have you seen Happy Days?” “No, but I’ve seen happy days.” But I do really love what Terry Southern was doing in the 1960s – Dr Strangelove and The Magic Christian. I like a lot of absurdist writing – Spike Milligan's Goon Show scripts are amazing, and his play The Bed Sitting Room. I love Rabelais, Georges Bataille and Ed McBain. But none of these things are in mind when I’m writing. They might influence initial scenarios. The scenario of Ourhouse is influenced by Pasolini's Teorema and the scenario of Giantbum is loosely influenced by Gargantua & Pantagruel, but the things I go on to make are sufficiently different enough from any starting points that people have been able to criticise me for even citing them. Like if a games designer talks about Shakespeare it might seem strange to a few people but what should a form draw on to develop anyway? Super Mario World is a mock epic, and it requires no explanation. I’m often surprised by the extent to which people seem to want to unconsciously preserve artforms.
What is the perfect Pasolini cinematic moment for you?
NM: The butterfly-eating scene at the beginning of Porcile (1968) left a permanent impression on me; that was the first Pasolini film I ever saw. It’s a perfect ensemble of Marxist ideology intercut with the mythic/prehistoric via cannibalism and pig-fucking. But I think that with Pasolini, in my opinion, perfection is in the dynamic and visionary whole of it – the whole of Pasolini’s achievements are a kind of apotheosis of completely integrated artistic, poetic and intellectual activity. He’s the perfect model.
Language – or should I rather say that the British language? – and its tradition of satirical dark humour is important…
NM: I think that humour has a naturally dark tint to it. I think it can be natural for humour to become unfunny as an inherent manifestation of its function – it’s there to deal with the weird shit; it is our irrational organ. I gave a talk last year at the Hayward Gallery for their Wide Open School called ‘Notes on Brown Humour’, talking about the idea of humour as an internal organ which helps us to process the potentially physically compromising effects of language. The basic idea was that language is a projection from the body outwards, while humour is an internal moderator of its effects. And laughter is a bodily emission – an emission of a waste product through the mouth. I’m very interested in the seriousness of humour and a specific form of not-very-funny funny that can have a destabilising effect on the viewer.
Would you rather be a polar bear or a phasmid (also known as a stick insect)?
NM: A polar bear. Have power – be at the top of food chain but end up estranged due to convulsions in other people’s eco-cultural history. Drown.
Most of your films are made in Britain and with British actors and collaborators. Recently you have been spending time in LA – home of Hollywood and ‘Porn Valley’. Will that change your approach and production? Will you embrace America or stick to your own British tradition?
NM: I'd like to hybridise it. I'd like to bring my actors here and insert new American actors. Maybe the British actors will be very confused by the American ones – that could be part of a script.
How do the animatronics fit into your filmworks?
NM: It’s more like they come out of the filmworks. They come out of the scripts – I see them as one strand of different forms of studio practice in which I have been working out ideas in the scripts. So the first animatronics I made in 2008 were part of Giantbum and cast from the face of Vivash’s character ‘The Father’, the coprophagic priest. This character had a mechanical trajectory in the story – that of aspiring suicide-cult-leader using fear to control a frightened and isolated group of people – so we cast his face and made him into this uncanny, three-headed animatronic that talks and sings about ‘freedom’. The idea of a kind of mechanical trinity made sense for that work and so it became the third stage of that script. The talking-singing sculpture was sited at the end of the installation, but it sang about freedom and chanted the word ‘exit’ – I saw it as a kind of life-after-death for the story, character and script.
I also had the idea that kinetic art was so unpopular, so ugly and unstylish, that there might be room to do something interesting, particularly having the original script at the heart of the work as a counterpoint to the visual spectacle. I like the idea of a script providing a base for a visual rationale. I hoped that using my own scripts and films as a starting point for strange forms of studio-based art production could be a way to buck the slurry of visual art history. I wanted to write myself somewhere else and then use the writing as a kind of secret formula for visual development. Obviously solipsism is a risk with this approach. Writing is in itself quite a hermetic process. Since making the animatronics I’ve also made photograms and paintings with my collaborator Chris Bloor. Both approaches evolved with their own particular formal logic, which we have evolved out of ideas in the scripts. It’s hermetic franchising.
You are right, kinetic sculptures are not on everybody's lips these days. Do you think it is the crafty element that makes them less desirable to make, collect and maintain?
NM: The craft thing is interesting to me – it was ghettoised for a long time. But now, because we have this endemic consumer culture of reconsumption, things that are less known and unfashionable become unfashionably desirable and then they become unfashionably fashionable and then they become just fashionable. All the subcultural marrow gets sucked out. The recent Ken Price show at LACMA in LA was good. It’s LA-cool, but it retains an awkwardness and humour. This is really appealing to me, this sense of awkwardness and humour. Sometimes it verges on ugliness, but I wouldn’t summarise it as that – it’s a resistant quality that can’t be reduced to visual tropes. It resists stylisation. I find this quality in a lot of the Chicago Imagists’s work – wonderful work. It’s interesting to see who this cultural recycling does and doesn’t work for – certain figures and movements seem intrinsically resistant. Look at an awkward figure like George E. Ohr, for example – he is a founding father of American Modernism and is broadly unappreciated, probably because he has been placed in this craft ghetto that you mention. He’s a seminal figure, but historically he’s an oxbow lake. And now ceramics are fashionable but he’s still unknown. It strikes me that the artworld periodically fixates on a particular look – in the last decade we’ve had the look of music; the look of narrative; the look of craft (including ceramics); the look of the digital. It’s interesting to me how the environment, like the fashion world, needs a new theme to fixate on – but how primarily visual the environment remains. If you put in something more awkward, it’s processed to this visual level. I’ve seen a lot of artists staging the appearance of literature in their work. It’s fascinating and weird. I can’t separate myself from this cultural pandemic, but I do try to address it in the work.