Art: Unsafe as houses

    Two huge installations — one in London, the other in Oxford — challenge the foundations of our most basic assumptions. Waldemar Januszczak revels in the mystery of it all

    This home delivery of foreign experiences is a development that I welcome, chiefly because it leads to such unlikely sights. For instance, at Tate Britain, on London’s Millbank, Michael Landy has managed to turn your arrival at the gallery into a majestically surreal experience. Up the Tate stairs you dutifully trudge, as always, past the Bank of England columns, and then, there before you, looming beyond the entrance door, framed by the great pom-pous arch of the Duveen Galleries, is a full-size, pebble-dashed, suburban semidetached of exceptional ordinariness. It’s huge. It’s the real thing. What is it doing inside the Duveen Galleries?

    It turns out that this is the house in Essex that Landy grew up in and in which his parents still live. He has carefully rebuilt the address inside the Duveen Galleries in minute detail. You can see where the damp around the windows has caused the paint to flake. You can see where his dad ran out of enthusiasm while tarring the exterior skirting and just stopped. But surely the chief thing to note here is that Landy’s house is on a mission to show up the Duveen Galleries for what they are, which is to say grand, pompous, stony and privileged. You could build 10 Essex semis in this huge museum hall and still have space left over for a children’s playground. Landy’s semi is involving the Duveen Galleries in a heartfelt class argument.

    The politics of space are also an issue for Mike Nelson, who has transformed Modern Art Oxford by turning the gallery’s upper floors into a convin-cing desert, and the lower floor into a convincing cinema foyer. Nelson was short-listed for the Turner prize in 2001 and, in my eyes, ought to have won. His atmospheric labyrinths of real- feeling spaces demand to be wandered through on the lookout for clues. You feel there is a point to your wanderings and that your journey will yield a solution. But it never does. The wandering is the point. Thus Nelson’s art dumps you inside a thriller without a plot.

    Your first test here is to enter the crummy cinema foyer with its three numbered doors. There is a choice to be made. The first door I tried was locked. So was the second. The third opened and led up some stairs to a creepy front room that seemed to be the secret lair of a dangerous wacko loner. The room was packed with portentous junk. Beheaded statues of the Virgin. Sci-fi books. Chimpanzee masks. The Unabomber would have holed up in a place like this. On the table, a crude playback system is set up to project a flickering video onto the back wall. In this video, a worryingly fluent fruitcake outlines his conspiracy theory about how the freemasons are secretly controlling the world. He shows us their secret signs. He recounts their secret history. He ponders the secret significance of their motto: ordo ab chao — order from chaos.

    Your head filled with this imperfectly assimilated conspiracy information, you leave the wacko’s lair — which turns out to be a re-creation of Nelson’s own studio in south London — and enter an entirely surprising third space, a secret chamber in a desert that can be reached only via a crudely nailed-together wooden tunnel. Down you go. Only to find another dead end at the back of the tunnel. If there was anything in here once, it has gone.

    Have you read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown? It’s in all the bestseller lists. I had to tackle it recently and can confirm that it is a profoundly lousy book with an astonishingly clunky ending. Just in case you are tempted to buy it, let me do the process of civilisation a service by advising you not to bother and by revealing that the search for the Holy Grail, which is ostensibly what the book is about, ends with the preposterous con- clusion that the Grail is located beneath the glass pyramid of the Louvre. François Mitterrand, you see, who commissioned the glass pyramid, was in on the secrets of the ancients. But let’s just stop right there. It is hokum of the lowest order.

    I mention it here because Nelson’s sneaky takeover of Modern Art Oxford — his piece is actually called Triple Bluff Canyon — employs similar enticement strategies to Dan Brown’s preposterous art-world thriller and it even directs our quest through much of the same pseudo-mystical, neo- medieval claptrap about secret societies and Templar knights and masonic conspiracies hatched during the Crusades. The difference is that Nelson’s installation manages to immerse you in some genuinely weird and spooky atmospheres. It’s sleazily obsessive. It takes you somewhere else. It isn’t hokum.

    Back at the gallery, when you find out that the secret chamber in the sand is empty, you want, of course, to know where you are. But the only way out involves retracing your steps through the cinema foyer and up some other stairs, before you finally emerge in the desert again, on the outside of the hidden chamber. Now you can see that it’s just a dilapidated shed, half-covered in sand. Whirr, whirr, whirr, go the cogs of your Sherlock Holmes cortex, trying to make sense of the excellent wild-goose chase you’ve been sent on.

    A bad novelist would have ended the situation on a clunky solution. Nelson, a fascinating and smart artist, throws in another mystery to deepen it further. It turns out that the half-buried woodshed is an exact re-creation of a famous piece of American land art installed at Kent State University in 1970 by the celebrated Robert Smithson. It was also at Kent State that four American students involved in Cambodian demonstrations were shot dead by the National Guard a few weeks later. Smithson died three years after that. Stop, stop, stop, screamed my own mini- Sherlock as this complication emerged. How come the buried woodshed could be accessed from the back? Who was in there? What were they monitoring?

    To fully enjoy Nelson’s work, you have to be prepared to allow mysteries to remain mysterious. The one thing you will never get at the end of Nelson’s journey is an answer. I know this. But there is one aspect of the Oxford quest that I find difficult to let go of. Why is the shed covered in sand? Smithson’s Kent State original was buried under earth. Sand is stuff you get in deserts. It is stuff you get in the Middle East. The original freemasons starting their secret mission during the Crusades would have known about sand. Soldiers in Iraq searching for WMD in hastily constructed underground chambers would know about sand. But why are we in Oxford being forced to consider the stuff as well?

    Back on the solid ground of Essex, at Tate Britain, Landy’s exact re-creation of his parents’ house offers up its hidden meanings with infinitely less struggle. It turns out that Landy’s father was a tunnel miner, forced to retire early after an accident, who took up DIY as a hobby and as his substitute for work. The Essex house has been extensively fiddled with. Double glazing has been put in. There is an extension. The front door is a marvel of ersatz Georgian replacement and now sports a lion-headed brass door knocker as well as a plastic buzzer.

    As you examine this much- tinkered-with Essex house, you slowly become aware of someone whistling Oh Danny Boy. It is a recording of Landy’s dad going about his DIY and absent-mindedly measuring out his days in half-remembered Irish ballads. This sad installation is a lament not only upon the loss of work but also upon the loss of a life’s proper meaning.