It has been called geek art (by me). It has also been called nerdism (also by me). It definitely exists, and can be recognised as one of the most original tendencies in British art. My desperate attempts to find a name for it are the result of constantly encountering it.
If this were Japan, I would have no hesitation in christening it otaku art. Otakus are lonely computer hobbyists who live in small, dark rooms, never seeing the sun and constantly accessing cyberspace.
The defining thing about them is that they use their hobbyist skills to create artificial worlds for themselves. Which is also true of our nerdists. Yet where Japan’s otakus favour a digital reality that seems to have originated at the games console, nerdists are more Darwinian and organic. Their imagined worlds have a sense of 19th-century encounter, as if happened upon in a lost valley at the centre of a volcano.
If you trace these origins back to their beginning, I suspect you would end up shipwrecked, like Gulliver, on the island of Lilliput, in a doomed political dystopia. The Scottish artist Charles Avery is certainly a Gulliverist. The imagined island on which his installations are set is inhabited by two-headed snakes and mythical man-eating Yahoos. The painter Ged Quinn is another. He paints imaginary landscapes in whose beautiful clearings mysteri ous human lurkers have built evil-looking lairs. And, even though George Shaw, the interesting hyperrealist nominated for this year’s Turner prize, actually paints the run-down estate on which he grew up, I would count him as a geek artist, too, because his gloomy suburbs are painted with those humble Humbrol enamels that schoolboys use on toy warplanes. There is definitely something of the garden shed about Shaw’s obsessive recording of his estate origins.
The most obvious and probably the best of Britain’s otaku artists, however, is Paul Noble, whose marvellous show at the Gagosian Gallery takes us, once again, to Nobson, the weird and scary imaginary new town in which his art is always set. Noble has now been imaging Nobson for a decade and a half. And every fresh visit takes us to a different corner of this creepy dystopia, built, serviced and deserted by funny little human blobs.
Clumps of disfigured modernist buildings. Concrete mazes. Parks. Monuments. A public lavatory with more urinals than the new Wembley. Nobson was, is and always will be somewhere truly weird. A particularly weird thing about it is that all the buildings are shaped like giant words. When you examine closely the eccentric architectural cluster, in the Gagosian show, that claims to describe Nobson’s public toilets, you see that the buildings themselves spell out their function: PUBLIC TOILET. Architecture that speaks!
The new show is billed as Noble’s penultimate visit to Nobson. His 15-year project to describe every corner of this fantasy civilisation in minute detail is nearly complete. The determination needed to stick with such a project for all this time is, in itself, thoroughly nerdist. Nerdists are hardcore: they finish the Airfix kit.
The focus of the Gagosian show is an urban clearing in the middle of Nobson, recorded in a giant drawing that cannot be much smaller than the side of a London bus. Apparently, it took two years to complete, which does not surprise me. Every millimetre of Noble’s megacityscape has been envisaged with obsessive exactitude.
In the middle of the clearing stands a tall, sculptural tower that eagle-eyed visitors will recognise as the same tower that looms up in the background of Nobson’s public lavatories: the drawing that is also included here, even though it was made in 1999. Thus, a quick parallel can be drawn with that celebrated literary nerdist JK Rowling, who planned the entire structure of Harry Potter’s adventures before she even began the first novel. Noble has done the same with Nobson.
When he started his great project, he knew exactly where everything was going. Every new view in the minutely detailed and unquenchably strange drawings that are Noble’s forte is the latest realisation of an existing plan. Thus, the 1999 drawing predicts a view completed in 2010.
When I was a student, the Dutch fantasist MC Escher, who made black-and-white woodcuts of impossible constructions, was all the rage. His eye-boggling woodcuts were a particular favourite of the university nerdists of my time, and I suspect Noble knows them, too. There is certainly something of the black-and-white Escher conundrum about Welcome to Nobson, as the giant drawing of the tower in the square is entitled.
We seem to be at the symbolic centre of the city, where the Nobsonites have erected a momentous sculptural totem on which their ancient origins are recorded in a cryptic pictorial code. Think Trajan’s Column. Now think of the pictorial language of the freemasons. Now think Where’s Wally.
The sacred clearing is surrounded by ornate railings and, at all the main gateways to it, there are blobby sculptures raised on heroic plinths. In a new twist to Noble’s work, full-sized examples of these same blobby sculptures, carved out of pink new-age marble, are included in the show. So, as you enter the display, through a huge curtain of black-and-white geo metric beads, you feel as if you are entering the inner sanctum of an ancient cult.
The mysterious suite of fresco-sized drawings that confront you, along with the momentous blobs on pedestals, have a Pompeiian air to them, as if this were the perfectly preserved sanctum of a lost civilisation. Welcome to Nobson is the main surviving fresco, but, all around it, smaller drawings amplify the big picture’s details and describe Nobson’s smaller spaces.
Although the giant tower is undoubtedly the star exhibit, the show’s most informative pictures are actually found at the entrance to the display, where the origins of the giant totem are made clearer by a set of hilarious explanatory drawings. It turns out that the cryptic sculptural column actually illustrates the opening verses of Genesis: Nobson has biblical origins. As John put it in his gospel, in the beginning was the word. And the word became flesh. Which is why all the buildings in Nobson are word-shaped. This isn’t some alien civilisation rediscovered in a perfectly preserved entropic state. This is our own origin myth, given a Where’s Wally twist.
Thus, Nobson is Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City; it’s the new Jewish settlements created in the occupied territories of the West Bank; it’s Brasilia and Chandigarh; Salt Lake City, built from scratch by Mormons; and that strange holiday camp in which the Prisoner woke up one morning. Wherever humans have created an environment out of nothing to service and control their populace, they have built a location that can happily be twinned with Nobson.
What a doomy view. What a brilliant show. What a highly original movement is nerdism or geek art or Gulliverism or otaku art or the Rowling tendency.