Mike Nelson’s four installations, overall title Amnesiac Hide, are perplexing but survive in an air of stale, decrepit mystery. One feels compelled to explore the remnants of some forgotten event, or just remember a vague detail. Nelson has stepped outside the conventional contemporary art discourse and reinvented a manner of experiencing our mortality.

Quiver of Arrows is the unlikely title of the first installation. Four huge, old airstream trailers have been driven into the space and raised up onto a railway sleeper structure in a rectangle. Their wheels have been removed and Nelson has connected them so there is a passageway running throughout the wood paneled interior. A gallery wall was removed to accomplish the installation. Viewers mount a stairway and move through a moldy interior reeking of stale air. Each wagon seems to reflect a different culture, person or group. Jihadis spring to mind in one that contains Islamic literature and empty bullet magazines for an AK 47. Old movie stars in a Turkish poster, beer cans, a colt brandishing toy cowboy…I was reminded of Wild West mythologies replete with outlaws and covered wagons drawn into circles to provide protection from marauding ‘Indians’. One is tempted to open drawers but there is nothing specific to find; just odd bits like cigarette butts, a television emitting white noise, cassette tapes strewn in heaps. It’s a voyeuristic intrusion into someone’s private space.

The mystery is compelling though, and becomes more comprehensible in terms of Nelson’s previous work. He created the Amnesiacs in 1997, visualized as fictional outlaw bikers who live without bikes on the North Coast of Britain. They believe that the ocean is a sentient entity that communicates through the fragments given up as flotsam. Traces of existence are etched into these forlorn objects that have had their previous identity wrenched from them but in the process become imbued with a primordial, inchoate message of life.

Gang of Seven is the second installation, a collection of items washed up on the Vancouver coastline and given new life in odd formations. Burnt logs form faux fireplaces with red plastic flames shooting repurposed sparks, echoing other works in the exhibit. Old tires or buoys annex a skull with antlers to head their spinal column, lying prone like a crocodile. Other items become totemic, chunks of polystyrene covered in the grime of time, lashed with old rope fragments to strange metal structures, dollies and handcarts. The forms are random assemblages but with an undercurrent of meaning. Baseball caps lashed to objects fixed to the walls suggest new identity, perhaps as quasi-religious icons … and absent owners.

The presence and absence of Erland Williamson is a strong theme in the last two installations. A friend and collaborator, he subsequently fell to his death in 1997 while climbing in the Scottish Highlands. Eighty Circles Through Canada (The Last Possessions of an Orcadian Mountain Man), juxtaposes images of mountains, following a trajectory along the Rockies from Banff. Each image features a circle of stones, evidence that humans have made a fire there, hinting at exploration or colonization. These 35 mm slides are projected on the back of a shelving cupboard constructed from beach debris. Williamson’s possessions are displayed in this, including a camera, climbing rope, music, boots, books, sleeping bag and other paraphernalia. Nelson yearns to track an obscured journey through traces or ‘reach’ a life that has gone, reconstituted in a willful act of nostalgia. Williamson has become an Amnesiac, wandering in absence.

Double Negative (The Genie), 2014 consists of seven ponderous old photocopiers that have spewed out fragments of a travelogue in varying text sizes, heaped haphazardly on the floor. One reads about stopovers in hotels and places visited, sensing death through the repetitious ace of spades and an arcane tarot scythe-bearing figure. Erland Williamson had been part of this journey to China and Nelson had unexposed film from this period. When he developed the imagery, Williamson was present again, albeit as a memory, like letting the Genie out of the bottle.

This exhibition is very haunting and one admires Nelson’s tenacity of vision. Art needs ‘outlaws’ and visionaries like Nelson, who can make strong statements undeterred by institutional aesthetic conditioning. It’s very refreshing.

The Power Plant, Toronto
1 February—19 May 2014