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The Italian Tower

Nathan Coley, 2001

An Italianate tower sited in the water off the remote north shore of Kielder Water.

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In 2001 artist Nathan Coley was commissioned to create a temporary project for Kielder Water & Forest Park. He developed proposals that considered the lost landscape and buildings that might once have populated the Kielder valley, linking these ideas with Venice, another tourist destination with a long relationship to water and associated flooding.

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Nathan Coley's idea was not to reproduce a real building, rather to present a stage set of a structure that would be believable at a distance, but clearly fake at close range. 

A key element o his practice was the dialogue that the work would generate, and to that end, a compound was erected in the main visitor centre car park at Leaplish Waterside Park during the late spring of 2001 where the artist spent a number of weeks fabricating the structure and engaging in conversation with interested and curious passers-by. 

When the tower was ready, it was dis-assembled in the car park and packed onto pontoons to be towed across the lake to the site close to Plashetts Quarry where it was to become a feature for the summer period.

The completed tower remained in position for around four months, a beacon for people traveling on the ferry, with a specially recorded piece included in the boat's running commentary that played as the boat navigated the lake close to the sculpture.

"Coming up on our left is The Italian Tower by Nathan Coley, one of our artworks here at Kielder. It was initially fabricated in the car park at Leaplish before being transported across the water and re-constructed as e see it here. Made from timber, plywood and ceramic tiles, it stands five and a half metres above the water - a landmark for fishermen and birdlife alike."

The Italian Tower was eventually dismantled in late October as the winter weather closed in.


A legacy of the project became an image of the tower that was hung in the chalet where the artist had stayed while constructing the sculpture. This image was placed in such a way that future visitors staying in the cabin could compare the photograph of the tower with the view out of the window and across the lake to the now empty site where it had once stood, an enigmatic reminder to visitors staying there of a transient occupant in a constantly changing landscape.

Nathan Coley (b 1967, Scotland) investigates the social aspects of our built environment, working across a diverse range of media including public and gallery-based sculpture, photography, drawing, and video. Interested in public space, the artist explores how architecture comes to be invested - and reinvested - with meaning, and how through the competing practices of place these claims and significations come into conflict.

For Coley, buildings are empty vessels given significance by their social history: by the communities that populate them. The artist, then, is interested in these politics, insofar as they put a political demand on place in the current pluralist climate of enforced equality. Fiona Bradley comments, "The gap between the city as built and as experienced, as it exists in the world and in the mind and memory, resonates throughout Nathan Coley's practice... [he] conjures cities, metaphorically dismantling them." Or sometimes metaphorically blowing them up. In 2001, in a project for the Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal, Coley constructed a video work, 'The Land Marked', commenting on the landmark as a social hieroglyphic. The edifice he chose for his work to address was a historic and much contested fifteenth century tower in Belem, on the edge of the city and the sea. In it, the tower appears flanked by two others, two industrial chimneys which though not present today, did once exist in the manner Coley presents them. The artist then virtually re-enacts a historic incident: the demolition by explosion of the two modern towers. Then he does the opposite, portraying the destruction of the Belem tower and leaving its industrial counterparts intact. Though only a projected digital animation, the work garnered the attention of more than just the art world: it made national news.

Coley's practice reveals that claims to public space in postmodern society (society marked not by national cohesion, but fragmentation, transnationalism, pluralism) are made by groups of people who have different ideas on how it should be used; the structures they erect manifest these desires, values, and beliefs. Indeed, through his photographs, videos, installations and constructions, the artist reveals the unconscious of the architecture and cityscapes he interrogates, investigating social as much as physical constructions. Or as Coley says, "It's in your imagination."

Further information on the artist can be found at

Programme 5: Nathan Coley – Project based artwork

Programme Outline

The Artist
Born in 1967, Nathan Coley grew up in Glasgow and wanted to become a professional footballer. When he was 14, he had to make the decision on which direction to focus on. He was also very good at art; this informed his decision to attend Glasgow School of Art. He graduated from Fine Art in 1989, but it wasn’t until six years after graduating that he felt comfortable calling himself an artist.

Nathan describes his work as a process; he does not have a technique. His work is dependent upon his attitude towards a particular location – this means you can’t ever predict what a Nathan Coley piece will look like. He applies a way of thinking to a project and then creates a single piece of work in public for all to experience. Scaled models appear regularly in his work, which reveal a passion for architecture, monuments and places.

A key element to Nathan’s work is that the object is not the centre of the artwork. Whatever he creates deals with the journey – both literally to the site and nearby surroundings, but more importantly for the viewer, the creative journey – the conversations, the thinking behind the work and its route to manifestation.

Over the years, Nathan’s artwork has expanded from photography to include sculpture, digital animation and video. Commissions such as his sculpture, ‘Italian Tower’, at Kielder Reservoir have become integral to his practice. He now works internationally and spends roughly half the year traveling; the rest of the time he makes work. The notion of an artist’s studio doesn’t apply to Nathan as he does a lot of work on trains and planes. This important aspect of Nathan’s work undoubtedly affects what he produces.

Nathan makes a living from selling his work, commissions, grants and awards. The reason he makes art is not primarily to make money but he does it because he is interested in the possibilities that art presents.

Nathan undertakes a project with Newcastleton Primary School. They visit Kielder Reservoir to experience Nathan’s work and create their own models. The children are asked to think about the village under the reservoir that was flooded in 1972 in order to create the reservoir. They are taken on different journeys around and on the reservoir to fire their imaginations.During a ferry trip, the children take photographs of Nathan’s Italian Tower in Kielder Reservoir. Nathan accompanies the children to answer their questions. He explains that the tower is only temporary, thus introducing them to the concept of ‘temporary’ art, i.e. art that it is not necessarily precious.

Nathan works with the children in groups to build cardboard models of their impressions of the flooded village, which they then float on the water. The models are temporary and will be removed at the end of the project. This symbolises the village’s journey in 1972 while provoking thoughts about the communities who were moved to new houses.