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Turner Prize-winning Mike Nelson likes to scavenge the maze of memory

British installation artist Mike Nelson photographed at The Power Plant on Harbour Front, Toronto January 27, 2014.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

If a detail weren't there, you would notice its absence.

– Mike Nelson, 2010

No one goes into any interview with anybody, least of all a visual artist, expecting the consequences of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 to arise as a topic of conversation.

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Except, that is, if the conversation happens to be with Mike Nelson, two-time finalist for the Turner Prize, Britain's representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and, starting this weekend, the focus of a much-anticipated exhibition at The Power Plant. Titled Amnesiac Hide, the show, three years in the planning, is a Toronto premiere for the artist, a co-presentation of sorts with Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery, which offered its own iteration last fall.

Proud possessor of a luxurious beard worthy of a younger Red Green, the 46-year-old Nelson has risen to art-world fame in the last 20 years on the basis of his installation work – what he sometimes calls "fictional architecture" or "sculpture you can move inside." These constructions, lumbered with historical, personal and literary allusions, are often capacious, immersive and labyrinthine – "emotionally charged" works, in the words of British art critic Jonathan Jones, that often evoke "a stench of bitter memories."

Labyrinthine is also an apt adjective to describe Nelson's mind. Take what is perhaps his most famous piece, The Coral Reef. First installed at Matt's Gallery in London in 2000 and then reinstalled 10 years later at Tate Britain (after the gallery bought it for its permanent collection), it's a sprawling, anxiety-inducing maze of grungy corridors and spooky rooms, 15 in total. Each space is bereft of people but littered with enough debris to clue the peripatetic visitor into what its uses are. Among them: practising black magic, shooting heroin, fomenting revolution, evangelizing for Jesus, running an Islamic minicab business, consuming pornography.

On a couple of occasions during our interview at The Power Plant, Nelson prefaced an account of his inspirations and methods with the phrase "It's quite straightforward," only to continue with explanations that were anything but – an occupational hazard, it would seem, of spending a lot of time living in worlds of your own making. Thus, the impact of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty – which, in part, ceded a North Sea archipelago to Germany, in exchange for British title to one in the Indian Ocean – surfaced as Nelson wended through a description of the origins of his installation, Lionheart.

He had wanted to do something about colonialism, contemporary geopolitics and trade routes in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. All that somehow led him to hunting-and-gathering expeditions in the flea markets of the German city of Bremen, of London and (yes!) of Heligoland.

Eventually, the disparate materials he procured were gathered together in 1997 in the Galerie im KunstlerHaus, Bremen, to become … Lionheart. Litter presented as a drifter's camp – what Nelson calls "a notional island" – Lionheart was, in 2003, the artist's first major installation in Britain since his first nomination, two years earlier, for the Turner.

Nelson has also been doing a bit of scavenging since his arrival in Toronto in mid-January. Seven bulky turn-of-the-century photocopiers have been scrounged for a site-specific work, in The Power Plant's second-floor gallery, called Double Negative (the Genie). In the main space downstairs, meanwhile, three tall street lamps have been rented from the city to illuminate "with a more Hopperesque aspect" what will undoubtedly be the exhibition's pièce de conversation. Entitled Quiver of Arrows, it's a mammoth, skewed, rectangular assemblage of four connected Airstream trailers, the oldest made in 1939, the last from the 1960s.

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It's only the second time the work has been shown; it was created for a gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea neighbourhood in 2010. On their exterior, the metal-skinned trailers, their wheelless bulks propped atop a wooden frame, resemble a "broken-down spaceship," in Nelson's formulation. The work's wood-panelled interior, though, has been customized by the artist into a sort of 3-D Escher illustration or Mobius strip.

Each modular unit is decorated with precisely chosen, perfectly positioned detritus: ratty rugs; beer cans; butt-filled ashtrays; a mandala dangling from a ceiling; a picture of Muhammad Ali; a portable TV set tuned to play only static; a Turkish-language poster for a 1980 Charlton Heston movie; a dirty Bugs Bunny plush doll. Fumbling through its cramped, low-ceilinged premises is akin to visiting a hurriedly vacated commune or a cheapo museum of half-remembered possibilities, trivial pursuits, abandoned hopes, futile practices. Disorienting, eerie and sad, Quiver of Arrows is brilliantly realized, and rewards concentrated viewing.

Just across the hall from Quiver is Gang of Seven. Another maze of sorts, it's a collection of discrete, rather totemistic entities and sites that Nelson cobbled together last August from the wealth of flotsam and jetsam that washes ashore on the beaches of the Strait of Georgia – tires, buoys, chicken wire, rope, burnt logs, plasticware, antlers.

Nelson calls Gang of Seven a "revisitation," in that it harkens back to a work of his from the late nineties called The Amnesiacs. In Nelson's conception, the Amnesiacs were an imaginary biker gang (without bikes) living near Berwick-upon-Tweed on the North Sea, who, believing the sea to be an "intelligent entity" à la Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel, Solaris – are you surprised to learn Nelson's a fan of Soviet-era science-fiction? – comb the beaches and try to "decipher" what the br(a)iny deep is giving up, by making art from it.

Work on this project was "complexified" when Nelson received word that Erlend Williamson, a long-time friend, art-school associate and fellow creator, with whom Nelson planned to collaborate on The Amnesiacs, had died in a climbing accident in the Scottish Highlands.

Williamson's memory haunts all of Amnesiac Hide's many pregnant absences. That's nowhere more so than at the entrance to Eighty Circles Through Canada (the Last Possessions of an Orcadian Mountain Man), which is in part a construction of wooden shelves on which Nelson has placed Williamson's hiking boots, shirts, straps, backpack and cordage. It's also there in Untitled (Intimate Sculpture for a Public Space), a Plexiglas vitrine containing Williamson's sleeping bag, with a slit where the mountaineer's head would have been, through which visitors can insert donations for The Power Plant.

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Nelson has dealers in New York, London, Turin and Berlin, and his pieces are now in private collections in Britain, Germany, Italy, the U.S. and Canada, as well as in a handful of public institutions, including the British Council Collection and Stockholm's Moderna Museet.

Still, given the nature of his work, it's hardly surprising to learn that most of his art income comes from project funding rather than gallery sales. "I have a sort of strange following," he says. "There are those who are very much high up in the art world. And then there's people just wandering in off the streets who quite enjoy it."

He remains philosophical about not being everyone's cup of tea, seeing it as part and parcel of his here-today/gone-tomorrow aesthetic. "I've always been a believer in the idea of demolishing things. The work occupies people's minds if it's successful, if it's dispersed into the world through that manner. The larger pieces in particular have the effect, I think, of annexing the audience's own memories. They start to believe the places they've been are actually part of the work."

But would he like to have a permanent installation somewhere? "Well," Nelson ventures, "on a pragmatic level, if it's installed permanently, that would mean more money and make it easier to live" – not a minor concern for someone who makes his home in London, is married to a video artist, and is raising two daughters, age 11 and 8.

That said, Nelson remains wary of "what happens to work when it becomes institutionalized." He thinks that some pieces by the late U.S. land artist Robert Smithson at the Dia: Beacon museum north of New York, for example, are "almost too precise, too well-installed." The result, he feels, is the loss of "this incredible charge that things can possess."

Still, a permanent installation "in the right kind of circumstances could be very interesting," he concedes. Then he laughs. "But I don't know how obsessed I am with permanency or having some kind of legacy. What's really permanent, anyhow?"

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