Drawing on a millennium-old route, Mike Nelson has brought a bit of Istanbul to the British pavilion in Venice. The city on the lagoon has been long since linked with Constantinople, and not just since the mega-cruiseships such as the "Magnifica" (which is so high it obscures even San Marco when it weighs anchors in Venice). The seafaring republic has had close business and cultural links with the capital of the former Ottoman Empire since about the 7th century and even had its own merchants' quarter in the city. As regards the East/West traffic connections, the Orient Express may have been only one episode in them, but probably the most famous one that the Brits contributed to this colorful story.
This year, Brit Mike Nelson has brought the installation he realized eight years ago at the Istanbul Biennial ("Magazin: Büyük Valide Han") to the Venice Giardini and into the British pavilion, as, after all, the Venice Biennial, founded in 1895, is the mother of all biennials. In 2003 in Istanbul it was not easy to find Nelson's installation in the old crafts quarter of the Büyük Valide Han round the Grand Bazaar. In fact, it was pretty much like searching for a needle in the haystack of the 15-million-plus megacity. Prospective viewers often got lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways. But once you climbed the steep stone stairs and opened the wooden door (which let light through) you found yourself in somber red light in the midst of an abandoned black-&-white lab. From the ceiling hung countless prints in a 24x36cm-format. All of them showed themes from the quarter outside. And because Büyük Valide Han is itself so old and semi-dilapidated, it was difficult to date the photos. It was as if you were looking over the shoulder of a Turkish Heinrich Zille or Eugène Atget, watching how he carefully and lovingly tried to rescue the old walls threatened with oblivion by taking photos of them. This lab, with the same 36cm-enlarger and the same plastic trays for the developer and fixer, has now been resurrected in Venice.
Once you have entered the British pavilion you run the risk of getting lost, just like eight years ago in Istanbul. Once again, you have to climb stairs, cross courtyards, move across floors in order to reach the "Fotomiene" (photo-mien), which is now in a far more confined space. Everything smell and feels like it did in Istanbul; less like the old walls of the Büyük Valide Han caravanserai and more like the quarter round it with the 20th-century houses. Is this why Mike Nelson chose "I, Impostor" as the title?
Everything is a bit musty, rusty, dusty, worn by the passage of time. Ladders lead to unattainable false floors, improvised worktops stand around bored, stools stood in a corner ashamed by the blobs of paint on them, an upside-down beer crate wants to work as a rest. Locked doors and empty TVs, dusty notebooks and tools disused for years while away their time. In another room, rugs and cushions on the floor attest to a human presence. A brick wall that has simply been slung together leads to a sewer. You may not smell anything but when you look the odor of urine will grab you. Next to this a chandelier intimates a higher social status. A shield-like lid with Arabic calligraphy and a Turkish football club pennant (covering the gap left by a non-window) refer clearly to Istanbul as the venue. It's all dirty, dusty, stale, half-used and yet so disorderly that no one would imagine it could all have been carefully arranged with a clear sense of order. So where on earth are we?
Nelson's environments are often travels back in time, thus resembling installations such as Edward Kienholz' 1969 "Roxy", the reconstruction of a 1940s brothel that is currently on show in the Pinault Collection at the Dogana. With the crucial difference that Nelson's rooms are bereft of people or man-like beings, but are designed with a strong feel for narrative. In a nutshell: Nelson knows his books and creates spaces that exert an irresistible narrative tug.
It's easy to imagine that one rainy autumn morning next October once the flow of art-tourists has slowly abated, some visitors will feel troubled standing in these rooms so replete with history. And this is precisely the strength of Nelson's pieces. They are full of precise details, at no point do you doubt the veracity of the place and things. Each trace confirms your suspicions and points to the life that must have been lived here. With his manic attention to detail, Nelson is like a photographer who has chosen a plate camera with a truly huge lens in order to enlarge absolutely in-focus prints on a scale of 1-to-1 so as to be able to show us the smallest details of even the finest of eyebrows. With the difference that in Nelson's environment it's all hands-on. Unlike Hans Op de Beeck, for example, whose 3-D settings are only apparent to the viewer when seen from a specific angle, with Nelson you are not sitting in the spectator section but are definitely very much in the middle of things.
The viewer moving through these spaces is uprooted and placed in a setting that s/he can neither choose nor dream. All you can do is absorb every element and make your own sense of the long chain of points of orientation. Because for all the precision, you traverse the space in the semi-darkness. The story you intuit behind everything you see will not reveal itself to you. The sum of all the evidence is also not explained by the context. After all, we are left on our own with our assumptions and intuitions.
Nelson is not at all like Gregor Schneider, who confused and inspired the audience in 2001 with a house-cum-labyrinth in the German pavilion, or for that matter Christoph Büchel, who in 1999 sent viewers crawling through ducts that exuded a decidedly Swiss sense of (dis)content. Nelson not only dispatches his viewers on an intellectual trip, but "transposes" his works and gives them a new shape at each venue. In 2001, the same year Gregor Schneider was the great discovery of Venice, in an old brewery Nelson sent his viewers on a meandering path through a 1950s "officeworld". When he was nominated for the Turner Prize that same year, he again presented "The Deliverance and the Patience", but the shape was compressed for the Tate Modern show in London. Everything was packaged and ready for assembly in the exhibition room, which thus became a storeroom. In 2005, he shifted a studio project developed in 1998 at the Camden Art Center in London to the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain (Mamco) in Geneva. There it had the lengthy title of "Studio Apparatus for Mamco – An intermediate Structure for a Museum: Introduction; Building Transplant in three Sections; Towards a Revisiting of Futurobjects (As Voodoo Shrine); Mysterious Island* See Introduction or Humpty Dumpty." Using waste wood from the prior show, he designed a structure some 35 meters long with corridors and narrow rooms, gave it a concrete lid and presented his possible studio (which vaguely resembled the former factory rooms in which the museum is located) not only as a waste dump and production site, but also as a trove of ideas and materials, and finally as the point of reception.
One of Nelson's great qualities is his ability to link physical and psychic spaces, to use them as the producers of associations and moods and to trigger buried dream images and abysmal fears. And when not busy replanting his spaces in other places, then (as was the case in 2003 with his "The Pumkin Palace") the spaces itself sets off on four wheels, in a former GMC Bus that resembled a Red Crescent vehicle and evoked places such as opium dens for war vets or Koran schools for soldiers in Afghanistan.
Catherine Pavlovic who curated the Nelson show in Mamco in Geneva remembers how manically the artist worked, his zest simply< not to be constrained, and for whom one of the great thing was simply to go for a beer after the work had been done: "Sometimes he says of his structures that they are an attempt to explore his own style in the sense of Jorge Luis Borges, who in the foreword to his 'Universal History of Infamy' describes the Baroque as a style that intentionally exhausts all its potential and thus borders on becoming a parody of itself."
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting
> "Slings, slings over all" by Barbara Basting
> "The Last Supperhero: Tintoretto" by Annette Tietenberg
> "Overpainting the feuilleton" by Joerg Bader
> "Venezia, Piazza Tahrir" by Barbara Basting