Mike Nelson review by Rebecca Lewin
Mike Nelson’s sculptural installation for the British Pavilion in Venice is a reworking of the 2003 piece Magazin: Büyük Valide Han, originally created for the Istanbul Biennial. This exportation of 21st century society’s most exotic and controversial goods - contemporary art - from Turkey to Venice is a modern equivalent of the historical trade routes and alliances between the Ottoman and Venetian empires. The movement and alteration of this work also highlights the displacement of each country’s art to Venice for the period of the biennale. Instead of attempting to represent the atmosphere of one country or another, Nelson has exploited his past artistic practice to extend and parallel Venice’s dependence upon the history of its unique topography.
The interior of the pavilion has been transformed into an unrecognisable warren of interconnecting spaces that stretch across three floors. Entering, we are immersed in a world that is neither ours nor Nelson’s, that is neither real nor imitative, that does not belong in Venice but which does not claim to reconstruct the Turkish caravanserai it references. Reminiscent of buildings we may have seen or visited in the easternmost parts of the Mediterranean, we can be under no illusions as to the constructed nature of the space, but the banality of its dust and the familiarity of its decrepitude ask us to imagine otherwise. Some rooms are derelict, while the inhabitants of others seem to have left shortly before our arrival. Here is a makeshift bedroom, there a chandelier repair shop; at the heart of the building we find ourselves in an open-air courtyard. The removal of the roof of the pavilion connects the constructed spaces we are attempting to inhabit with the outside world, undermining the inevitable impulse to believe in this reality even as natural light and weather affirm the solidity of the structure physically surrounding us.
Unnatural light, meanwhile, is distributed inside the pavilion, the most intense being a dark red that floods makeshift dark rooms. Enlargers and developing equipment are the source of hundreds of photographs, which capture the Turkish han that inspired Magazin and Magazin itself, these last being used to reconstruct the new work. The photographer - perhaps the artist’s alter ego - seems to be an obsessive chronicler of lost architecture, and it is easy to link these Frenhoferian attempts to arrest our surroundings in print with Venice. Constantly represented in painting, photographs and as a film set, the city has become a simulacrum of itself, a process that Nelson’s work refers to but does not rely upon.
It may be difficult to describe the experience of moving through this installation, but Nelson’s practice is inextricably linked to text, and the time slippages that occur while we read re-occur in the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of these interstitial spaces. It is successful precisely because of this involuntary response. Despite the extraordinary lengths Nelson goes to in order to create installations such as this, the physical space left for the viewer is accompanied by a far more powerful space for the imagination.