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Dark heart of Venice: Mike Nelson's installation at the British Pavilion relocates time, place and his own past to create a show that is literally steeped in history.



Five years ago I spent six weeks with Mike Nelson sharing a Georgian townhouse in the centre of Margate; today all I can get is 10 minutes in a store cupboard in the basement of the British Pavilion in Venice. Nelson has reconfigured the interior of this Palladian-style villa as the British contribution to this year's Venice Biennale.

In Margate Nelson was transforming a derelict building for Turner Contemporary, reconfiguring it into a cannabis farm and a complex of photographic darkrooms. It included a labyrinth of hydroponic water pipes, reflective walls and several thousand watts of halogen light. This was juxtaposed with a succession of damp darkrooms festooned with obsessive photographic documentation of the town, and washed with deep red 'safelights'. It was, in retrospect, like a model of Venice and the gleaming surfaces of its canals overexposed with bright sunlight and tourist cameras by day, and underexposed by pink street lights at night. It is one of a series of complex installations by Nelson that have engaged with the collision of cultures--East and West, Christianity and Islam.

In Venice, Nelson has secreted an entirely convincing replica of an Istanbul backstreet into the existing structure: a warren of artisans' workshops (Fig. 3), domed ceilings, carved doors, a prayer room, a 'non European-style' toilet, and, at its centre, an open courtyard complete with corrugated plastic awnings and rusting satellite dishes, fans, grates and grills. Amid these chambers are, again, darkrooms draped with rows of black and white images of an uncannily depopulated city. At first glance it appears to be Venice, but closer inspection (or prior knowledge) reveals the images to be of Istanbul.



Nelson's installation at the 54th Venice Biennale revisits the work he first created for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial in 2003. Here, at this ancient crossroads between Europe and Asia, he installed a darkroom deep within the city away from other exhibits, inside the Buyuk Valide Han--a large 17th-century inn for traders. Nelson describes this intervention as 'a psychological device' operating in some ways as a camera obscura, filled as it was with the same photographs now seen in Venice which document the once-palatial, now dilapidated building that enclosed it. He describes the work as 'a dark heart sucking in all around it' (Fig. 4).

Why, I ask, transfer this work to Venice? 'I was thinking of Venice in terms of its Byzantine histories, the ownership of Byzantium by Venice, the looting of objects and the movement of peoples from that period.' After the sacking of what we now know as Istanbul in 1204, Venetian ships were required by law to carry stones from Istanbul to Venice as ballast to their cargo. Venice is partly built with stones from Constantinople, and Nelson's work consciously echoes this.

The work is Nelson's second large-scale installation in Venice. The other was realised 10 years ago, elsewhere on the lagoon (commissioned by the independent London-based arts organisation Peer), and this is reflected in the work's title I, Impostor. 'It was the sensation I had when I came back to Venice,' says Nelson, 'retracing the steps of my former self somehow. In a very subjective way it seemed an interesting title in relation to that, but also in a very literal sense, the British Pavilion having this completely different identity in its interior. Normally 'T' would never come before "impostor" as you would never admit to being an impostor, so it's a very strange, awkward grouping of letters. It almost looked like another language.'

Why not build a new darkroom for Venice? 'I was thinking about how I could never make a darkroom in Venice as the soul has been sucked out of it by photography. So I thought maybe I could displace the views by photographing somewhere else that looks like Venice and, for me, Istanbul is the one city which looks at all like Venice', Nelson replies.

I, Impostor also traces both the artist's own career history and that of the Biennale as a phenomenon--a subject Nelson has become very familiar with over the past decade. 'Building a biennale inside another biennale--world history and personal history colliding. I've got my careworn, personal trajectory through biennials for a decade. From Venice in 2001 through Silo Paulo, Sydney, Singapore and Istanbul, so there's a commentary on my life and on the prevalence of these events in the world and their shift eastwards. Istanbul being that symbolic biennial--the first one in the East.'

The earlier work for Venice, entitled The Deliverance and The Patience, takes its cue from two galleons that sailed from Bermuda to Virginia in the 18th century--and referred to in the introduction to Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs. I, Impostor also has a literary inspiration--Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle, which looks to the post-Byzantine relationship between the two cities of seafarers. As Nelson explains: 'A Venetian is captured by Turkish pirates and brought back to Istanbul, where he is sold to this astrologer of the Caliphs who turns out to be his double. In the end, one returns to Venice--but you don't know which one is which. When a work starts to work for me, you get this conspiratorial series of linkages that somehow start to merge and point all in one direction.'


Nelson's work has proved strangely prescient in recent years. His interests and subjects have become the focus of debate not just among artists and academics, but for all. How does his work reflect concurrent geopolitical changes--the so-called Arab Spring? 'I was very keen to include images of Kemal Ataturk. Born out of the structure of its own country, not one that was implanted or kept in power by the West. I know he's very problematic, especially to some younger Turkish people now, but ultimately what he achieved in his very short life--the instigation of the Latin alphabet on the Turkish language, giving the vote to women--was incredible. But, then again, [he's] a figurehead that appears everywhere in every shop and every public space--very much like Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi.


Mike Nelson's installation at the British Pavilion, Giardini di Castello, Venice, is on display until 27 November.

Rob Tufnell is a writer, curator and gallerist based in London.
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Author:Tufnell, Rob
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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