Mike Nelson: British Pavilion: ‘I, Impostor’
Is Mike Nelson’s installation a convincing space? Yes, completely. Is it a narrative space, a pictorial space? Quite…almost.
What follows is a series of thoughts about this installation; a continuing discussion about pictorial space. Based around art seen in Venice and then in Rome. I have put them together as they developed.
From the outside the British Pavilion at this years Biennale is unchanged. Inside, a winding set of narrow corridors and small rooms getting increasingly shabby as you find the central courtyard.
This installation is based on the Han, those vast decrepit caravanserais you find in the souks in Turkey, Istanbul in particular. More specifically the Bűyűk Valide Han, the 17th century building that Nelson used for an installation during the Istanbul Biennial of 2003; that connection is important to Nelson, but by no means obvious as you wander the rooms. There are clues, darkrooms (traditional wet printing, red lit rooms) photos hanging up to dry and offices with the same photos of Turkish textile factories, and receipts in Turkish. In one particularly poignant juxtaposition there is an old gridded plan for cloth patterns ruled out, next to it, blocking out the window, is a plastic printed bag with Fenerbahce, the Istanbul based football club. As you might expect with Mike Nelson the level of craft and commitment is total, this is not a set it is utterly convincing; there are no real traces of the pre-existing shape/ spaces of the British Pavilion. Several storeys have been built into the original single storey building, even an inaccessible, but visible cellar full of old bottles and yet more junk. Rickety wooden stairs, low ceilinged sleeping spaces with a few sacks thrown down as a mattress.
But, this work doesn’t have the menace of ‘Coral Reef’ for example, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUsaSnyvZnA) there is less fear of getting lost, trapped or just stuck.. Our journey in ‘I, Impostor’ is more anthropological than investigative, more iconographic than detective work is needed to situate yourself. The dark rooms and sheets of black and white photos are intriguing, but it all seems self explanatory. Especially if, as I have just done, you have come from the Iraqi Pavilion further down Via Garibaldi. The Iraqi work is a series of small rooms in a collapsing warehouse/ work space and contains art considering power, entropy, decay and the politics of water. Nelson’s fictive decay/ collapse containing traditional trades- like textiles- holds up very well against the real thing you can see here, but it does dull the originality a little.
So does I’ Impostor fit into a wider view? Ignore for the moment the tradition of Romantic/ Expressionist personal response, which seems increasingly absent and just creates awkwardness when encountered these days. What we are looking at across this, and any other contemporary show, are essays on structures; essays in a range of languages, predominantly visual. These essays all contribute to a discourse, a discussion that has been going on since when? Duchamp? Malevitch’s Black Square? Demoiselles d’Avignon?
The discourse this year seems to be changing focus. Many of the works talk about memory, collective memory in particular. This theme was built into art from the start. Think of the Greek myth on the origins of art (Pliny’s story of the Corinthian Maid). That is, the girl using a burnt stick to draw around the shadow of her lover, to remember him before he goes off to war.
This old story still encapsulates much of the 2011 Biennale; narrative features throughout. How might the possibilities inherent in that tale be teased out to describe what is on show now in Venice?
The role of individual memory: the lover to be left behind, the story of the couple, the drawing in charcoal, ie art that retells a particular situation. Love and, we are at night, presumably sex. Although, unlike the last Biennale, there seemed very little sex this time.
The role of collective memory: a story that has become shared and then archetypal, stories about loss feature heavily. Of water rights in the Iraqi Pavilion for example.
The role of Power, the portrayed lover is off to fight, presumably someone else’s war. The effect of the behaviour of the powerful and how it affects the powerless. Imagery that speaks truth unto power, this was one of the most ‘political’ Biennales I have seen.
The role of light, in creating form in two dimensional imagery. “Giotto put the light back into art” Vasari said, describing the all important role of light in creating form. Apart from describing the illusion of form on a two dimensional surface, Chiaroscuro (and of course linear perspective) developed Renaissance art that demanded intelligence and perception to make and to understand; to ‘read’ this new space. The Corinthian Maid draws round a shadow, the result is self-evidently artificial, it is after all just a scrubby black line on a wall. But think how that line, that shape, encloses space and creates something with enormous conceptual/ perceptual depth: pictorial space. The title of this years Biennale is ‘Illuminations’, in the light of experience, Rimbaud and Benjamin are supposed to stalk the shows, I would suggest it is something older. Video and film are still here of course, and better than I remember, certainly far more watchable and, unusually for art, plot driven, ie narrative again. The key work is the astonishing, and more powerful every time I see a part of it, Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (see earlier posts), in the Arsenale.
Depth behind the picture plane is conceptual as much as it is mathematical, the way that space is organised by the artist tells us something. Alberti wrote in Della Pittura (1434) that studio textbook for the Early Renaissance: ‘I like to see someone in the ‘historia’ who tells the spectators what is going on…by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them” (page 78 in the Penguin edition). As Robert Hughes points out in his recent (not very good, Hibbert is still much better) book on Rome, Alberti’s perspective is a tool of empathy. In Nelson we might walk around the illusory space with our legs rather than our eyes, but it is still an empathetic process.
To be continued