Reviews at Venice Biennale 2011: United Kingdom
United Kingdom: I, Impostor
An Unexpected Impostor
As the largest of its kind, the Venice Biennale presents one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary, international artwork. It would therefore be expected that each artist, either individually at the IllumiNATIONS exhibition or whilst representing their country at a pavilion, would aim to bring something new to the artistic palette. This year’s exhibition at the British Pavilion, I, Impostor by Mike Nelson, offers something far greater than that. Though the work that Nelson is exhibiting seems to have no obvious link to Great Britain, with the dark, dusty rooms and ever-continuing passageways evoking a traditional Istanbul house instead of the British tearoom-like building the pavilion once was, his work offers two things: Firstly, the chance for three very distinct cultures, Great Britain, Venice and Istanbul, to mix and intertwine through contemporary art, demonstrating the multiculturalism of our modern British society. Secondly, the opportunity for both artist and audience to see that in the contemporaneous climate, national identity and the ‘traditional’ Biennale idea of representing ones country is not straightforward or specific anymore.
Through his particular art practice, Nelson constructs site-specific, large-scale installations that represent a period of living and working in a particular location. His immersive works are intriguing and atmospheric, submerging the viewer into an unfolding narrative that develops through a sequence of meticulously placed articles and spatial structures. Throughout his career, Nelson has constantly returned and re-examined territories that he has already visited and experienced within his own art practice. Here, we can see this again, with the piece for the British Pavilion revisiting the work he created for the 8th International Istanbul Biennale in 2003, entitled Magazin: Büyük Valide Han. More often than not, the specific worlds that Nelson creates are deeply personal. He states that “in relation to the work in Venice, both cities have played a pivotal role in my life. Istanbul especially has acted as a meter silently occupying a part of my psyche since 1987. Each time I return it has changed, as have I, and yet there is a history, a felt history. In coming to make a work for Venice what I wanted to attempt to do was to make sense of the last 10 years that had elapsed since my last time there in 2001. Somehow I wanted to talk about how I perceive the shift in the world since then but to articulate these histories in such a way that they touch upon my own.”
Mike Nelson’s art has often been described as being only implicit in its cultural, social or political standpoints, with a certain amount of attention and imagination being required on the viewer’s part. Nelson’s work is also unrestricted by the stereotypical British point of view one may expect; instead it roams over many cultural territories and combines them to create a far more substantial art practice. Despite being selected to represent his country, Nelson produces a work that seems only to speak of a detachment from it. However, this is clearly the aim of his work for the Venice exhibition.
The work begs the question: do artists exhibiting at the Venice Biennale have a social responsibility to represent their country as a nation? Or is this view defunct, leaving the artists with only a responsibility to themselves? If we cling to the former, what was once an opportunity for countries around the world to present themselves on an artistic level has now turned into a form of artistic Olympics, where those with the biggest financial backing and greatest egos strive for gold, or in the Biennale’s case, the Golden Lion.
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, the U.S. Pavilion’s chosen artists, are two of the main runners in this artistic battle, with their exhibition Gloria. Their work puts forward a stereotypical view of America, one of joviality and over compensation through an excess of funding. Combining sculpture, performance, video and sound elements, the works use poetic shock and unexpected juxtaposition to reflect on competitive enterprises, ranging from the Olympic Games to international commerce to the military industrial complex. The title, Gloria, has the ability to reference military, religious, Olympic, economic and cultural grandeur, allowing this exhibition to cover all bases, but never really pinpointing on something solid.
The design of the exhibition is poor considering the funding that would have presumably been provided, and yet on another level – perhaps more likely for two conceptually rigorous artists - Allora and Calzadilla are playing up to this stereotypical view that many other cultures hold of America. In a society that has so many misconceptions as to what that specific culture truly is, this buoyant and almost self-critical viewpoint is refreshing, if a little over the top.
Though the U.S. and the U.K. representatives hold completely contradictory standpoints on the idea of national representation, both pavilions emphasise the fact that it is no longer possible in the globalised age, to portray a nation as a unified body without falling into cliché. The U.S demonstrate this, the UK abstains – opting for the alternative.
It can be seen in Mike Nelson’s work that the weaving of fact and fiction are fundamental, and his constructs are steeped in both historic and literary references, whilst drawing upon the specific cultural context and geography of the location. Here in I, Impostor, Nelson has created a building within a building using cheap materials found in junkyards and skips in Venice and Istanbul. “I planned, and ultimately did, give the building two exteriors; one the neo- classical exterior of a bastardised tea house, an anglicised Italian building - the pavilion. Whilst the other was based on that of a courtyard in an Istanbul Han, a seventeenth century Caranavaserai remodelled and re-built in concrete, re-sited in the centre of the existing building by the removal of the roof. The Han in question was the site of my 2003 work for the Istanbul biennale: Magazin: Büyük Valide Han. 2011’s work references back to two previous works to make sense of two cities, their historical relationships to one another and their relevance to me and my own subjective history.”
Nelson continues: “My aims firstly were not nationalistic, they were like any other work to make the most interesting use of the context possible at that point in time, both on a conceptual or narrative level and on a structural or sculptural level. Of course to deny an interest in the building’s identity and history would be disingenuous, and perhaps the gesture of removing the roof, letting the air in (and whatever out) whilst replacing the building with another building within, with an eastern identity is all part of that.” The ever-present multicultural aspect of Nelson’s work is the defining idea that emphasises the apparent demise of a stereotypical, national identity at the Venice Biennale. Paradoxically however, through his work Nelson has captured a very contemporaneous stance. After all Britain is no longer a tearoom-like society, both in culture and in art. In turning away from a nationalistic agenda and ignoring well-worn clichés, Nelson has avoided replaying the past and perhaps come closer to representing modern Britain than we may initially think.
Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog and printed in Line Magazine: The Illuminated Artist edition.