Interview with Mike Nelson: On the biennale, Turkey, and being “not quite sure what installation is…”

His work at the Venice Biennale has meant rebuilding an installation inside a rebuilt caravanserai within the British Pavilion


Epic in scale and often highly disquieting in atmosphere, Mike Nelson’s meticulously-crafted environments combine architecture, storytelling and a slew of literary, artistic, historical and cinematic references to conjure up real and imagined places where most of us would not normally wish to linger. He first came to widespread attention in 2000 with The Coral Reef, a dingy warren of sinister rooms and passages redolent with suggestions of transient communities and dark doings which, although made before the events of 9/11, seemed almost uncannily prescient in its evocation of conspiracy and terror, and which has now entered the Tate’s permanent collection. In 2001, the year of his first nomination for the Turner Prize (he was shortlisted again in 2007), Nelson made his first work in Venice, a fringe project entitled The Deliverance and the Patience, which immersed visitors in a labyrinthine 16-room extravaganza which took him over two months to build on site. Now Nelson is back in an official capacity as Britain’s representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and has again been living in the city for several months to construct I, Impostor, a work described by the British Council as “one of the most challenging solo presentations” ever to be housed in its pavilion.

The Art Newspaper: You last showed in Venice a decade ago, in a derelict brewery on the Guidecca. Now you are in the genteel neoclassical British Pavilion in the Giardini—quite a contrast!

Mike Nelson: The experience of doing something here again is very much bound up with trying to make sense of one’s own history in relation to the city and also the history of the city you are doing it in. What I wanted to do was to make something that looked a bit more introspective both in terms of the city but also on a subjective level in terms of my personal history.

I imagine that the weight of cultural baggage in Venice could be both stimulating and daunting…

It’s quite a difficult city to compete with. On my second site visit I was thinking about my darkroom pieces, but of course photographing Venice is probably one of the most redundant gestures you could ever make—it has almost had its soul sucked out of it through continuous photography—so my mind was drifting to other sites and places which reminded me of Venice. Of course that’s quite difficult as there are not that many places which have the same ambiance as Venice but the one place that does to me is Istanbul, another city with which I’ve had a constant relationship since my late teens, I was there in 1987, then again in 1992, in 2003 and in 2009. I’d already built a darkroom for the 2003 Istanbul Biennale in Büyük Valide Han, an enormous 17th-century caravanserai [roadside inn], but then I thought that maybe I could rebuild that darkroom.

Doubles, duplicates and mirroring seem to be a recurring theme in your work.

Exactly. So I thought actually to rebuild another eastern biennial, inside this supposedly western city, but which is actually more like an eastern city in the west, worked on many levels. It’s subjective in terms of my own history but there is also a huge historical component in terms of the Byzantine-Ottoman relationship between the two cities. My primary desire was to work on this relationship between Istanbul and Venice and before I thought of rebuilding the caravanserai I read an early book by Orhan Pamuk called The White Castle, about a Venetian who is captured by Turkish pirates and then sold to the Caliph’s astrologer who turns out to be the mirror image of him, so in a sense my idea of the mirror and the double within these two cities was also informed by this book.

Is what we are seeing in the pavilion an accurate replica of your 2003 work?

I’m not just rebuilding the darkroom, I’m rebuilding the building around it as well! The darkroom didn’t take up all that much space, it was only two small rooms, but the caravanserai is an enormous building which has three courtyards, dome structures and probably over 100 rooms full of artisan workshops. It was incredibly elaborate but has been rebuilt and chopped around: there’s flat ceilings and concrete everywhere and things falling down as others are built, and I’m rebuilding this building inside the pavilion, so it’s another building existing inside the Giardini building. In the original piece you had to find your way through this huddled community of workers into the darkrooms, where the building around you was documented in every detail. All that is actually left from that 2003 show are these photographs.

So it can’t be exactly as it was…

It’s more like a memory of a building. Just to rebuild something as a forensic kind of thing I don’t think would really interest me so much. There are elements from the actual building that you’ll notice in terms of the photographs, but there are about five hundred photographs and there’s no way you could rebuild all that. There’s more a sense of this building being built out from the photographs within the darkroom and even the darkroom is now reconfigured.

The situation in the Middle East, and the world at large, has changed dramatically since you last showed in Venice in 2001, and also since the 2003 Istanbul Biennale. Inevitably, this work will be seen in the current context.

One of the concerns when I was first thinking about making this work was my legitimacy to be using another culture, especially within something as branded as the British Pavilion: because to all intents the British Pavilion is now Turkish. Hopefully my intentions aren’t too misjudged and that there is a strange legitimacy given by the existence of the work in 2003, and my remaking of that work using the relics which I had left over. Without being didactic or prescriptive I’m just saying that I think Turkey is a very curious country in relation to what is going on in the world at the moment. The image of Atatürk [Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey] naturally occurs prominently throughout the work because in 2003 he was omnipresent in every shop, workshop and public building, especially in Istanbul’s older places like the caravanserai, in much the same way as, say, Assad in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq before the war. But what’s interesting to me is that Atatürk wasn’t installed or upheld by the west in the same way but rose out of the embers of the Ottoman Empire to become a brilliant general and the seculariser of modern day Turkey. So he’s a very curious figure in terms of the Middle East just as geographically Turkey has also always been a curious place in relation to both the west and the Middle East.

You are often described as an installation artist. Is this a term you feel comfortable with?

I’m actually not quite sure what installation is, it just seems to be a term that is bandied about. Sometimes I feel frustrated that people want to read the work on a more political or agitprop level as opposed to experiencing it as sculpture. For me the narrative is more like a structure. It has a physicality and a sculptural structure which is like the prose in a novel and I’m as interested in that physicality as much as anything else.

Is it still important that you source the components personally and physically make most of the work yourself?

Yes, that’s the pleasure of it! As you get older and there’s more budget then obviously there are more helpers, but I admit I’m pleased to have been asked to do this project at this point in my life because I’m still of an age when I can realise something on this scale physically.

How much leeway was there for the piece to evolve as you made it, or was it all planned in advance?

The British Council didn’t push me for a plan—and I was keen to avoid this because the way that the building in Istanbul is configured is that over the centuries it has been built, then it’s fallen down, then it’s been rebuilt, mended, changed, rebuilt and chopped up, and I thought if I copied it too tightly then that aesthetic would be difficult to replicate. That’s the fun: trying different things out, shifting walls, changing things as you go along, that’s the making of the sculpture–otherwise I might as well get somebody else to build it!


Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“I’m not quite sure what installation is…”'