Easily the most complex work in Venice Biennale 2011, Mike Nelson‘s “I, Impostor” is a complete rework of the Neoclassical space of the British Pavillion, setting it to “make it disappear”.
Working on claustrophobia and disorientation, Nelson decides to rebuild one of his former pieces, housed in a vast 17th century Istanbul palace, the Büyük Valide Han, translating, within the British pavillion, the original sequence of chambers, domes, stairways and arcades. He worked on memory, confusion and imagination. An actor studio discipline of “getting into character”,” invoking a half-remembered, half-imagined place using found objects”, rather than the fabrication of an architect’s exact plans. Three months of actual daring work, radically disguising the prestigious listed structure though the insertion of attics, open courtyards, systems of labyrinthic galleries.
The installation unfolds a narrative through a sequence of dim, rusty, worn spatial structures, leaving to speculation the weaving of historical facts and literary fiction.
We enter the realm of an old-fashioned, isolated and obsessive photographer, getting through his intimate darkroom, watching his hundreds of b/w prints of the Han, his personality and identity open to speculation.
An historical, larger agenda is also present, of Venice and Istanbul’s intertwined histories, of liberal capitalism and the islamic world, of mass tourism kitsch and half priced oriental finery, of the history of the two cities as allied during Renaissance.
A more intimate level is discovered by journalist Rachel Withers in her piece on the work: the reference to Orhan Pamuk’s novel The White Castle, about a 17th century Venetian who’s taken to Istanbul and enslaved by Turkish pirates. He’s bought by a scholar, his apparent alter-ego, a mutual fascination evolves in dependance and climaxes in an apparent trading of identities, with an unspecified character departing to Venice and “home”, the Turkish, possibly.
“The tense, faintly nightmarish tenor of Pamuk’s novel forms an intriguing parallel with Nelson’s work. In a Nelson installation a brick is a brick, render is render, and a fibreglass boulder is a fibreglass boulder, not a stand-in for a real rock that couldn’t be manoeuvred on site. But like Pamuk, Nelson is an allegorist, not a realist. His works ask audiences to suspend disbelief at the level of the “who” rather than the “what”. In I, Impostor, someone has been doing this building, working with these tools, taking these photographs, but who? Who is the “impostor” of the title?”
I really felt to enter into a complete literary dimension, like walking through the mind, the imagination of one man, or his alter-ego, like in Pamuk’s novel. We could read the work as a fictionalisation of the author, “a strange act of obsession”, or rather as a speculation of the artist into his inner self, a representation of his fleeting memories of Venice and Istanbul, reflected into personal and global histories.
• The art exhibition is open until 27 November.
British Council presentation of I, Impostor
Mike Nelson at the Venice Biennale, Rachel Withers on the Guardian
Ideal Syllabus: Mike Nelson, on Frieze (In an ongoing series, frieze asks an artist, curator or writer to list the books that have influenced them)
Species of Spaces, Jonathan Jones on Mike Nelson
Photos from Artribune: