Mike Nelson is currently representing Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale with the large and sprawling I, Imposter. Commissioned by Peer Gallery, Nelson’s piece is the first installation piece to be submitted by a British representative.

I, Imposter is a challenge to the precedent. Nelson’s response to the British Pavilion has been to disrespect and subvert the architecture. As with much of Nelson’s work, I, Imposter is a labyrinthine series of rooms within rooms. It lives parasitically within the pavilion and has grown out of its perimeters, shutting off natural light sources and working against its confines. As a result, the work becomes a submersive experience, the viewer becomes a participator as they move through the work; they are both active in their participation and passive as they become part of the piece.

The self-referential loops in I, Imposter create conceptual echoes…

Nelson has contributed to four biennales in the last decade and there are echoes of his previous works in I, Imposter. In particular he has recreated environments from Coral Reef (2000) and Büyük Valide Han (2004 Istanbul Biennial). The self-referential loops in I, Imposter create conceptual echoes, bringing the audience further into Nelson’s project. However the repetition is not just a phenomenological device; by referencing his career and past participation in international art events Nelson has included questions about the politics of the art world and about Venice in particular within his work.

The Venice Biennale is the biggest and most famous event in the art calendar, although in recent years it has transcended the art world and become a fashionable social event. Arguably there has been a transition. Instead of what is inside the pavilion, the focus has changed to who:  Jefferson Hack didn’t wear a suit; Roman Abramovich’s super-yacht got in the way of the view. Venice is the pinnacle of the global art market and its attached trappings. How does Nelson’s paranoid isolationist work relate to this hyperbolic world?

The spectacle of Venice seems ridiculous in contrast to the work currently being produced by Nelson…

Nelson is a British born and educated artist and this work in particular is reflective of his national identity. It is unsympathetic to the metrological climate of Venice and the social climate of the biennale. Literally and metaphorically it is a dark work that induces a sense of discomfort. I, Imposter could be a dystopic environment or it could be an exaggerated representation of the “hell-in-a-handcart” image of Britain populated by politicians and press.

This is not to say that Nelson is a lone voice at Venice. Yael Bartana’s entry for Poland …and Europe will be stunned has been almost unanimously sited as the most important entry this year, and it is an overtly political and defiant work. Bartana’s film, which calls for a mass return of Jews to Poland, certainly jars with the mood of the arty-party. 2011 has been a year of political art and politics affecting art in the case of Ai Weiwei. The spectacle of Venice seems ridiculous in contrast to the work currently being produced by Nelson, Bartana and others.

I, Imposter is a powerful critique of the institutions that facilitate and power the global art industry. There is a risk with art-about-the-art-industry that it could become too introspective and self-regarding but Nelson has avoided this and produced a stimulating and exciting installation.

Coral Reef is currently on display at Tate Britain

Image courtesy of Mike Nelson


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