Great Britain’s Pavilion

Mike Nelson has recreated the Büyük Valide Han, a vast 17th century Istanbul caravanserai (inn with a central courtyard), filled with low ceilings, steps, and dusty darkroom equipment. We enter the British pavilion through its central door, but are immediately splintered off to the left, down a dim corridor and into a labyrinth of rooms – experiencing similar disorientation as with Nelson’s installation Coral Reef (2000) at Tate Britain.

The installation, entitled I, Impostor, is not wholly believable, its walls somewhat hollow, and its ceiling trapdoors opening into the backstage void of modern plasterboard and reinforcements (as demonstrated by an invigilator). However, the overall effect is impressive, and most exciting when considered for its exploration of fiction and authenticity. According to the New York Times, Mike Nelson’s exhibition for Great Britain’s pavilion is a feat of trompe l’oeil,[1] while Adrian Searle at the Guardian diagnoses it as the modern picturesque.[2] 

While these comments seem appropriate enough, the media coverage of Nelson’s pavilion seems somewhat neglectful of its potentially problematic form. The issue at stake is that I, Impostor is a restaged work originally made for the 2003 Istanbul Biennale, yet many reviews judge it as if it were an original, made for the Venetian context. For the Istanbul Biennale, Nelson used the original caravanserai, instructing the visitor to enter it and follow the seemingly fresh trail he made that was supposedly that of a photographer who had been developing photographs there minutes before (the Impostor of the title might therefore be the photographer or the visitor). The effect, according to Charles Darwent of the Independent, was Mary Celeste-ish,[3] and the setting, that time, absolutely real. For Venice, however, the caravanserai is a set, immersive though it may be. Nelson wanted to realize his memory of the Büyük Valide Han in Venice, and therefore set about reconstructing it ad-hoc, with no drawn plans and in a manner he likens to method acting.[4]

While it is true that Istanbul has always had trading links to Venice, and therefore one can detect likenesses in their architecture, to correlate I, Impostor to Venice in this way, at the expense of reading it as an interesting experiment in restaging or duplication, is a pity. A more fruitful Venetian correspondence might be made, however, between the architectural fiction at play in Nelson’s installation, the Giardini and Venice itself – they are all facades of mixed styles, materials and details borrowed from abroad. The Giardini can almost feel like Venturi’s Las Vegas in this respect, each nation’s pavilion a different, stylized sign. Great Britain’s pavilion is its former teahouse, a colonial style building with pillars, front steps and a central courtyard. One might imagine that with Nelson’s help, Britain is continuing Venice’s and its own import and export business, and an orientalist taste for exotic recreation.

[1] Smith, R (08/06/11) New York Times []
[2] Searle, A (01/06/11) The Guardian []
[3] Darwent, C (05/06/11) The Independent
[4] Withers, R (03/06/11) The Guardian []