Four days in Venice over half term, lots of water [some falling from the sky], lots of art: all the way from Bellinis’s altar piece in the church of San Zaccaria to the pavilions of the Biennale. In all of this there were two standouts: Christian Boltanski’s installation, Chance, in the French pavilion, and – most exciting of all – Mike Nelson’s I, Imposter, in which, sponsored by the British Council, he fills the entire British pavilion with another building – a 17th century inn that has been constructed within one originally built in the late 19th century.
Nelson has taken as his starting point an installation he made in Istanbul– a split-level darkroom filled with photographic images of the surrounding architecture, which was housed inside an old inn originally used by trading caravans crossing the desert – a caravanserai – and has here created not just the darkroom, but much of the actual inn, reproduced from photographs and from memory.
We are allowed into the house in small numbers, then left free to walk where we will, where the construction allows us. The rooms are small and mostly dark and seem to have fallen into disuse, and you move between them with caution, aware of shapes and shadows in corners, wary of flights of stairs that lead nowhere, doors that fail to open, doors that do. It is like exploring a house in a dream and within a comparatively short time another reality begins to take over. Step through this archway and you are outside in a courtyard, but inside all the same.
What Nelson is working on, I think, working with, are traces of memory: his own and those of centuries: two pieces 0f art that he created for major exhibitions in two different cities, cities that were once at the opposite poles of a trading route between east and west. We take on board some of that as we walk round, some only later. What is undoubtedly effective is the way Nelson has created somewhere to which we can bring our own feelings and fears of abandonment and desolation, our own memories of long-forgotten rooms, deserted buildings, other lives, some of them our own.