A room of his own

The inspirational installationist Mike Nelson is chosen to fill the British pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

It's almost ten years since the British artist Mike Nelson was first nominated for the Turner Prize (Martin Creed won in 2001 with his Sewell-baiting Work No 227: the Lights Going On and Off). In 2007, he was again pipped to the post, that year by Mark Wallinger. At the Venice Biennale in 2001, I experienced Nelson's mysterious, labyrinthine work for the first time in an installation in a disused brewery on the Giudecca entitled The Deliverance and the Patience.

I say experienced because this was literally the case -- opening a small, unremarkable wooden door, you were plunged into a series of eerie, interconnected rooms, initially unsure whether this was a "found" space, co-opted by the artist, or in fact the work itself. As you progressed through a maze of ever-stranger, windowless room-sets, it became clear that the art was indeed all around you: the enveloping walls making you the unwitting characters within your own ephemeral performance piece.

As in Nelson's subsequent pieces at Tate Britain and elsewhere, these rooms had a sense of recent absence, as if their inhabitants had just vacated the space, Marie Celeste-like -- whether it was a dingy sweatshop, a naval-themed bar or a shabby travel agents. Throughout his work, there's always a sense of menace, the feeling that something unpleasant may have happened here, or that someone may have escaped from danger. But there's also something familiar, as if we are intruding on our own half-remembered dreams -- walking down endless corridors, through multiple doors, getting brief snapshots of other lives.

Since first encountering Nelson (and seeing other installations by him), I've found echoes of his work in various, disparate, places: from the obvious similarities of art installations such as Christoph Büchel's vast and disturbing 2007 work, Simply Botiful, in the now demolished Coppermill off Brick Lane, and the Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski's site-specific deserted Second World War Bunker (2009) in the Barbican Curve; to the bizarre physical theatre of Shunt in the dank railway arches beneath London Bridge.

Even watching films from the schlocky slasher franchise Saw, its characters stumbling helplessly from derelict room to room, caught in a sick killer's game, made me wonder if the set designers had ever had a brush with Mike Nelson; while conversely it is now hard for me to think back to the Nelson experience without bringing to mind photos of the real-life horror of Josef Fritzl's Keller or Jaycee Dugard's makeshift backyard prison.

Now, neatly, a decade on, Nelson has been chosen to represent Britain at next year's Venice Biennale, putting him among such recent luminaries as Mark Wallinger, Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin and last year's Steve McQueen, and giving him a much wider audience. He'll have free rein in the late 19th-century pavilion, formerly a restaurant but converted by the architect E A Rickards in 1909 to showcase British art (organised by the British Council since its formation in 1937).

It's potentially the perfect space for Nelson's site-specific work: already a structure with a mixed past and a distinctive classical Italianate style; already resonant with the ghosts of decades of British contemporary art, the footsteps of thousands of past viewers -- a blank canvas with a history, perhaps. What can we expect? No details yet, but if Nelson creates something as intriguing and as physically expansive as he did back in 2001, this will be the pavilion reconfigured as never before. If you go to the Biennale, I hope you're as impressed as I was by his corridors of power.

 

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era