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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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit