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.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.