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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Brexit Big Brother is watching: how media moguls control the news

I know the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph well, and I don’t care to see them like this.

It would take a heart of stone now not to laugh at an illustration of Theresa May staring defiantly out at Europe from the British coast, next to the headline “Steel of the new Iron Lady”.

Those are, however, the words that adorned the front page of the Daily Mail just five months ago, without even a hint of sarcasm. There has been so much written about the Prime Minister and the strength of her character – not least during the election campaign – and yet that front page now seems toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Reality has a nasty habit of making its presence felt when news is remorselessly selected, day in and day out, to fit preconceived points of view. May and her whole “hard Brexit” agenda – which the public has now demonstrated it feels, at best, only half-heartedly enthusiastic about – has been an obsession of several British newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

I know these papers well, having spent the best part of a quarter-century working for them, and I don’t care to see them like this. When I worked there, a degree of independent thought was permitted on both titles. I joined the Telegraph in 2002; at the time, my colleagues spoke with pride of the paper’s tolerance to opposing views. And when I was at the Mail, it happily employed the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley.

Would I be able to run positive stories about, say, my mate Gina Miller – who successfully campaigned for parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process – in the Telegraph if I were there today? Or at the Daily Mail? Dream on: it’s two minutes of hate for that “enemy of the people”.

Morale in these newsrooms must be low. I am finding that I have to allow an extra half-hour (and sometimes an extra bottle) for lunches with former colleagues these days, because they always feel the need to explain that they’re not Brexiteers themselves.

Among the Telegraph characters I kept in touch with was Sir David Barclay, who co-owns the paper with his brother, Sir Frederick. Alas, the invitations to tea at the Ritz (and the WhatsApp messages) came to an abrupt halt because of you-know-what.

I don’t think Sir David was a bad man, but he got a Brexit bee in his bonnet. I was conscious that he was close to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and both had cordial relations with Rupert Murdoch. It became clear that they had all persuaded themselves (and perhaps each other) that Brexit suited their best interests – and they are all stubborn.

It seems to me unutterably sad that they didn’t sound out more of their factory-floor staff on this issue. We journalists have never been the most popular people but, by and large, we all started out wanting to make the world a better place. We certainly didn’t plan to make it worse.

People used to tell me that papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph changed because the country had but, even in the darkest days, I didn’t agree with that premise. We are in the mess we’re in now because of personalities – in newspapers every bit as much as in politics. The wrong people in the wrong jobs, at the wrong time.

Would the Daily Mail have backed Brexit under Dacre’s predecessor David English? It is hard to imagine. He was a committed and outward-looking Europhile who, in the 1970s, campaigned for the country to join the EU.

I can think of many Telegraph editors who would have baulked at urging their readers to vote Leave, not least Bill Deedes. Although he had his Eurosceptic moments, a man as well travelled, compassionate and loyal to successive Conservative prime ministers would never have come out in favour of Brexit.

It says a great deal about the times in which we live that the Daily Mirror is just about the only paper that will print my stuff these days. I had a lot of fun writing an election diary for it called “The Heckler”. Morale is high there precisely because the paper’s journalists are allowed to do what is right by their readers and, just as importantly, to be themselves.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Telegraph, back in the good old days. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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