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.