Venice Biennale 2011: Mike Nelson at the British Pavilion

Art critic Ben Lewis met Mike Nelson and asked him about his installation in Venice

In 2011 Mike Nelson represented Great Britain at the Venice Bienale. Art critic Ben Lewis met him and chatted about his ideas and work.


I’m Ben Lewis. Some people call me an art critic; and I’m at the Venice Biennale 2011 – one of the largest art exhibitions in the world. You could think about it as the Olympics of Art, or the World Cup of Art. Around 100 different countries put on exhibitions in national pavilions, and there’s always a competition to see which nation has produced the best exhibition by the best artist.

Well, I’ve just got lost inside the Mike Nelson installation at the British Pavilion; and like most of his work, you go through a series of corridors into a series of spooky rooms and up staircases into dimly lit cubbyholes with strange bits of equipment lying around; and you wonder what is it? It’s a bit like a dream experience. You never know what’s going to come round the next corner, or where you’re going to be.

[Mike Nelson] Originally I was thinking of making something that was going to be on the exterior of the building, but it seemed like an impossibility to work with the exterior of the building at the Biennale, because the Giardini is like a kind of theme park, really.

[Ben Lewis] Do you imagine different people inhabiting different rooms?

[Mike Nelson] No. It’s more about material, I think – matter – than people. I’m more interested in the kind of ability to quite understand what some of the material is, and what function it ever was. You know, there are certain objects and debris, sort of like, which has no human explanation. I suppose structurally in terms of making something like this, you come up with an idea like a certain… say, a conceptual framework or a narrative framework, and that enriches as you build it. I suppose what I wanted to do with the work here would be to sort of, like, to make sense of the world through one’s own histories.

So I’ve done this ten years ago, exactly the same in a sense. I spent ten weeks in Venice in 2001. That sense of retreading one’s own steps was very strong.

[Ben Lewis] Your work is very cinematic, actually, in many ways. Is that deliberate?

[Mike Nelson] Primarily when I started making work in this way, it was purposeful, but now I think it’s… that purpose has kind of been lost in time to some degree – it just is. A lot of it is quite formal to me, in a sculptural sort of sense – the actual kind of materiality of it, the delivery of it.

[Ben Lewis] Are there any clues to how you’ve changed?

[Mike Nelson] Just my hairline and my grey beard!

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