Mike Nelson takes his debris and props to the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

By Mark Sheerin | 19 May 2011
a photo of an art installation featuring a clown's mask, and old tv and electrical fan and a poster with the words smoke a spliff and fly
Mike Nelson, The Coral Reef (2000). Installation view at Tate Britain© Courtesy Tate
Mike Nelson, who represents Britain at the Venice Biennale in June, has got some previous with mysterious islands. For starters, he constructed two for Camden Arts Centre.

Temporary Monument featured three rooms, perhaps as many narratives, and was as byzantine as the Floating City itself. The preface was a text pinned to the wall in the entrance, taken from L'Île mystérieuse by Jules Verne.

Visitors soon discovered a world within a world, first a fictional artist’s studio, then a hideout for a gang of satanic bikers. For the stuffed dummy held captive in the last of these three elaborate spaces it was surely the island of no return.

Originally made as part of a 1998 residency, the work was brought back in 2010 for time-travel show Never the Same River. Recreating the piece took four weeks, and since Nelson can spend up to six months creating an installation, that is quick.

a photo of an installation shot featuring an old TV, mobile phone, electrical device, light and coffee mug
Mike Nelson, The Coral Reef (2000). Installation view at Tate Britain© Mike Nelson Courtesy Tate
But as a victim of his own success, the London-based artist has also been required to recreate another of his mysterious worlds at Tate Britain. This time The Coral Reef has been brought across from the year 2000 and Matt’s Gallery in East London.

Here you can explore the secret life of a minicab booking office or, say, a dirt-cheap hotel. Nelson fills his maze-like construction with debris and props, so layered they are often described as literary. And indeed he’s as madcap as Thomas Pynchon.

So it will be interesting to see what he dredges up for the British Pavilion at Venice, where his construction has been underway since late March. The British Council say Nelson is the first installation artist they have chosen for 1909 building.

“I look like a builder and I behave like a builder to some degree,” he told Tate Shorts, “but my head doesn't know that, my head's somewhere else." Assuming this builder finishes on time, the public will be able to see the results from June 4.

  • The Venice Biennale runs June 27 – September 27 2011. See www.labiennale.org for more details.

Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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