402 not a reference

A look around the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale

By Polly Gannaway

 Venice and Istanbul – two cities whose histories has been intertwined for centuries. Constantinople was for centuries the very heart of Christendom after the demise of the Western Roman Empire and as such it fascinated Venetians with its wealth of religious artistry and architecture. Both were great cities of trade and the seas and roads between them teemed with merchants bringing goods and riches between the two. This symbiotic relationship has always been of special interest to artists. In the fifteenth century Gentile Bellini journeyed from his home in Venice to Constantinople and completed a number of works that capture the city’s spirit, even painting the portrait of Sultan Mehmet II. 

And still today this cultural interchange is continuing to inspire artists. At the 54th Venice Biennale, which commenced on Tuesday, Mike Nelson is representing Britain with his art installation I, Imposter. Like Maslaha’s exhibition ‘The Book of Travels’, the British entry to the Biennale is orchestrated in partnership with the British Council and also like ‘The Book Of Travels’, I, Imposter draws on the overlapping lives of the Ottoman and European worlds. Both projects question in fact the very validity of the distinction between these worlds. Nelson’s installation was first displayed in 2003 in Istanbul’s Büyük Valide Han – an enormous 17th century traveller’s inn. The work took the form of a photographic darkroom with hundreds of photos of the Han all being prepared. However, this year in Venice Nelson has also recreated the Han itself at such a scale that it completely engulfs the British pavilion and creates a small corner of Istanbul in the heart of Venice. Today it is easy for us to draw a line between the East and the West and then to see this line not as a manmade wall but a geographical feature – a river or a mountain range. But if we do this we overlook the true nature of life in 17th century Venice and Istanbul. Rather than one civilization meeting another one, boundaries were expanding to encompass it all in one sphere. I, Imposter questions the future of the Han – once grand, now tumbledown warren of artists, and rapidly becoming gentrified – as well as giving visitors an experience of the interplay between two distinct cultures that are, nevertheless, bound together throughout time.