Venice Biennale: Karla Black & Mike Nelson

Feature by Andrew Cattanach | 13 Jun 2011

For those who don’t know, the Venice Biennale is a massive international contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years in the city of Venice. There are two main parts to the show. There is a large curated exhibition with works hand-picked by a guest curator – this year Bice Curiger, one of the founders of Parkett magazine, as well as the publishing director of the magazine Tate Etc, has selected the art. And there’s a national element, where countries from around the world show work by their biggest and best artists.

This latter aspect of the Biennale sees 89 countries showing around the city, with the highest concentration of countries exhibiting in an area of parkland called the Giardini. Here they each have a pavillion where they show work, normally by one particular artist, representative of the quality of art in their homeland.

This year, Mike Nelson, the one time research fellow at Edinburgh College of Art, represents Great Britain. Like artists Gregor Schneider and Christophe Büchel (German and Swiss, respectively), Nelson makes large installations in galleries, attempting to make you feel as though you are not in a gallery but somewhere else entirely, like a prison, a factory or a squat.

In the British pavilion he has made an impressively large structure that is a warren of rooms around a central courtyard. The rooms are decked out to look like they were once used for something specific, such as ironmongery, cleaning and repairing old fabric looms and a photography dark room. It gives the sense that each of these is an integral part of a larger industry. What's more, people seem to really enjoy it.

Where some love this kind of work, finding it atmospheric and immersive, losing themselves in the awe-inspiring attention to detail these artists often have, others are left feeling curiously indifferent. If it were perhaps a critique of Disneyland, which one fears it is not, then it might be deserving of critical praise. For some – and they seem to be in the minority – feel this kind of work is of little value to anyone. For those incapable of believing in these reified spaces, these simulacra of rooms dreamt up by seemingly pubescent boys, Nelson’s installation is a fake. Far from considering endlessly who might inhabit these invented spaces, one might find themselves considering why anyone bothered to make such manufactured rooms in the first place.

The Scottish pavilion (not actually an official pavilion, but an offsite gallery in an old palazzo not far from the main tourist area of the city) this year hosts sculptor Karla Black. Occupying eight rooms, the work is an intimate encounter with Black’s work in what could hardly be a more appropriate setting. The opening room is crowded with forms at once delicate and self-assured, all of it dusted with powder paint of shades of pink, blue and yellow. In the corner is a sculpture of stratified soil, its top surface dusted with yet more powder paint. Columns of polystyrene teeter on the verge of seeming collapse.

In one room two dollops of petroleum jelly, slightly tinted by marble dust, lie wrapped in cellophane. Seemingly melting before your eyes, they in fact remain static, kept in check by their cellulose cover. In another, a pile of sawdust appears to have been in every way sculpted, down to the most intricate detail, where in fact it could only have been carefully dumped there.

Three of the rooms are joined by a continuous corridor, defined by the mere dusting of soil either side of a path determined by the size of the doorway. Following the path takes you from a sparsely adorned room to one crowded with large blocks of soap lying on a bed of soil. The smell is almost unbearably intense.

More immersive than any ludicrous attempt to create a replica of an imaginary space, Black’s exhibition shows the grace and maturity of an artist at the top of their game. Slightly awkward, however, are the hanging paper works – small sheets of coloured sugar paper suspended from the ceiling. Perhaps under the impression that fishing wire is invisible, these works attempt the kind of staging Nelson is guilty of – the manufacture of a blatant falsity. Only in reproduction do these illusions dupe us, and only in reproduction they should remain. There is little room in the tangible world for the suspension of disbelief. Sculptors should instead leave it to the true manufacturers of deception: trompe l’oeil painters and Hollywood filmmakers.

Karla Black, Scotland + Venice, Palazzo Pisani, Calle de le Erbe, Cannaregio (off Campo Santa Marina), Venice. 4 Jun - 27 Nov 2011 Mike Nelson – I, Imposter, British Pavilion, Giardini, Venice. 4 Jun -27 Nov 2011