Descending the few steps that lead to the ‘In Residence’ basement space of Galleria Franco Noero, you might think you had walked into a construction site. The room smells of wet concrete, a cement mixer stands in the corner and wooden boards are leant up against the walls. In fact, it’s all part of a new installation by Mike Nelson entitled ‘Procession, process. Progress, progression. Regression, recession. Recess, regress.’ Its centrepiece is a kind of carpet, made of concrete and steel, which the British artist has created by imprinting original timbers from wooden Ottoman-era buildings in Istanbul into the wet floor. The installation reprises a project Nelson developed in 2009 for the Akbank Cultural Centre in Istanbul, which in turn was a preparatory work for an unrealized proposal for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. Nelson’s original intention was to take a derelict Ottoman wooden building and use it to cast a brutalist concrete structure: a tribute to a putative form of ‘Kemalist modernism’. In the artist’s view, it’s astonishing that the political turning point marked by the end of the Ottoman Empire was not matched by a parallel shift in the country’s architecture. Nelson carried that narrative forward to 2011, when he famously turned the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale into a simulacrum of a 17th-century Ottoman caravanserai.
Much has changed since the artist began this series of explorations into Turkish history. In 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an was elected Prime Minister for the first time and was then, in the eyes of EU leaders, a reliable moderate. Today, Western media coverage of Turkey mainly focuses on how the once Europe-facing, Western-dressing, liberal nation is slipping towards religious conservatism. Turkey is allegedly funding Daesh fighters, carrying out military operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and taking heavy-handed action against members of the press. In light of these stories, Nelson’s installation inevitably appears as a gloomy omen: the Ottoman timbers imprinted upon the concrete testify to the impossibility of eradicating previous histories and forebode a return to 19th-century, pre-Atatürk traditions. On the day of my visit, Erdog˘an announced that up to six million homes were to be demolished all over the country to make way for newly-built houses. In a speech he declared: ‘We need to own this style, of which [the famous Ottoman architect] Sinan is the foremost practitioner. I want the mosques […] to reflect the Ottoman architecture, not only with their appearance but also with their souls.’
Throughout his career, Nelson has often returned to previously worked narratives and installations. Maybe this time he deliberately sought to dig deeper into Turkey’s current state of affairs; or maybe he just wanted to confront the viewer with a feeling of displacement. What is certain is that, despite palpable similarities, the 2009 installation and this one are two very different pieces. In the catalogue accompanying Nelson’s 2011 British pavilion, Dan Cameron insisted that ‘above all else, [the caravanserai built into the pavilion] is most categorically not the artist’s reconstruction of a place that existed before in another time and location.’ The same rule may apply here: by re-imprinting the planks onto cement, Nelson is not merely echoing his original gesture but is adding yet another layer of meaning to an evolving mise en abyme. The artist doesn’t seem to be interested in travelling back in time but, rather, in accessing parallel realities. Upon leaving the basement space at Galleria Franco Noero, we are left with the impression of having visited a place where the past, the present and the future have been combined, as if they were the cement, gravel and water in that concrete mixer in the corner.
First published in Issue 180