Open the newly installed big wooden doors to Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries and you come face to face with Britain’s recent industrial past.
Machines, some on low-level plinths, others raised up on trestles, surround you, many proudly bearing their manufacturers’ names: Adcock & Shipley (Leicester); Edward G Herbert (Manchester); HW Ward – Makers, Birmingham. Makers! Who makes things in Britain these days?
As Britain wrestles painfully with its identity, Mike Nelson has turned the museum’s elegant, last-days-of-empire sculpture court – opened by King George VI in 1937 – into a salvage yard, displaying not just manufacturing machinery, but also agricultural tools, fragments of redundant infrastructure and reminders of the welfare state. It is his way of making sense of the moment.
The Asset Strippers (2019) is a monument to post-war Britain, highlighting, as Nelson puts it, ‘the last remaining vestiges of what made grand museums possible – industry.’ It also evokes the world of the artist’s childhood. He was the son of textile workers, and grew up in the East Midlands.
Nelson, now 51, is best known for unnerving, immersive works such as The Coral Reef (2000), owned by Tate, and I, Impostor (2011), the crumbling den of Istanbul artisans’ workshops he created for that year’s Venice Biennale. Recently, he’s taken the roof off, so to speak, no longer inviting viewers to thread their way warily through cramped, disorienting corridors. For L’Atteso (2018), he filled a vast space at the OGR, a magnificent former railway repair shop in Turin, with tons of rubble and a collection of abandoned cars and vans. With their headlights blazing, doors flung open and radios chattering, it was a parking lot mystery: what made the people flee? The key to L’Atteso (and many earlier works) is its palpable theatricality: viewers are drawn into an unfinished drama they must complete for themselves.
Nelson works with impressive speed. He assembled The Asset Strippers in a matter of weeks, using a makeshift studio in Tate’s car park and building each piece on the floor of the gallery. As the title suggests, he sourced material by scouring online auctions of company liquidators. For such a hands-on artist who patently loathes computers, it was a dispiriting experience, but it seemed to him appropriate to access materials from the past ‘through the era that has superseded it’.
With The Asset Strippers, Nelson has moved towards a more conventional ‘sculpture as object’ approach. Each work invites close inspection and reveals the artist’s fine eye for detail: a loosely woven red and black strip of fabric trails forlornly from a jacquard knitting machine; small offcuts of metal remain in a bowl beneath a lathe – did the factory close, you wonder, and, if so, what happened to the people who worked there? ‘In buying up stuff from companies that had gone under, I worried about being patronising or romanticising people’s lives,’ the artist tells me.
For some pieces Nelson did scout out material, travelling by truck, as he has always done. An impressive Vicon Acrobat hay rake came from a farm sale. He has found doors from an NHS hospital, hoardings erected around a soon-to-be demolished housing estate and telegraph poles made redundant by the internet.
Place any object in a gallery and, post-Duchamp, it is art. But Nelson has done much more than assemble machinery on the floor. Discrete though each object is, most are clever combinations of disparate elements. Alluding to the influence of machines on 20th century sculpture, each object ‘oscillates’, as curator Clarrie Wallis puts it, between being a machine and being art – and the art historical references are plentiful.
With a nod to Tony Cragg, for instance, the artist has stacked wood stripped from a former army barracks in Shrewsbury on two solid beams that reference Carl Andre. The layered woodwork, Nelson says, was a lucky find: wood like this is now shipped to China by the pallet-load to be made into furniture, then shipped back to be sold at luxury shops like Harrods. The four spiralling ‘wheels’ of the hay rake conjure Paul Nash’s painting Solstice of the Sunflower (1945), and, like the lathes, sit on Anthony Caro-like trestles.
The Asset Strippers is less theatrical than Nelson’s previous work, and each machine-sculpture is discrete. Yet, in walling off the Duveen Galleries, the artist invites us to address the work as a whole – and therein lies its emotional force. In his bid to make sense of the moment, Nelson is looking back, not with nostalgia, but with a deep sadness. The past is the past, he seems to be saying, and it’s gone. What remains in abundance, however, is the joyous inventiveness of Nelson’s art.
Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, is on at Tate Britain, London until 6 October 2019.
Main image: Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Tate; photograph: Matt Greenwood