“I felt that these galleries should somehow be returned to what they once had been, halls for monumental sculpture. Places where people could come and wonder at the sheer physicality of sculptural objects.” - Mike Nelson
Nothing in Mike Nelson’s [1967- ] latest installation ‘The Asset Strippers’, located in the vast, stone-carved walls of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries is trying to be art. It simply just is. Former industrial-sized knitting machines, a digger bucket, a cement mixer, scales, a lathe and a hay-turner are amongst a series of abandoned machines from salvage yards and online auctions of company liquidators, which have been collected and presented at the Tate as sculptural objects. Woodwork benches complete with vices, drawers and remnants of string and detergent bottles become the plinths on which many of these ‘ready-mades’ reside.
Each piece of machinery is a remnant fallen into neglect and disuse, symptomatic of the shift in ways of manufacture and decrease from manual industries to service ones. I confess that I don’t recognise what the majority of the machines here were even for! I am probably not alone in this acknowledging that there is also something unexpectedly exciting about trying to imagine or ‘work-out’ what the purpose of these things once was (or perhaps could be!). Like Francis Picabia’s paintings of imaginary Surrealist/Dada-esque machines, there is also the slightly more obvious connection to Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Batchelors, Even’ in the way these mechanical parts have been arranged as though for a new use (for which they had previously not been intended) and collaged together. In one piece telegraph poles lay horizontally atop red, blue and yellow tarpaulin on which supports a circular tube (from possibly a drain) of sorts; balanced together in a sort-of ‘found-objects’ version of an Anthony Caro sculpture which can be seen also in the Tate Britain only a few rooms away. Nearby a former hay-turner is presented so that its’ turning blades take on the appearance of four golden suns or flowers; an association that I feel, relates to the dry sunny days during which the hay-turner would have been put to use. My mother commented that this machine reminded her of the one her parents used on the farm in Somerset and that she had never before looked upon or seen it in this way (as sculpture).
Formally and aesthetically speaking there is much to be gleaned from looking at all of this. Graffitied, worn and stained surfaces, flaking paint; artificial metallic blues and bright reds against natural woody browns and oil-stained metals. Boxy squares, circles, stacks and lines from threads and strings still connected in the knitting machines all make for a rich list of sculptural criteria. Though the question of whether we are being asked to appreciate these machines as sculptural objects or to look upon them as relics from the past (or both) is really where this piece becomes both socially significant as well as aesthetic. The knitting machines are reminiscent of the ones Nelson’s family worked on whilst growing up in the East Midlands, now in his early fifties, Nelson and many of his generation and before will have seen a broader picture, perhaps than myself, in just how much Britain has significantly changed from the industrial era to more service-based ones. Doors from a NHS hospital and wood from a former army barracks act as visual and functional barriers to divide and section the individual components of this installation into curated parts of one bigger, immersive piece; they also unintentionally or not comment on the value of both art and the materials it uses and the value or shift in value we have as a society towards institutions like the NHS and manual industries generally. For me, these make-shift walls help contain the unmistakable smell of oil from all of the machinery that is reminiscent of my grandfather’s workshop on the farm. I am utterly bias in this whole post from projects I have previously done on car engines and farming tools!
In a previous work, titled ‘Coral Reef’, seen at the Tate in 2000 Nelson similarly used reclaimed materials to create a movie-set-like-labyrinth of rooms. Each sparsely lit by naked-bulbs and grubby reclaimed timber to create a slightly seedy or sinister spaces, a gallery reception area, a taxi-office, a heroin-den; each with a story awaiting to happen, they are suspenseful and the closet experience I have ever come to like being inside an Edward Hopper painting; their commonality being the absence of people. There is something similarly haunting about ‘The Asset Strippers’ and as the name suggests it is after the factory has closed, the people who once knew the purpose of these great beast-like contraptions have since left along with their stories and their skills to work these machines. All is quiet. All is now still. It seems that in stripping these places into their bare commodities we have also stripped or lost something of the people, stories and time in which they previously existed. It is a proverbial ghost-ship but in being reclaimed as sculpture, as ‘art’ and displayed in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain where historically ‘treasures of the empire’ were seen, they are memorials to this past heritage whose concept of ‘value’ is in-turn put into question. What once were stripped assets are now reassembled art.
Mike Nelson –The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain until October 6th 2019