Tate Britain Commission 2019: Mike Nelson at Tate Britain
The soaring, neo-classical grandeur of the Duveen Galleries in the heart of the Tate Britain has provided a fitting stage for sculptural exhibitions since their opening in 1937. In recent years, an array of British artistic talent has been invited annually to meet the challenge imposed by this vast space. Anthea Hamilton (2018), Phyllida Barlow (2014), Fionna Banner (2010) and Martin Creed (2008) are just some of those to have been commissioned.
Over the next few months, it is the turn of Mike Nelson, a significant figure in the British art scene since his large, immersive, walk-through architectural installation, The Coral Reef – now owned by the Tate – plunged itself somewhat disorientingly into the public’s consciousness in 2000.
The Loughborough-born artist, twice nominated for the Turner Prize (in 2001 and 2007) and British representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has produced a hugely loaded exhibition, The Asset Strippers, that evokes a fading aspect of Britain’s identity: its industrial heritage. One wanders into the galleries, enclosed by wooden surrounds for the duration, to be met by hulking relics from the nation’s proud manufacturing past. Some are identifiable, like the knitting machines and looms, their still-present threads and reels of cotton almost convincing us that their operators have briefly left the factory floor for a cigarette break. Other machines stand dormant, silent as the grave, their purpose now a distant blur in our services industry-dominated age.
The artist spent half a year amassing the array of industrial equipment to be found here, exploring salvage yards and online auctions of company liquidators. Collectively they stand as a testament to Britain’s decline as a manufacturing powerhouse whilst simultaneously alluding to the demise of the welfare state.
In this prestigious setting, the first gallery space in the United Kingdom to be specifically created for sculpture, Nelson’s gathering of old machinery and apparatus also resonate as aesthetic forms. Generally arranged in stacks on low plinths and workshop tables, they can be read as monuments to the old industries of the East Midlands that previously thrived in the artist’s youth. Nelson has also included woodwork from a former army barracks as well as doors from an old NHS hospital. The installed machinery’s strong outlines, silhouettes and surprisingly rich colours frequently prove reminiscent of sculpture, an obvious example being Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913).
There is a structure where the artist has positioned an engine at the centre of what appears to be a section of a wooden shed, various coloured sleeping bags having been arranged around it so that it juts out between them like a mast. For this observer it recalls Géricault’s 1819 work, The Raft of the Medusa, a painting that referred to an infamous event where, following the sinking of their ship at sea, ordinary seaman had been deserted by their commanders, the latter claiming all of the lifeboats for themselves. Nelson is perhaps thus alluding to the devastating effect of Britain’s closing factories on local communities, insinuating betrayal at the hands of those in power, the resulting unemployment and, in severe cases, homelessness.
Nelson has brought a palpable sense of melancholy to the Duveen Galleries. He has described himself as a “frustrated archaeologist” and here he has brought to the surface the remnants of Britain’s manufacturing industries that have been in terminable decline for decades. His interest in the machinery’s social contexts has led him to arrange them and manipulate them, drawing on their own peculiar kind of haunting beauty. In these post-Imperial surroundings, The Asset Strippers throws into sharp focus where this nation sits as its political future looms on the horizon.
Photo: Tate, Matt Greenwood
Tate Britain Commission 2019: Mike Nelson is at Tate Britain from 18th March until 6th October 2019. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.