T ate Britain’s Duveen Galleries are full of the ghosts of exhibitions past. Memories of sculptures witnessed here are triggered by the very sight of the Neo-Classical sandstone walls and columns. And few artists are better suited to exploring the deep history and resonance of this space than Mike Nelson. He has created some of the most memorable sculptural works of recent years – often labyrinthine constructions that, he says, “obliterated” the spaces that housed them and “captured the viewer” in an atmospheric environment. Nelson’s installations have drawn on complex sociopolitical themes and allied them to literary and cinematic references; part gritty social reality, part speculative fiction.
His latest work for Tate Britain’s annual commission series – of which Sotheby’s is a longtime supporter – doesn’t disappoint. Called The Asset Strippers, 2019, it plays powerfully with our collective recollections. Rather than enclosing the viewer in a claustrophobic narrative space, he has kept much of the grandeur of the galleries visible, building partitions with exposed timber and municipal looking swinging doors between some areas, but largely populating it with often-overpowering sculptures.
The works are formed from huge industrial machines and the paraphernalia of workshops and labour – lathes, looms, generators, forklifts, vices, rakes – ripped out from the shopfloors of defunct factories and warehouses, pulled from the fabric of civic spaces and sold by salvage companies in online auctions. At Tate Britain, they evoke not just 20th-century industry but the art of that same century – Anthony Caro’s steel constructions, Eduardo Paolozzi’s clanging collages, the infernal machines of the Surrealists. The show invigorates in its sheer physical presence yet is deeply melancholy, reflecting on a disappeared manufacturing history and a utopian moment in sculpture. The Duveens are an apt setting: a 1930s sculptural hall built to compete with grand 19th-century museum spaces like the cast courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a short tube ride away.
“In many ways the show is about what relevance material sculpture has now, in the post-industrial age,” Nelson says. “The relationship between machinery and post-war sculpture, or even 20th-century sculpture, was very much to do with industry… There’s an almost symbiotic relationship between the design of machines and the vision of the sculpture.”
Nelson’s idea described “a lovely cyclic structure”, he says. “Businesses producing money, that produces foreign interest, that produces empire, that brings more money, that then builds sculpture halls or sculpture courts, that also provide access to foreign treasures from elsewhere, from the empire, from Egypt and the Middle East, which are brought back to be sat in them.”
A key influence on Nelson as he considered what to do for the commission was a news article from the Morning Post reporting on King George VI’s opening of the Duveens in July 1937. Pondering the galleries’ past returned Nelson immediately to the present, to a Britain divided following years of austerity and the Brexit referendum in June 2016. The galleries were “opened by a king that ultimately would oversee the dismantling of empire”, Nelson explains. “And in regard to this moment, we’re almost looking at the union being dismantled.” He adds: “I was very conscious of trying to make a work that looked at our current situation, our state of division, our introspection, and tried to make sense of how we’ve come to be here.”
He argues that the problem is about “the division rather than the decision” – a longer-term destruction of industry, social structures and the provisions of the welfare state rather than the precise events of 23 June 2016. His intention is to make work that “aggravates your thinking about what has happened and why it’s happened, and the background of British history – but very much through sculpture”.
The work is personal too: the textile industry was among those decimated as Britain de-industrialised in the 1970s and 1980s, and Nelson’s mother, father and grandfather worked in textile factories in the East Midlands. Among the most interesting machines on display are the looms and knitting machines of the kind he says his father would have worked on. He gathered all the materials for the show quickly, so that it gave a picture of “what was being liquidated or closed down in the three or four months prior to the show”, he says, meaning he could avoid becoming “too precious about what the objects actually were”. Yet the textile machines were more personal, because that’s what he “grew up around”. They are among the most poignant sculptures in show, with ribbon and spools still attached, as if they were turned off mid-flow, having been slightly manipulated, or “put back into place”, as Nelson describes. “It’s that edge of artifice that gives an ultra-reality and that ambiguity as to whether it’s been completely fabricated or it’s just found,” he says.
That mysterious “something else” links the work to art history and to science fiction. Nelson has often made work in response to the Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris, in which the ocean is, as Nelson puts it, “a gigantic entity that has somehow penetrated the imagination or the memory and plucked out what it liked and manifested it as real”. In his work Amnesiac Shrine, 2006, a fictional biker gang, the Amnesiacs, gather the ocean’s debris and build totemic objects from it. In the case of The Asset Strippers, Nelson suggests that it is the online auctions he has frequented that “have functioned almost like the ocean”. Seeing echoes of historic sculpture in the machines is “like a drifting, dreamlike state”, he says. “The analogy to the Amnesiacs and Solaris is quite apt: it’s making real these hallucinations of the past.”
Those visions are in constant flow in the installation: Nelson sees Paul Nash in a star-wheel rake installed on a stack of tressels and, elsewhere, the twisted forms of Graham Sutherland and the symbolic juxtapositions of the British Surrealist Eileen Agar. Though many of the themes are sombre, even elegiac, it’s clear that he had enormous fun improvising and making the work in the two weeks before the opening. “It’s not like I sat down with a grand masterplan,” he says. “I try to create an arena, which has an underpinning desire to communicate a certain politic, but also an empathy, an emotional state. And then within that arena, you play, you can still make.”
Less enjoyable were the online auctions, he says. But the process was important: to symbolise the shift from an industrial economy to a service economy. “To use the technology that supersedes that one epoch with another seems deeply sinister,” he explains. He even left the auction labels on some objects, to prompt the idea that the Duveens might just be another warehouse, each machine about to be moved on again.
And it might appear later in a very different auction. “It could enter the art market as well,” Nelson suggests. “There’s a rather sad joke on oneself in that as well. Because, in the end, the commodity at the top of the pile is me. Within capitalism, that is how it functions. No matter how much I might view myself as escaping from that structure or having some idea of freedom, in the end, there is no escape.”
Ben Luke is an art critic at the London Evening Standard and features editor at The Art Newspaper.
Tate Britain Commission, Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain, London, through 6 October. Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of this exhibition.