tue 23/07/2019

Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain review – exhilarating reminder of industrial might | reviews, news & interviews

Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain review – exhilarating reminder of industrial might

Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain review – exhilarating reminder of industrial might

A stirring elegy to Britain's industrial past

Installation shot of Mike Nelson's 'The Asset Strippers'Photos by Matt Greenwood for Tate

Mike Nelson has turned the Duveen Galleries into a museum commemorating Britain’s industrial past (pictured below right). Scruffy workbenches, dilapidated metal cabinets and stacks of old drawers are pressed into service as plinths for the display of heavy duty machines. Rusting engines, enormous drills, knitting machines, crane buckets, a concrete mixer, a paint sprayer and various other unnameable objects are thereby elevated to the status of sculptures. They look terrific and, by comparison with their raw power, sculptures that aim to evoke the spirit of the machine age, such as the robotic humanoid of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill 1916, seem ludicrously effete.

The experience is exhilerating yet profoundly melancholic. The exhibition pays tribute to people like Nelson’s grandfather and parents, who worked in the textile factories of the East Midlands and whose labour once made Britain rich and powerful. The factories were closed down in the 1970s and ‘80s, but the installation is not simply a trip down memory lane, since it makes ironic reference to the source of the wealth that enabled museums like the Tate to be built. Funded by Lord Duveen, who made his fortune selling art to rich industrialists, these galleries were built in 1937 specifically for the display of monumental sculptures, so what better place to show the machines that indirectly paid for the building ?

Nelson bought the plant in online auctions run by companies who specialise in liquidating the assets of defunct businesses – The Asset Strippers referred to in the exhibition title. His purchases highlight the shift from heavy industry to the provision of services that characterises our economy in the digital age. Instead of making things, we make money – in various ways, including selling off the spoils from our past. 

There’s also some agricultural machinery (main picture), a huge caterpillar tyre, giant weighing machines and fork lifts, all of which recall the postwar era in which Nelson grew up. Access to the galleries is through dilapidated swing doors salvaged from an old hospital; there’s flooring from a former army barracks and a stack of metal sheets used to board up the windows of a housing estate earmarked for redevelopment. Emblematic of the welfare state and the ethos that brought it into being, these relics and their state of dereliction are like metaphors for the slow decline of the public sector fostered by Thatcher’s corrosive beliefs that greed is good and “there’s no such thing as society.”

The timing of the exhibition is remarkably apt. Coinciding with our proposed exit from the EU which, if it happens, will reshape our economy in unforeseen ways, the installation is like a portent of things to come. As the Chinese curse goes: “May you live in interesting times.”

One of Mike Nelson’s machine-sculptures should be installed permanently in Parliament Square as a monument to Britain’s erstwhile prowess as an industrial nation – when we were a force to be reckoned with.

One of the machines should be installed in Parliament Square as a monument to Britain’s erstwhile industrial prowess

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