Artist Mike Nelson has turned Tate Britain’s central hall into a sculptural and cultural junkyard. ‘The Asset Strippers’, now on show in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, presents a large-scale installation made up of redundant industrial machinery and disregarded institutional décor.
‘The Asset Strippers’ has taken over Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. The galleries were the first purpose-built sculpture galleries in England and intended to rival the sculpture courts of the British Museum and the V&A. They are now filled with de-commissioned industrial machines which Nelson has selected from online auctions.
Rickety old wooden doors provide the main entrance to the space. The machines are huge and monstrous. They are kind of lovely and sort of terrifying in their complexity. These sculptural readymades have shrugged of their functional coils and become objects of fine art. The display is arranged so that visitors have space to walk around these enormous beasts. It’s sad to say I don’t have a clue what these contraptions were used for. Even more terrifying is watching people with iPhones (or using an iPhone myself) to capture the details and inner facets of the machines. It prompts the question; how long will it be before our iPhones, microwaves, LED tv’s and electric toothbrushes are placed on pedestals in a museum?
Towards the back of the central hall, the space has been interjected by two wooden corridors. As we are directed through two doorways, we are forced to navigate past other visitors crossing the space, inside the corridors, to reach the Tate’s permanent collection displays. This section very deliberately forces us to confront the institution of British etiquette head on. Queuing and awkward physical manoeuvring are common occurrences found in most British institutions. There is a heavy air of nostalgia in Nelson’s installation. Old machines, old doors and old British military décor. There is nostalgia and wry satire aimed at the now defunct British institutions and colonial pride. As I write on March the 29th 2019, the day set for Brexit, there is a feeling these sentiments also relate to the political apparatus of our current time.
The final pieces at the far end of the Duveen Galleries are sculptural assemblages. In one of the two works a type of engine is placed on top of a pile of sleeping bags which are set on a partly broken wooden palette. The sleeping bags and the occasional graffitied scrawl etched into the surface of a machine are the only real signs of human presence. A rogue sleeping bag can also be spotted in a partly opened cupboard door in an earlier machine. They are a sad, lonely reminder of the human form. Without anyone to operate them the machines only stand for the absence of human activity. It is an empty, lonely world ruled by rigid order and process. Homelessness is the result of a failed society. The installation is nostalgic but also a warning of things to come. As Nelson predicts; “What I see ahead, particularly in the arts, is a new Victorian era of wealthy patronage in the wake of state decline, spawning vanity and inequality. The idea of the Duveens becoming a warehouse to house idiosyncratic monuments to a historically brief and visionary moment in time somehow seems strangely apt.”*
‘The Asset Strippers’ is now on show at Tate Britain until the 6th of October 2019.
* Mike Nelson in conversation with Clarrie Wallis and Elsa Coustou 28th February 2019.