Mike Nelson’s The Asset Strippers reminds us that art that communicates something about the time it was created has a sudden greatness that quickens our sense of being alive. The first thing to strike you at this exhibition as you observe the remnants and ghosts of the machine age, of industrial Britain, is how formidable their presence is.

Installation view of The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain (2019). Photo: Tate (Matt Greenwood)

Reconfigured as art, they represent a value now gone. In this metaphor for the shifting economies of our era and as a new paradigm for the interface of internet technology with management and robots, people, like these machines, seem distant, like castaways on a desert island of humanity. Our existence is characterized by a devaluation of memory and by anonymity—a great levelling of experience, society, and community. And so The Asset Strippers is incredibly relevant to Britain in perpetual Brexit mode and is oddly sited in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain, itself a kind of museological ghost of other times, with its William Blake collection, its Jacob Epsteins and Barbara Hepworths. The suggestion that these machines conjure up is of one generation’s sacrifice to build the next—all temporal, ever changing, never entirely contained or achieved.

Whereas many sculptors who construct scenarios, such as Peter Fischli and David Weiss, emphasize copying and refabrication, Nelson takes a different tangent, for these machines are made of real-life components. Raised out of scrapyards, they have an inbuilt tension; they look like they could keep producing ad infinitum; it’s just that our needs, our ways of manufacturing and perceiving experience, have shifted due to international globalizing pressures.

Nelson’s machine remnants include knitting machines, lathes, caterpillar trucks, haulage parts, drills, weighing scales, and even recycled wood. Presented as an ensemble—a single work of art—they look like tired metal beasts. These machines, and the people who worked them, were the bulls of the British Empire, but producing for the world. There is resonance, and there is emptiness, too. One thinks of these machines as the beasts of postwar British production. Threshing-machine spirals sit like sunflowers atop steel I-beams, themselves sitting on wooden work horses. Now they are mere scrap, as companies have downsized, closed, disappeared; all these assets with no purpose are presented in a classical way.

Transformed, dislocated, out of context, they reflect a changing, somewhat less human, world with a brilliant affirmation of the context of that change.

Having searched asset-stripping auctions and scrapyards, the artist brings together what is thrown away to express the incongruity of our times. These machines represent the lives of textile factory workers from the Midlands, Nelson’s own father, mother, and grandfather among them. Nelson’s art process has literary, socio-political, and cultural references that ring true to the times we live in. As he says, the collection “presents the end of an era, the cannibalizing of all we have left—a sort of self-consumption, an eating away of ourselves.”1

In one “sculpture,” a behemoth of an engine sits atop a pile of worn, discarded sleeping bags. The sleeping bags recall the legacy of homelessness and unemployment caused by factory closures. The wood that supports the engine and sleeping bags was salvaged from army barracks in Shrewsbury. Elsewhere in the show, doors from the National Health Service hospital in Bolsover Street, London, are recycled, again symboli­zing a Britain in which social and health services are in sharp decline. Teresa May’s and now Boris Johnson’s England has unapologetically abandoned the people whose ancestors once worked in the knitting factories up north. The homeless of today —sleeping bags crushed and strewn under and around a machine—tell us how total abandon can be. The machines have no value; the homeless, likewise, are without support or care, or even a hospice, in their last declining years.

This lack of caring is infused into Nelson’s installation at the Tate Britain. These solemn machines have no value! What an irony! What provided value now has none! As economies shift, the post-industrial world is transformed by new technologies. The interface is largely between machines and management, not people and managers. The narrative that Nelson built in earlier shows, at the Venice Biennale and elsewhere, is of materials expressing a language, and each individual element is a sentence in that collective experience. We are witness and we participate by association. Nelson likewise reconstructed a series of fires in the Canadian landscape, as the original colonial settlers might have done going west. The fires became a motif of, and a memory of, fire, ironically reconstructed from other people’s fires. The photographs of the fires, produced with the Contemporary Art Gallery and the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff and exhibited as a slide show titled Eighty Circles through Canada (The Last Possessions of an Orcadian Mountain Man), subtly critiqued American Land Art, whose mega-scaled gestures on the land Nelson saw as another kind of imperialism and colonization.

Installation view of The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain (2019). Photo: Tate (Matt Greenwood)
Installation view of The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain (2019). Photo: Tate (Matt Greenwood)

The artist conceives of all these machines as being as worn down as the people who sacrificed their lives to the machines, as soliloquies to Britain in a Brexit era. Transformed, dislocated, out of context, they reflect a changing, somewhat less human, world with a brilliant affirmation of the context of that change. As exponential change evidences a rapid evisceration, removal, destruction of the context and nature of human identity, history evaporates before our eyes. The Asset Strippers is testament to what an artist who seizes on a moment can do. Nelson’s great talent is to narrate with a cultural anthropologist’s sensibility, patiently gathering the traces of the past, reconfiguring their status and relational aesthetic boundaries. The Asset Strippers is a truly great show!

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers – Tate Britain, Duveen Galleries – London, UK – March 18—October 6, 2019

(1) Louisa Buck, “Powerful, political and pungent: Mike Nelson’s Tate Britain commission,” The Art Newspaper, March 20, 2019. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/blog/mike-nelson-the-asset-strippers.