Looking at Mike Nelson’s installation in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, 2019, ‘a cross between a sculpture court and an asset strippers’ warehouse’ that includes objects from the post-war Britain including enormous knitting machines, woodwork stripped from a former army barracks, graffitied steel awnings and doors from an NHS hospital and a variety of other monolithic obsolete industrial machines one could be forgiven for thinking that Mike Nelson is phoning it in thes days. Is this is where the last fifty years of contemporary art have led us – to the display of the contents of old factories?But first impressions quickly gave way to the suspicion that the installation – one aspect of it at least – is a reflection of how the artist is being written out of the culture in the way the machine wrote out the worker, the way the robot wrote out the machine. A second tour of the gallery reveals more.
They rise above the viewer like strange beings, monolithic and sad. It is an industrial version of the natural history museum crossed with a cultured aristocrat’s eclectic collection of artefacts; digger buckets become skulls, buttons and protrusions become eye sockets, bone spurs; mechnical handles are puny dinosaur arms; a drill recalls a fossilised leviathian; machines crudely echo grand old sideboard or art nouveau pieces; a cement mixer straight from a Jules Verne story; two giant scales weirdly goggle, like captured aliens from Mars.
They are by turns proud, cheeky, pathetic, vulnerable, crude. They sit, stand, recline, awkwardly, pugnaciously, on sturdy legs, in turns embarrassed or scornful, clashing with the fluted pillars and elegant doorways of this grand gallery, claiming the space, their place, in the cultural history. And why indeed are they less worthy of display than the casts and carvings of the human body which grace our museums, casts which are mere copies rather than innovative designs of things that had never before existed?
A few weeks before I was in London I visited The Crawford Gallery in Cork. On display were a collection of Canova casts which had been resituated within their gallery – now painted turquoise instead of ochre -with great pomp. A significant amount of money seems to have gone into this revamp. While it is certainly a resource for artists – they are often seen sketching here – and of some historical value to the city I never felt particularly drawn to pulling put my notebook there and I was even more puzzled by what this revamp thought it was offering beyond different coloured paint.
Asset Strippers is mercifully nearly free of the dogma of left wing politics that assault us in the galleries these days – art that revels in hectoring people from an assumed moral and intellectual high ground until the viewer closes down or even adopts the reverse stance in desperation for some feeling of autonomy. Nearly. There is a raft of sleeping bags which jars, perhaps a sop for those who like their art harnessed to a function, a platform, but it serves to underline the main impact of this show which does what (some of us think) art is supposed to do: it raises questions, it make the viewer work. Art is not supposed to tell you what to think, its supposed to help you to think. To teach you to reach your own conclusions, form your own opinions. Imagine if we lived in a world where most of us applied critical thinking?That is what art dreams of.
What are monuments?Are they big? Old?Functionless?Why are machines on display?What has the right to be on a pedestal?Sculptors sculpted but did not machines – marvellous in themselves, in their design – create marvellous things?What is art?What is life?Who are we?
I thought of the Crawford again in The Duveen when I came across a number of artists sketching. The machines ignited my curiosity where the casts did not. There is a deadness, a lack of energy in the Crawford sculpture gallery that cannot be disguised. While there is a deadness Nelson’s show, it is intentional, a reflection of any number of deaths: the death of the artist, the death of individuality, the death of craftsmen and craft, the death of industry, the death of all those in the wars that drove forward industrial development and the consquent death of cultures, eras, of a planet. What gives it energy is that all this death is suspended within the framework of tensions between between the cultured aristocrat, the upstart working class, the museum and the industrial space, between what art used to be and what it has become and what it could be.
I resolved to return with my sketch pad and join the others silently drawing, to look more closely at these monsters of bygone eras in the dusty light. I never did.
Mike Nelson’s The Asset Strippers is at The Duveen Galleries from March 19th to October 6th 2019