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Everything Must Go: Mike Nelson Inters British Industry
John Quin , March 30th, 2019 09:04

At Tate Britain, John Quin sees a different kind of corporate raid

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

Mike Nelson’s new project is called The Asset Strippers and is installed in the capacious central zone of Tate Britain known as the Duveen galleries. To call the show timely would be to underestimate its pertinence. Continuing the use of economic jargon, you might say Nelson’s intervention is something of a hostile takeover. He deftly obtained the objects he shows here by a very twenty-first century capitalist innovation: through the existence of on-line auctions led by company liquidators.

The Duveen galleries were the first public space in England to be specifically designed for the display of sculpture. Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) was an art dealer. His Wikipedia entry states that he “made his fortune by buying works of art from declining European aristocrats and selling them to the millionaires of the United States”. In other words he was something of an asset stripper himself. The likes of William Randolph Hearst, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick, the great robber barons, built up their collections from Duveen in this manner and then in turn opened their own museums.

Duveen is also thought to have sold fakes and is held responsible for restoration work that caused damage to some Old Masters and the Elgin Marbles. Wikipedia goes on to point out drolly “in recent years Duveen’s reputation has suffered considerably”.

Two old wooden doors guard the main entrance to the Duveen space and above these are some decorative planks of wood that give the immediate impression of a stockade. Once inside we are confronted by the overwhelming sight of heavy machinery, masses of it, most of which are displayed in the manner of sculpture on plinths. Nelson’s act of détournement takes this detritus from the industrial age and recasts it as sculpture, thus revivifying the original role of the venue. He turns the meaning of the place full circle – the profits made by the machinery we see here (when it was functional) once enabled the bagging of much beautiful booty. Times were good financially for corporate UK in Duveen’s day. But now that we are in decline, what more suitable visual metaphor for national depreciation than to stuff the place with the relics that once made us great.

But what exactly are we looking at here? Those with a trained engineer’s gaze will take pleasure in recognising old bits of kit. For the rest of us, some of these objects may trigger memories from ancient TV documentaries on manufacturing. But there is a lot that remains mysterious.

Looking at the equipment begs questioning as to its previous functionality. Nelson plays games too by gnomically mounting a cement mixer on a set of metal cabinets. There are hand wheels and locking nuts. The less well acquainted with such artifacts will be left somewhat dumbstruck – just what exactly were these things for? There is awe too at the size and implied power of these machines that reflect the control Britain once exerted over the rest of the planet.

We see looms with their coloured bobbins of thread and there are tools made by Wadkin for woodworking, milling machinery made by Adcock and Shipley, things that might be lathes, saw benches with trunnions, Crown Windley cast iron products, drill bits, flat chucks. Stuff that was used by skilled workers, “men with a trade” as comedian Brian Limond has it in his bittersweet impersonation of a retired shipbuilder gazing wistfully out at the empty Clydeside wastelands.

There are also sly references here to the art history of contemporary sculptural practice. The stacks of timber and metal can be seen as a parodic take on the machismo and sometimes-pompous monumentality of work by the likes of David Smith and Richard Serra. A set of ancient black tire tracks, possibly from a tank, conjures up images of defeat in battle. This might be a militaristic nod to an earlier commission at the Duveen by Fiona Banner when she installed two decommissioned jet fighters, Harrier and Jaguar (2010). Old sets of red-painted weights made by Avery are loaded with large boulders and put one in mind of Chris Burden and Michael Heizer’s fascination with mass and weight. Here we also find a set of portholed NHS doors from the orthopaedic hospital in Bolsover Street, London, and a wink perhaps to Gary Hume’s fascination with these structures in his early paintings.

There is very little in the way of flash and filigree here; many of the machines are dusty, grimy, shop-worn. A scabby old sign for General Electric – GE - reads “long may they reign” and is draped with tatty dust-stained Union Jacks. We recall that GE paid $23.4 million in 2010 to settle a complaint that they bribed Iraqi government officials to win contracts under the UN oil-for-food programme.

Some of the woodwork stacked here comes from a former army barracks in Shropshire, another reminder of a Britain in military decline, as exemplified by the current defence secretary’s recent impotent blustering over China.

There is a shadow of the dignity of labour in these mute, inutile beasts from yesterday. Now, sadly, we appear to be led by a regime embodying the old cliché that proclaims a poor workman blames his tools. They suggest we blame Parliament or the People, that we blame anyone and anything but the Government itself for our current mess. Back in the day Joseph Duveen ripped off ‘declining European aristocrats’; he clearly functioned as something of a rogue trader. Similarly the last remaining assets of the UK – our NHS for example – may be sold off to the likes of the predatory Trump administration with its well-known antipathy to ‘socialised’ medicine.

The Asset Strippers is Nelson’s urgent warning: look at this and imagine what can happen to the remnants of our welfare state. Don’t bet against our MRI scanners being installed at the Duveen in due course.

Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, is at Tate Britain, London, until 6 October