- Mike Nelson born 1967
- Drill, steel table and concrete
- Object: 3515 × 800 × 1200 mm
- Presented by the artist; Matt’s Gallery, London; 303 Gallery, New York and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin 2019
The Asset Strippers (Witness) 2019 is a large sculptural assemblage made from reclaimed industrial items and materials. It was made as part of Mike Nelson’s larger project The Asset Stripers, his response to the Tate Britain Commission for the Duveen Galleries in 2019. An industrial-scale, green double-headed drill sits on a green steel table supported by a cast concrete block reminiscent of a low-level traditional sculptural plinth. The compositional treatment of the parts, together with the monochromatic colour scheme, recalls British modernist sculpture, in particular the industrial assemblages of Anthony Caro (1924–2013). However, unlike much of Caro’s work, The Asset Strippers (Witness) has not been painted or surface-treated. The patina of age and use is visible in areas of rusting and traces of oil. The monumental verticality of this mundane industrial remnant, at just over three and a half metres in height, towers over the visitor in a manner that both evokes and rejects the tradition of neo-classical sculpture for which the Duveen Galleries were originally built.
Two other assemblages from The Asset Strippers are also in Tate’s collection: The Asset Strippers (Heygate stack, equivalent for a lost estate) 2019 (Tate T15412) and The Asset Strippers (Elephant) 2019 (Tate T15413). To make these works Nelson scoured online auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators to amass a collection of remnants from Britain’s manufacturing and construction industries. In the press release for his Tate Britain exhibition, he explained:
Their manipulation and arrangement subtly shifts them from what they once were into sculpture, and then back again to what they are – examples of the machines and equipment left over from industry and infrastructure. The exhibition weaves this allusion with that of British history. It presents us with a vision of artefacts cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era in place of the treasures of empire that would normally adorn such halls.
(Mike Nelson, in press release for The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain, London 18 March 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/mike-nelson-asset-strippers, accessed 25 July 2019.)
An interest in the cultural and social contexts behind objects, as well as their material qualities, lies at the heart of Nelson’s practice. When reassembled and placed in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, these sculptures transformed the neoclassical galleries into a warehouse of industrial objects that pointed to the decline of British industry, infrastructure and the welfare state. Nelson further commented:
I was interested in how an exhibition space used for the display of sculpture could be linked to the imperial and political status of Britain through the very materiality of the sculpture that it displays. These artefacts are not from the extensive British empire or from British foreign interests or colonial excursions, but they are the last remaining vestiges of what made these grand museums possible – industry. What I have accumulated here are the ends of an era, the cannibalising of all we have left – a sort of self-consumption, an eating away of ourselves.
(Nelson, in conversation with Tate curators Clarrie Wallis and Elsa Coustou, 28 February 2019.)
Such works typify Nelson’s practice of assembling found objects to create large-scale, site-specific sculptural installations that are loaded with socio-political meaning and webs of references to history and current affairs, as also seen in the multi-room installation The Coral Reef 2000 (Tate T12859).
Mike Nelson: Again, More Things (A Table Ruin), exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2014.
Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers, exhibition leaflet, Tate Britain, London 2019.
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