Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers @ Tate Britain

The Asset Strippers by Mike Nelson

British installation artist Mike Nelson (b.1967) has filled the central atrium of Tate Britain with a rich collection of objects plundered from Britain’s industrial heritage, the entire installation titled The Asset Strippers.

There are old weaving machines, heavy-duty metal cabinets, two huge old-fashioned weighing scales, the threshing wheels of a tractor attachment, the huge rubber tracks from a mechanical digger. He has collected knitting machines from textile factories like the ones he grew up around in the East Midlands, woodwork stripped from a former army barracks, graffitied steel awnings once used to secure a condemned housing estate, doors from an NHS hospital, and much, much more. It is a rag and bone yard, a paradise of defunct paraphernalia artfully arranged to clutter and fill Tate’s long narrow central space.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

My experiences of manual and physical labour

I absolutely loved the sight and smell of this installation. It took me right back to my childhood. I grew up in a village store-cum-petrol station. I started working in the shop when I was about 11, graduating to the till when I was 14. They let me serve on the petrol pumps when I was 16, waiting for cars to pull in then leaping up, pulling the cold, metal, petrol nozzle out of its socket on the pump, and guiding the long, thick, dirty, rubber tube away from the pump itself and over towards the fuel filler door. Some doors you could open manually, some you had to ask the driver to ping open for you. Unscrew the metal cap or pull out the cheap plastic cap. Insert the nozzle and pull the trigger, setting off the familiar noise of the fuel pump. Asking the owner how much they wanted, then asking if they wanted their oil and water and tyre pressure checked as well.

Off to one side of the forecourt was the tyre bay where customers left their cars for a few hours and where a succession of the village lads eased the rubber tyres off with long heavy metal tyre levers, and patched up or replaced the inner tubes. Later there was an expensive new machine which gripped and removed the tyre from the metal wheel with great snorts of compressed air.

The bay was dark and smelt of rubber and oil and Swarfega. Out back of the main house was a huge shed, really a small warehouse, in which were piled hundreds of tyres of all shapes and sizes in vertical columns, towering tubes of smelly dirty rubber, often half full of stagnant oily rainwater which spilled over you as you made your way along the narrow walkways between them looking for a particular size and manufacture.

Beyond the village were the fields where you’d see the migrant workers endlessly bent over the ploughed furrows during the summer and autumn, picking vegetables, cabbage and kale, sometimes in the blistering sunshine, sometimes in the driving rain, chucking them onto the flat-bed truck pulled by a tractor which lumbered slowly in front of them. I stood at the pumps in a waterproof coat, the rain streaming down my face as I filled up another car, and wondered which of us had it worse.

Like many students, I got Christmas work as a temp postman. Going out on the rounds was fun, so long as it didn’t rain. I was fascinated by the big sorting rooms, with their arrays of metal cabinets and pigeonholes, the hundreds of fraying postal sacks everywhere, and the huge industrial weighing scales. There’s a pair of giant scales here in this exhibition. They are set on a brace of stinky, oily, creosoted old railway sleepers, with a couple of big granite rocks surreally placed on the scales themselves. They made my heart sing.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Working as a dustman

Later, during my A-levels and in the holidays from university, I worked on building sites, and in factories. I worked as a temporary dustman in my local new town, up at 5am , on the road at 6.30am, done by noon. (Most of the dusties had second jobs they did in the afternoons. Each round had been designed to end at a pub where we a) processed all their rubbish b) had a well-earned pint.

There were two roles – pullers-out and chuckers-on (plus, I suppose, the driver). Pullers-out were dropped at the edge of this or that estate and spent an hour or so pulling out every single rubbish bag from every single rubbish bin and assembling them in piles out on the pavement. The cart would be off somewhere else for a while, clearing up another area, then, suddenly, would come storming into the puller-outs’ estate, and the chuckers-on would jump down from the bar at the back of the cart and walk along beside the cart as it drove slowly through the estate, stopping at each pile for the chuckers-on to, well, chuck the rubbish on.

The blighted landscapes of the 1970s! Rundown estates, high-rise blocks, wheel-less Ford Cortinas up on bricks, abandoned kids’ bikes and toys strewn across grass verges littered with dog poo, and everywhere rubbish, rubbish, rubbish spilling out of ripped bags onto the verges and pavement. Chicken bones, all sorts of packaging, half-eaten meals, unknown rotting vegetable matter, cardboard, sacks of ashes and burnt coals. A world of waste, every day, pulled out, piled up and chucked on by sweating, dirty, working men.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

How Mike Nelson assembled The Asset Strippers

All these thoughts and feelings and memories came flooding back as I strolled among this wonderful graveyard of old, heavy industrial machinery and furniture (cabinets and benches, looms and equipment). Work. The universe of work and the countless tools and devices and machinery which people have built and worked with over hundreds of years.

Mike Nelson assembled this collection by scouring online sales and auctions, focusing on big ‘statement’ pieces of equipment which were being sold off from closing-down factories or defunct businesses. He then arranged them:

  1. as units – most of them being made up not of one object but a pair or more of objects artfully combined
  2. carefully situated these ‘units’ throughout Tate Britain’s long narrow atrium, to create a walk-through phantasmagoria of industrial junk

The curators suggest that the pieces appear first as industrial artefacts, then you realise they have been assembled into sculptures, and from that point onwards they shimmer back and forth between mementos of the real world and aesthetic contrivances. Maybe. But my sensibility was too flooded by their size and bulk and strong industrial design. I just saw them as beautifully engineered and designed tools.

Are we really living in a post-industrial society?

The wall labels claim all these wonderful objects are testimony to, or heirlooms of, ‘a lost era and the vision of society it represented’.

I can’t help wondering if that’s true. Every week the dustmen still come and empty my bins, in fact there are more trucks than ever since there are now separate bins for waste, recycling and food, as well as periodic visits by the big caged van which takes large objects, as well as the one you order up to remove garden waste, cuttings, and prunings.

Someone picks all those up by hand. Someone drives the dustcarts back to the depot, which is supervised, run and maintained by people, who then supervise the sorting of bags into different skips, which are then sent to waste food aggregators, or to the incinerator or – at my local tip in Wandsworth – loaded onto river barges and sailed slowly down the Thames to be offloaded and carted up slopes of waste and thrown into vast landfill sites in Essex.

People do that, all of that. Driving the carts, humping the rubbish, loading the barges, skippering the tugs, docking the other end, unloading, carrying from the docks to vast holes in the ground with big diggers. Hard physical work, all down the line, involving dustcarts, huge containers loaded by massive cranes onto giant tugs pulled by big trawlers down to industrial docks and unloaded onto giant diggers which carry the waste across derelict landscapes to the big holes.

Maybe it’s not ‘industrial’ in the sense of taking place in big factors, but it is industrial in the sense of being highly mechanised and relying on giant machines powered by oil.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Certainly all this wonderful equipment has been thrown away. But that doesn’t mean all the functions they performed have been superannuated. Far from it. It just means they’ve been replaced by newer, more effective equipment.

Indeed it is a little too easy to dismiss heavy industry, manufacturing and labouring as having somehow disappeared from Britain. For sure, the vast coal mining industry has more or less vanished, ship building pretty much gone, and industries like car-making and steel-making are much reduced and hugely more automated than they were in my youth (in the 1970s).

But, to quote the Manufacturers’ Association:

UK manufacturing is thriving, with the UK currently the world’s eighth largest industrial nation. If current growth trends continue, the UK will break into the top five by 2021. In the UK, manufacturing makes up 11% of GVA, 44% of total UK exports, 70% of business R&D, and directly employs 2.6 million people.

In other words, there are still lots and lots of our fellow citizens working with heavy machinery, in light and heavy industry, making things. And tens of thousands of people still work in docks and shipyards, at distribution centres and industrial warehouses, in agriculture and in food packing plants up and down the country, and in the basic kind of street cleaning/rubbish collection, gas-water-electricity mains maintenance jobs which I’ve described above. In manual labouring jobs.

A moment’s reflection makes me think of the huge HS2 project, and the Cross-Link project, both huge feats of engineering which require skilled workers and supervisors working with very heavy drilling, tunnel-making and railway-building equipment.

So it feels, to me at any rate, just a bit too easy for the curators to dismiss these objects as:

remnants from a bygone era… [with which] Nelson creates a melancholic journey through Britain’s recent social and political history.

Or to comment that the installation:

presents us with a vision of artefacts cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…

Go ask the Manufacturers’ Association if we truly live in a post-industrial society, and they will tell you that the death of Britain’s manufacturing industry has been much exaggerated.

And in any case, many of these artefacts are not truly ‘industrial’.

Take the ‘doors from an NHS hospital’ which are included in the show. We still have NHS hospitals and they still have doors, so these objects are hardly ‘cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…’

Similarly, the steel awnings used to block up the doors of abandoned council properties – well, I see the same kind of thing quite often as I cycle round my part of London, blocking up derelict buildings with steel panels still seems to be ongoing practice. So, again, there’s nothing particularly ‘industrial’ or ‘post-industrial’ about them.

The concrete tubing which features at the end of the hall, arranged on a couple of old telegraph poles, I’ve seen massive concrete tubes like that being installed in the current updates to the London water mains. And telegraph poles – we still have them, don’t we?

Many of these artefacts aren’t symbolic of anything, they’re just worn-out examples of objects which we still use and which still make up the built environment around us. To call all of this stuff ‘post-industrial’ or relics ‘from the last days of the industrial era…’ is to simplify their origins and effects.

Sure there are old-fashioned weaving looms and light engineering machinery which, yes, I dare say that’s been superseded. But rubber tyre tracks for diggers, doors for hospitals and metal grilles blocking up abandoned council houses – these are types of objects still very much in use.

What I’m driving at is I think the aesthetic and emotional, and even historical-intellectual, effects of this installation are far more complicated than the curators, and maybe even the artist himself, imagines. Some of the objects are relics of now-defunct industries and technologies. But others are just knackered examples of machinery and industrial designs which we are still using.

So the display is – in my opinion – saying something about the continuity between Britain’s heavy industrial era and the present, so-called, post-industrial age. Revealing unexpected continuities amid the wreckage of obsolescent machinery.

The dignity of work

Anyway. I loved this installation and loved these big heavy old smelly objects, loved their shape and size and weight, loved their smells of rubber and oil and machinery. I bent right down to smell the tough, rubber smell of the digger’s tracks, I wanted to open and close the huge heavy metal cabinets, I wanted to make the looms work again, I wanted to stand on the big red scale and see if it still works.

These are objects of love and veneration because they contain within them the cumulative toil and effort and care and labour of generations of workers who have spent the best hours of their lives building, installing, maintaining and using this equipment.

For me this huge installation is a hymn to the dignity of working life – which I know as well as anyone, is often undignified, dirty and degrading in itself – but which gains in human dignity by virtue of the effort and concentration and care which has gone into it. Here’s the section of big concrete tubing laid out on a ‘stand’ made of telegraph poles I mentioned earlier. I loved its round shape. I loved the smell of the wooden poles and the lost functionality indicated by the couple of white porcelain insulators, the bit which held the electric wires separate from the main pole and visible at the bottom of the photo.

All placed on rust-resistant-painted steel bars and laid on the kind of massive tarpaulin sheet you find in any number of industrial site.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

The installation is divided into three sections, with knackered wooden partitions dividing them off and creating walkways across the atrium for visitors going to other exhibitions. Even these partitions are made from the remnants of old buildings, with heavy wooden doors which many of the visitors I saw hesitated to touch or open because they looked, well, old and intimidating.

What beautiful objects! What an inspiring installation!

It prompted all kinds of half-articulate thoughts and feelings. Made me remember all the physical labouring job I’ve had, the memory of all the things my hands have held and lifted, in sun and rain and snow.

And reflect poignantly on the trillions of man and woman hours of work which have been expended in this country, in the toil and use of so many machines, so much equipment, from trawlers hauling in nets in the North sea to coalminers using heavy drills in South Wales, from the shipbuilders riveting and welding on the Clyde, to the fleets of light engineering factories along the A4, where my old man started his working life.

We commemorate the dead of the Great War or D-Day in big public ceremonies. I can’t quite see how it could be done practically, but we should also rejoice celebrate mourn condole and remember the vast amount of work work work our forebears carried out, day after day, dutifully, sometimes with love, sometimes with loathing. For better or worse we live amid the result of all their efforts. It is insulting to dismiss this vast, unimaginable legacy of toil and sweat in a few glib sentences. This exhibition is a moving tribute to the pith and marrow of our forebears’ lives, to the achievements of all their work.

Work by the Blue Orchids (1981)

Curators

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate, and Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate.


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