Mike Nelson: Ghost In The Machine

The twice Turner-prize nominated artist transforms Tate Britain with monuments to Britain’s industrial past

Walking through the esteemed Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, you will be met by redundant relics, towering machines and the hulking, industrial ghosts of post-war Britain. An engine lying on a pillow of sleeping bags, woodwork stripped from a former army barracks and doors from an NHS hospital – these collected monuments contrast starkly with the pristine neo-classical gallery initially built to contend with the British Museum and V&A – paying homage to an age of production now lost forever. Over the past six months, twice Turner-prize nominated artist Mike Nelson has been living in the museum as part of the annual Tate Britain Commission, transforming the space using materials gathered from Brexit Britain’s manufacturers who are either downsizing, closing or leaving entirely.

Despite sometimes spending up to a year gathering materials for a show, Nelson’s installations will only exist for the time period of the exhibition, destined to return to the scrapheap. His site-specific installations act as immersive labyrinths and are principally interested in the stories behind the presented objects. The Asset Strippers may well be his finest work to date, repurposing debris with a deft hand and posing the central question: ‘what happens to a country that ceases to make things?’. For Nelson, “Their manipulation and arrangement subtly shift 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.”

We spoke to Clarrie Wallis, senior curator of Contemporary British Art at Tate, about the exhibition – looking at Nelson’s compelling relationship to space, time and materials.  

What are the freedoms and limitations of a historic space like the Duveen Galleries?

The Duveen Galleries were built in 1937 as the first purpose-built sculpture galleries in England. Over the years these neo-classical galleries have offered artists the freedom to realise extraordinary exhibitions that range from Richard Serra’s Weight and Measure 1993 which consisted of two blocks of forged steel which were placed in the two central sculpture halls, to Cerith Wyn Evan’s major light installation Forms in Space … By Light (in Time) 2017.

How does Nelson achieve immersion in his work?

Nelson is known for his complex large scale works that immerse his audience and in this respect his approach is informed by a sense of tableaux. 

What social, political and cultural references are packed into the installation?

The Asset Strippers resonates on a number of levels. The artist has transformed the grand spaces of the Duveen Galleries into something between a sculpture court and an asset strippers’ warehouse. He has carefully selected objects from the post-war Britain that framed his childhood – including enormous knitting machines and graffitied steel awnings. The objects were sources from online auctions of company liquidators and salvage yards. Nelson is interested in the cultural and social contexts behind the objects he has carefully selected, as well as their material qualities. The piece turns the neo-classical galleries into a warehouse of monuments to a lost era and the vision of society it represented.

How did living in the space change Nelson’s relationship to the work?

Mike Nelson is best known for his large-scale, site specific sculptural environments that often arise from a period of living and working in a particular location. In the case of The Asset Strippers the work was informed by the history of the Duveen Galleries which Lord Duveen hoped would rival the sculpture court at the British Museum and V&A’s cast room.  

Having taken many months to construct, eventually The Asset Strippers will be dismantled. What role does temporality play in Nelson’s work?

Nelson’s work has always centred on the transformation of narrative structure into spatial structure and temporality has played a key role in this approach.

People have traced parallels between Nelson’s work and that of Edward & Nancy Kienholz, Richard Wilson, as well as Ann Hamilton – who would count as his influences?

I think Paul Thek and Mike Kelly have had far more impact on Mike’s work. Both had a very particular way of working with materials. Literature and films have also been influential on his practice.

The Asset Strippers runs at Tate Britain until 6th October, 2019

Inspired by Nelson’s show, we take a look at a pair of home-grown menswear brands

Don McCullin At Tate Britain

Jacob Charles Wilson reflects on the photojournalist’s landmark show, a harrowing snapshot of truth, tragedy and symbol

Several of the small, stark, black and white photographic prints at the Don McCullin show at Tate Britain appear almost to mirror the gallery visitors stood before them.

In one picture a crowd has gathered and is staring intently at something just out of the picture – just over our shoulder. People of all ages wear winter coats and expressions of concern across their faces. A pair of women link arms, one covers her mouth while the other gestures towards the scene out of sight. Others are walking away, they’ve seen enough. Several in the crowd are peering through binoculars to get a better look, while one young man carries a camera in his hands. The caption tells the story, it’s 1961 and these people are, as of today, West Berliners seeing, witnessing and capturing the division of a city and of a continent.

There’s a human desire to witness events – even horrific ones. But in the course of events it can often be difficult to determine what exactly is happening. Disasters do not always look like disasters when they appear directly in front of you – a personal tragedy, perhaps, but of world-historical significance? Don McCullin’s work, as a photojournalist, is to do precisely this, to invert vision and turn the personal tragedy into the political symbol and to condense and translate the complexities of history into scenes of personal tragedy. Since 1958 his photographs have illustrated newspapers and magazines across the world. His images have come to define the conflicts in Cambodia, Nigeria, Congo, and Vietnam. It is his image of the shell-shocked US Marine that has come to stand in for the hell of war itself.

Don McCullin, West Berliners Looking East, 1961

Despite this, McCullin disdains the epithets  ‘artist’ and ‘war photographer’. But I find it difficult to describe him otherwise, the photographs taken throughout his career are artful, they display craft, sensitivity, and skill in use of the camera. One of the earliest photographs in the exhibition shows a portrait of a young gang-member in a Finsbury Park cafe. It was these early photographs of local gang-members, implicated in the murder of a policeman, that got McCullin his first job at The Observer. McCullin captures him in a shallow focus, the pure white of his face against the black depths of the cafe, his cigarette glows and a whisp of smoke wanders into the dark.

Later, when McCullin visited battlefields and refugee camps, he would show the same concern for dramatic, emotive composition and sharp tonal contrast. In portraits his style emphasises the texture of protruding veins and ribs and the sheen of polished steel and leather. In scenes of action the same techniques capture the chaotic frenzy of the wounded being rushed to field hospitals and men hurling grenades. In his macabre still lives it becomes difficult to distinguish mud from mulched flesh.

Don McCullin, Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

I hesitate, knowing that these scenes are of famine and conflict, to call them beautiful. McCullin also refrains from judging according to beauty. For him a good image is a truthful image, respect lies in presenting the truth, and truth in lack of interference on his behalf. He remarks, with some regret and some pride, that he has only taken a single contrived photograph on a battlefield, when he rearranged the looted possessions of a Việt Cộng soldier.

Don McCullin, Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961

Here I don’t know if I can agree. The great myth of photography is of its direct access to truth. All photographs are contrived, they are all selective scenes of events, especially so once they’ve been developed, cropped, and selected by editors and curators for print and exhibition. At the same time cameras can tell better stories than people, they can slow down events and capture the details missed in the moment. Photographs and memories aren’t easily separated. And given almost no-one visiting the exhibition will have direct experience of these events, we all make do with what we have – a photographer’s vision of the 20th century.

Don McCullin, Cyprus, 1964

Perhaps this doubt is why the exhibition includes some of McCullin’s possessions from his time in Vietnam; a number of passports from his 16 trips there, a watch, a compass. But the most intriguing items are his military helmet, covered in scrawled nicknames and slogans, and his Nikon camera, shot through, leaving an inch sized bullet hole right by the viewfinder. McCullin has been ambushed, and only later realised how close he had come to being killed. He keeps the camera as a reminder of his 30 years of miraculous luck on the battlefield.

Don McCullin, At a Café in Finsbury Park, London, 1958

The bullet hole is a physical reminder that every object and image in the exhibition cannot be separated from the wider story McCullin tells of hardship and horror. It would be wrong, disrespectful even to do so. The breadth of McCullin’s work shows the scale of devastation in the 20th century, while specific places he visited speak of the atrocities of European colonialism and the US imperial strategy of communist ‘containment’. By the end, the flow of the photographs has induced such a profound sense of hopelessness as tragedy builds on tragedy, all I can think of are the images made in my own time. When will I look back and recognise what was always already apparent?