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The Asset Strippers is a major new work by Mike Nelson, created for the annual Tate Britain Commission. This commission invites artists to create a new artwork in response to the grand space of the Duveen Galleries in Tate Britain, London.
The text I've written below is intended to act as a framework through which the reader can better understand my intentions and the context in which the work was made. The text is not an overtly theoretical one, but one that attempts to convey a level of understanding necessary to read the "prose" of the physical exhibition, represented in this issue of Diacritics by the images interspersed throughout the publication. As an artist I am more accustomed to making my point through material and space than purely with the written word and hope that some element of this can be retained in this short text and photographic record.
The vision I had was of the Duveen Galleries littered with the remnants of a past world, the space returned to what it had once been—a series of halls for the display of monumental sculpture. I was drawn to the idea of concentrating on the postwar era of my parents and of my childhood, of Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century. My initial thoughts focused on the huge knitting machines worked on by my father as a mechanic early on in his working life. Along with my grandfather, and initially my mother, they all worked in the textile factories in the English East Midlands, witnessing the industry's last surge of the 1950s and '60s until its sometimes brutal demise throughout the 1970s and '80s. Elements of this epoch's decline along with aspects of its socially progressive vision formed the core of my frame of reference as it was a world into which I was born and one that I somehow expected to continue in a linear trajectory. However, the vision of postwar Britain, its welfare state, and its attempts at social equality seem long gone. What I see now and into the near future, particularly in the arts, is a new Victorian era of wealthy patronage in the wake of state decline, spawning vanity and inequality. The idea of the Duveens becoming a warehouse to house idiosyncratic monuments to a historically brief and visionary moment in time somehow seemed strangely apt given Britain's current chaos in the face of introversion and self-reflection.
The Duveens extension was funded by Sir Joseph Duveen, who had made his fortune selling art to industrialists. It was opened in 1937 by King George VI in the same year as his coronation; he would become known as the king who ultimately oversaw the dismantling of the majority of the British Empire. These were Britain's first designated spaces for sculpture, places where people could come and wonder at the sheer [End Page 156] physicality of sculptural objects. In this sense I imagined the work in much the same way as the cast room at the Victoria and Albert Museum or the lower galleries of the British Museum, nineteenth-century exhibition spaces that the Tate would have looked at, aiming to both rival and emulate their eclectic, ethnographic collections laid out in such a way as to allow the visitor to navigate and decipher in an exploratory manner. I wanted to explore the shift of scale that is found in such places—spaces full of artefacts—to create a scene similar to that of an archeological site, between a sculpture court and a grand warehouse of architectural and industrial salvage.
Underpinning this, I was interested in how Britain and its empire historically came to be in such a position of power—that it was bound up with industrial prowess, particularly throughout the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. I wanted to investigate how an exhibition space used for...