The Asset Strippers, 2019 Mike Nelson’s assemblage of telephone poles, hay rakes and heavy machinery in the Duveen galleries of Tate Britain made monuments of the industrial relics of his childhood – and part of my own. The internationally renowned artist, twice nominated for the Turner Prize, grew up in the East Midlands and went to school in Loughborough. The same one as me, it turns out, albeit the boys’ school and about a decade apart. His family worked in the textiles industry. The area was known for making hosiery – in the town centre there’s a bronze sculpture of a figure pulling on a sock. My father’s business was machine tools, which gave me my own experiences of the early nineties recession and decline of British manufacturing.
I had been looking forward to Extinction Beckons, the first major survey of Nelson’s work, which opened at the Hayward Gallery in London last week. Rather than filling the Hayward with a long walk through his back catalogue, the show is a relatively small number of large-scale, impressive installations. Each can take years to develop – and weeks to install. Some continue trains of thought over decades, like The Amnesiacs, his imaginary biker gang, which formed in 1996 and continues to leave traces. There are only a couple of one-off sculptures: a sleeping bag filled with cement and rubble, and a bench of the artist’s tools and rusty old nails of ambiguous provenance.
The biggest piece is his labyrinth of abandoned rooms, The Deliverance and The Patience, first exhibited at the 2001 Venice Biennale. It’s immersive in the old fashioned way, in that it doesn’t rely on projections or interactive AI, but on constructed environments made to appear unmade; lots of smashed walls and clawed, chipped plaster, as if he finished it off with a sledgehammer. Visitors are free to open the weathered doors to explore its dingy corridors and rooms. Every route, every sequence of spaces, tells a slightly a different story based on the tale of two eighteenth century galleons.
The most obvious encounter with this narrative is in the Captain’s Bar, a narrow blue room with an ashtray, models of the eponymous ships and a rifle for a door handle. The detail in the props, from tarot cards to animal skulls, brings to mind Punchdrunk theatre, which Nelson’s work predates, though his experiences inspire a similarly devoted following. Other spaces include an agency advertising cheap flights to Nairobi and Lagos, a room with floorboard benches littered with scraps of rags, and a staircase, from which you can glimpse the roof below the gallery ceiling, and its clutter of planks, cables, a dusty old television, bar stool and chicken wire.
Triple Bluff Canyon (The Woodshed), 2004, the spectacle of a shed ‘drowned in a desert’, occupies the entirety of one of the upstairs galleries. Visitors walk through a tunnel into the dune to enter a darkroom in the timber hut. Looking out at the sand through its broken frame, it could be a scene from Tarkovsky’s similarly post-apocalyptic, Stalker. The gallery attendant explains that the photographs hanging on the line show the work being installed. This is one of the few hints of the artist’s presence; there’s an absence of people in the work, unless you count disembodied concrete heads in a framework of rebar.
Another large-scale installation, I, Imposter, 2011, is lit by the same red safelight of a dark room – the glow becoming a Nelson trope. You can still make out the objects on the racks of planks, fixtures and gates and old doors lined up against the wall. It’s a warehouse for a previous work, recycled as a new one. Presumably one of the challenges of working with big found objects, like blown out tyres and factory fittings, is storage. Apparently the answer to that is Orpington.
I study the other visitors circling The Asset Strippers’ metal trays and iron sander. A stylish older art couple; a glamorous woman, no stranger to mornings browsing London’s latest immersive offerings; an urbane, writerly looking man. Do they know Loughborough, I think. Can they feel it through the rusting metal. “What I find interesting in objects is a sense of the presence of life, and of time, which is hard to manufacture,” Nelson says in the catalogue. These bygone machines transport me to the Towles hosiery factory on the Nottingham Road, the great brick Victorian arch of the Falcon Works by the station.
Industry is a recurring theme; the artist as worker, the tools of production. The curated selection of themed products in the Hayward’s gift shop therefore seems apt. You can inhabit a little of the artist’s world by buying a black beanie hat by Quinton + Chadwick. On the Extinction Beckons display are label makers, retractable rulers, a tool caddy, an industrial looking stapler and a Penco notebook to sketch your own Ballardian dystopia. I bought the catalogue and a tote bag to carry it in. The bag is red with the show’s title, but I’m hesitant to use it on account of another coincidence – Mike Nelson’s studio is very close to where I live in south London and I see him around. During lockdown, I saw him running up our road, in his hat. Proof that physically, at least, he inhabits the same world as the rest of us – it’s just the places he imagines and brings to life that suggest a curious mind elsewhere.
Mike Nelson: Extinction Beckons is at the Hayward Gallery, London until May 2023