All sculptural questions apply, and probably do each time. Surrounded by raw, found, lost and reclaimed material, Mike Nelson has to consider, each time, whether to err in favour of making an independent sculpture, to wholly submit to a particular place, or whether to give in to expectation and produce a whole new construction of three-dimensional fiction. He uses his studio to ponder and plot, and the photograph reveals just one moment in a perpetual round of questioning.
This artist’s relationship with material is varied and about the way in which association is able to undermine, as well as replenish, artistic value. The studio is the artist’s other home, and yet he often has to go away to teach, install, and discuss public and private interests with museum curators and gallery dealers. He spends time negotiating the next place to show, delving deep into the relationship that might or might not develop with any particular place, with thinking how far that must be investigated or ignored. When will there be peace rather than another piece, he probably often asks? Few artists continue such a relationship with reality that can so quickly turn unreal and otherworldly, all the while suggesting a sophisticated understanding of political plans and social movement.
Nelson’s recent installation at Tate Britain, The Asset Strippers, showed the artist addressing the ghost of industrial production. Going through a parallel relationship with the amount of skill and effort necessary to make the artistic front of house as convincing as the back, or the other way around, Nelson proposed, instead of a seamless sense of place, an apparently more traditional exhibition of sculpture. It was possible to walk, on a grid, between autonomous pieces fashioned from abandoned, neglected, apparently defunct pieces of Industrial Britain. A Britain with areas reduced to empty factories, unemployment, and art initiatives across a desolate, post-industrial landscape. The elements led one through, on a sort of logic of no return, to the busted, abject reality of a squashed sleeping bag. Nelson’s structured and structural spectacle at Tate Britain asked questions about the power of the single object, the strength of elements whose function and use have changed, and the way that art can remain an anti-relic of its own narrating. This sense of battle between physical presence and effective life, questioned and reduced, mimics the detritus of dematerialisation.