Tate Britain is filled with the corpses of British industry, the long dead, rotting remains of this country itself. Strewn across the massive central Duveen Galleries are chunks of enormous abandoned machinery: presses, clamps, welders, cutters. Some have been left untouched, others have been piled on top of each other. Their wires are frayed, their oils have dried, their spindles have rusted.
Nelson spent months collecting these objects from salvage yards and asset strippers. As our national industries waned, debt collectors waded in, seizing equipment and discarding the humans who used it.
On the one hand, Nelson has repurposed these machines and turned them into sculptures, laying bare their aesthetic qualities, their twists and turns, shapes and shadows. But on the other, the narrative of these objects is inescapable. Even when he places a concrete ring on a bed of telephone poles, or an engine on a pile of sleeping bags, you’re still haunted by the pasts of the machines.
Nelson makes it a claustrophobic experience. The works tower over you, threaten to crumple on your soft, fragile body. And it never ends, there are doors to push through, spaces that unfold, an unending trip through the misery of Britain.
You can see it all as a metaphor for the death of Empire and British pride, for the impact of Brexit, for the dire sadness of modern life moving forward too quickly. Or you can see it as an ageing man who is finding a reflection of his own body and mind in the crumbling world around him. Personal or political, local or global, there’s heartache in the Duveen Galleries.