BY Sean Burns in Interviews | 27 FEB 23

Mike Nelson Strips His Assets

The artist discusses his first survey, at Hayward Gallery, London, which ambitiously reconfigures his acclaimed spaces and sculptures

BY Sean Burns in Interviews | 27 FEB 23

Mike Nelson and his team have transformed the Hayward Gallery on London’s Southbank into a journey through reconfigured iterations of his best-known spaces and sculptures. Fragments of his Venice Biennale commission, I, IMPOSTOR (2011), appear in a re-creation of his vast storage facility, bathed in red light. The Asset Strippers (2019), a work for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in which Nelson posited British industrial machinery as reverent modernist sculpture, also re-emerges, as do labour-intensive re-imaginings of his celebrated warrens of filmic interiors, such as The Deliverance and The Patience (2001). 

Once Sean Burns found the artist – inside an enormous sand dune – the two sat down to discuss his career and the mammoth task of mounting his first survey.

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson by Arnaud Mbaki. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London

Sean Burns How much has the architecture of the Hayward – this important modernist building – influenced your installation?

Mike Nelson Somehow, the gallery is the epitome of post-war criticality and modernity. It has a brutal, concrete presence. I was very pleased to respond to this not only from a historical perspective but from a formal one, too. For me, the awkward thing was how to articulate a survey of such ephemeral work. Was I going to make a more archival exhibition – with documentation and objects – or build a show out of the histories and detritus of all my old exhibitions? At the tender age of 55, I felt I still had the latter in me, which is what we have done. It’s an attempt to respond to my passage through a lifetime of making, but also to the world through which it has passed, and somehow reconfigure the works. 

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers (solstice), 2019, hay rake, steel trestles, steel girders, sheet of steel, cast concrete slab, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Matt Greenwood

SB What was the thinking behind the exhibition title, ‘Extinction Beckons’?

MN I approached the show in the same way as I applied the ideas behind The Asset Strippers to my own storage: I’m almost stripping my own practice to do a survey. The reconfiguration of works becomes like a studio apparatus in that there’s potential for strange juxtapositions and disjunctions to suggest a future for the works. ‘Extinction Beckons’ was repurposed from a motorbike helmet sticker from the first exhibition of my series ‘The Amnesiacs’ [1996–ongoing] at Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, in 1997. The helmet with the sticker is like an object from Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky’s book Roadside Picnic [1972]: on one level, it is portentous and heavily laden with meaning; on another, it’s a flippant piece of dark humour; it means everything and nothing.

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson, I, IMPOSTER (the darkroom), 2011, installation view, various materials. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Matt Greenwood

SB There are some personal touchpoints in this exhibition, including your old living room.

MN That was my front room in Balham, South London, where I lived from 1992, while doing my MA at Chelsea College of Arts, until I made Triple Bluff Canyon in 2004. I had an extremely good landlord, who I often describe as my greatest patron because the rent was so cheap, and he only turned up once a year. I was very sad to leave that house; it meant a lot to me. That situation answered the financial issue of being a young artist trying to work in London. On a psychological level, I wanted to keep that room. As I was moving out, I measured and photographed it so I could re-create it. It’s an odd experience to enter that part of the installation because it’s exactly as I left in in 2004.

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson, The Deliverance and The Patience, 2001, installation view, various materials. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Matt Greenwood

SB It makes me think about the role of memory – both your own and that of the audience – in the work. 

MN Years ago, that was the premise. To spend so much time and effort constructing these works only for them to disappear may seem quite perverse to some people. To me, it made it more magical – the idea that the work was disseminated into visitors’ minds. These things are for someone to occupy with their own history; it’s not just about my history. 

I became frustrated at art school in the late 1980s with the over-theorization of work. I felt something was lacking in terms of the enjoyment of making. Nowadays, I’m thankful for having had an education like that. When I left Chelsea, I started reading more fiction and doing work that leaned on narrative. I found the ideas in fiction similar but more soluble than those in theory. I didn’t want to illustrate theory but, instead, to create a conceptual arena in which to play. 

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson, The Deliverance and The Patience, 2001, installation view, various materials. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Matt Greenwood

SB Is this idea of the enjoyment of making something you still feel, or is this proposition more challenging? 

MN We installed this show in less than a month, so I haven’t had much time to reflect on the work. The tight schedule required substantial pre-building, but getting into the space is more enjoyable than the preparation. Here, I’m working in a way I haven’t for a long time. I haven’t built many spaces since the British Pavilion in Venice, more than a decade ago.

SB Was that a conscious movement away from installation? 

MH I’m never sure what installation is. It’s not for me to say. I enjoyed and liked the work we made in Venice, but its popularity somehow undermined it. 

Through the 1990s, I had a sense of freedom to do what I wanted to do. In a way, becoming an artist – or wishing to become one – seemed absurd compared to the jobs most of my relatives had. Part of the appeal was to have my own autonomy – just doing it for your own head – but I watched friends fall into poverty because their work didn’t pick up, or they started a family and couldn’t continue making.

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson, Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Münster - A Thematic Instalment Observing the Calendrical Celebration of its Inception, 2014. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Matt Greenwood

SB It’s still tough for young artists who aren’t from a wealthy background, particularly in London.

MN My generation of artists was quite lucky because we could claim state benefits. It was bleak in London in the early 1990s and it’s bleak again now – but not in the same way. The artists that became commercially successful in the 1990s seemed to lose their creative autonomy, too. I wanted to avoid being consumed by money or advertising. I was always trying to find a balance, which tipped in Venice somehow. 

SB It seems as though you’ve found a good route through that now. 

MN I’ve been very lucky. Few people would have chosen a way of working like this because the physicality of it is quite brutal. The nicest thing is when I meet someone who saw a show of mine ten or 20 years ago, and they tell me how it made them want to make art. When people tell you that, it’s all worthwhile.

Mike Nelson’s ‘Extinction Beckons’ is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, until 7 May. ’The Book of Spells’ is at Matt’s Gallery, London, until 23 April 2023

Main image: Mike Nelson,Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed), 2004, installation view, various materials. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Matt Greenwood

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and frieze assistant editor based in London, UK. His new book on death in art is out now from Tate Publishing.

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