at artforum.com: on Mike Nelson's "Tools That See" at neugerriemschneider
At first, the objects in the eight vitrines on view in Mike Nelson’s current exhibition appear to be souvenirs from an unsellable intervention—titled Space That Saw (Platform for a Performance in Two Parts)—that took place in 2012 in a derelict former variety theater a block away from the gallery. That installation—remarkable for its utter refusal to reveal its nature as an artwork—was more like a found site, or a haunted theater silently worked upon, reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut-open houses. In the artist’s current show, the work is metaphysically titled Tools That See (The Possessions of a Thief) 1986–2005, 1986–2005. There’s a formal repetition here, and what seems to be a reconciliation with the materiality of art: Each of the eight vitrines is a rectangular composition of what the handyman sees—to turn Nelson’s title around—and in fact, what he uses.
Largely unremarkable worn wooden floorboards are topped with tools arranged with the attention of ikebana. The aesthetics here might be an homage to an unseen laborer: his low-seated bench, dirty work gloves, a set of handsaws piled as if in a game of pick-up sticks. It isn’t until you notice the heavy concrete base of each of these works that their contrition becomes clear. Nelson gives them that almighty quality that connotes luxury in an object: heaviness. By putting them on such pedestals he elevates leftovers from those 2012 pieces into lamentations for a now-demolished building-cum-artwork, a victim of gentrification. With an air of haunted sarcophagi, they’re pristinely guarded, although they seem to turn up their noses at the world of shiny new things.
(More on Mike Nelson's amazing Space That Saw, 2012, below this post)