Thursday, 13 June 2024 08:12

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Published in Visual Arts

Although he has used a wide variety of media, Jeremy Deller is perhaps best known for orchestrating large numbers of the public to create artworks such as his collaboration with ex-miners to re-enact the Battle of Orgreave in 2001.

In his current exhibition and catalogue, 'All That Is Solid Melts Into Air', he further expands traditional artists' means of expression to encompass curating, an activity for which he claims artistic freedom to interpret his theme in a personal manner.

Acting as a social cartographer, Deller links the impact of the industrial revolution on popular culture with its legacy today. He has programmed a 1950s juke box with traditional folk and heavy metal music, creating resonances or disjunctures in our experience of the artefacts according to songs which the public selects for free.

A section of 19th century works shows the physical effects of industrialisation on the landscape. John Martin's massive apocalyptical painting The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah dominates, with its depiction of a society imploding due to sin and disease.

Deller repeats the frequently voiced interpretation that this painting's subject was a metaphor for Victorian anxieties about the pernicious effects of rapid industrialisation on society.

But by also displaying Martin's plan drawings as evidence of his decades-long campaign to solve London's sewage problems which caused cholera epidemics, Deller expands the social definition of this academic artist to include his self-imposed environmental contribution. This hints at the social content of Deller's own works.

Other links between past and present are less convincing. Deller argues that the noise and shuddering of machines that shook the bodies of youths of both sexes in heated proximity in 19th-century factories created an atmosphere of moral chaos and danger similar to that of 1980s raves attended by later generations. Yet that raises the question of whether the consciousness of malnourished, poorly housed and often sickly mill children, working tedious hours to survive, bears any relation to that of ecstasy-fuelled teenagers dancing at a rave in the knowledge that cosy duvets in heated bedrooms await their return home.

More convincing are Deller's juxtapositions of past and present unjust and inhumane employment conditions. An 1830s mill poster enumerates heavy fines for often minor offences such as being a few minutes late and states that employees must give one month's notice but the masters can sack them instantly.

That's counterposed with a text message to a zero-hours worker which cynically reads 'Hello, today you have day off.' An 1810 clock measuring productivity stands near a digital tracking device worn by today's zero-hours warehouse workers which admonishes them if their pace is too slow. Ben Roberts's photograph of Amazon workers dwarfed by endless repetitive shelves emphasises their regimented working environment.

William Clayton's portrait photographs of unnamed, weary Victorian iron workers in their tattered dresses bring these women to life as individuals, their expressions seething with sullen resentment. In contrast, Francis Crawshaw's untutored paintings of the named workers in the 1830s factories which he ran portrays them as meek citizens in their Sunday clothes.

Deller's choice of contemporary workers focuses on a few men who escaped factory or colliery for successful, glamorous careers. Large wall drawings trace the genealogies of pop musicians such as Shaun Ryder through generations of their working-class ancestors. Photographs lionise Adrian Street, a miner who became a model and gaudy showman wrestler, including one of him in long blond wig, make-up and glittery wrester's regalia posing at the pit head with his bemused father and workmates.

Deller interprets Street's triumphant return as part-prodigal, part-prophet 'enlightening the coal serfs' of future deliverance from industrial toil. These appraisals of working-class escapees perpetuate a capitalist definition of success based on individualism and superficial glamour. They ignore the more laudable successes of self-educated workers who also rebelled but stayed to organise collective resistance against exploitative conditions.

A print depicting the Merthyr Rising of 1831 and a single weather-beaten trade union banner are rare references to the labour movement. This banner and the broadsheets are the few genuine relics of 19th century proletarian visual culture, the majority being observations about the industrial revolution by middle-class bosses and artists.

Nevertheless, an exhibition about working-class experience is welcome. By naming the pop stars' ancestors and stating their livelihoods the genealogies validate the normally anonymous existences of these paperhangers, miners, labourers, weavers, housemaids, fitters, nurses and others, as do the named portraits and photographs of workers. Similarly the folk songs on the juke box and in the broadsheets are truly the art of the people.

Though Deller makes some telling points and his concern for social justice is heartfelt, it is rooted in a romantic fascination with working-class life both past and present which underestimates the necessity for organised working-class action if true change is to be achieved.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Morning Star.