Jeremy Deller is a populist artist in the best sense of the word.
His 2012 retrospective was entitled ‘Joy in People’ and his works are often concerned with everyday life and the things people do with their leisure.
They sometimes involve their direct participation as with his procession through Manchester and his recreation of the Battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike. He has been described as a social cartographer and shows a deep interest in working class culture and history expressed through his use of the style and materials of trade union banners to transmit his 21st century messages.
His latest exhibition is a collection that reflects on the impact of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and asks what remains of it today in a “post-industrial” economy. The cataclysmic impact of the early 19th century changes and the growth of cities is captured in John Martin’s painting of the ‘The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah’, Martin being a sanitary reformer and early observer of the “metabolic rift”, who worried that London would drown in its own excrement and planned a new sewerage system and the transportation of London’s waste to the fields of Kent.
Deller also presents some rare early depictions of industrial workers: photos of women ironworkers who loaded coal and broke up ironstone, some weary in their working clothes, others posing for the new medium of photography; oils of the workforce at Crawshay steelworks, with portraits of the whole industrial hierarchy from the owners via the labour aristocrat mechanic down to a range of workers, each distinguished by their clothes and tools.
Deller also presents broadsides (printed lyrics to songs sold cheaply) covering topics ranging from opposition to the “Salford Bastille” via songs of chasing lovers to a prediction of how life would be in 1973 (“Everyone will be rich. There'll be no need to beg”).
There is also material relating to the eight month long Preston lockout of 1853 — a major dispute of which Marx commented “Lock-out vs. Turn-out, is the great lawsuit now pending in the industrial districts, and bayonets are likely to give judgement in the case.”
The factory regime is set out in a poster outlining the tyrannical system of rules imposed by fines and the sack at one of the affected mills. A cartoon by one of the workers shows the employers’ reliance on “knobsticks” (scabs) to break the workers.
What has survived of the industrial past in the “air” of the 2010s?
Employers still try to take control of every second of the worker’s work time. A two-faced clock from a water powered Macclesfield silk mill (1810) contrasts the real movement of time with the time on the other face, driven by the power mechanism of the mill, for which the mill was producing. This second measure of time was used to calculate wages and force the workers to make up the time when there was insufficient water pressure.
This is placed next to the wrist-worn electronic device used by Amazon warehouse workers which monitors their high speed of work, enforced by a system of sanctions, and orders them what to “pick” next. A picture of the Amazon workhouse bears a certain resemblance to the engravings of an early mill — a uniform landscape of a relentless industrial architecture.
Resistance is possible — on entering we are faced by an 1890s Wearside engineering banner with the slogan “Scotia leads the way with a twelve o'clock Saturday” — but Deller has put this next to one of his own banners carrying a text message to zero hours workers telling them they're not required — “Hello, Today you have day off”.
On the walls are the family trees going back to the 1840s of three musicians from industrial areas: Noddy Holder from the Black Country, Bryan Ferry from County Durham and Shaun Ryder from Salford. Each is shown to be descended from generations working in the industries of their region.
Deller here returns to a favourite theme of his: the link between Britain's industrial past and its contemporary musical culture. He once famously arranged for a brass band to play acid house anthems and in this exhibition he finds a direct link between the heavy metal music of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest and the “metal-bashing” industries of the West Midlands.
But the family trees also pose a different question: is pop celebrity, at least for the lucky few, the contemporary substitute for traditional industrial work, all that remains once the “solid” has gone and a way of breaking the “curse” of generations? That question appears again in the exhibition in a video of Deller’s about the wrestler Adrian Street.
Street came from a Welsh mining background and went down the pit but was determined to leave for something better despite the derision of his father and his workmates. He makes a name as an all-in wrestler with a difference — with long bleached blonde hair, flamboyant and glittery “glam” costumes, a camp sensibility, a bodybuilder's physique and an ambiguous sexuality. This was a conscious contrast to the stereotypical 70s notion of masculinity expected of wrestlers — Street speaks of his “challenging homophobia”.
A central image of the exhibition is of Street returning to the pit where he worked in 1973 dressed in his wrestling finery with a feather fan, fur-trimmed cape and knee-length boots, wearing a European Championship belt and standing opposite his father who is dressed in his working clothes with his miner’s lamp illuminated and an uneasy smile. In the background we can make out four other miners with blackened faces behind the gate of the pit cage. Street is preening himself and explains on the video that this was his way of giving the finger to his dad and the others who said he would never make anything of himself.
Deller sees the picture as Street “enlightening the coal serfs as to how the world would look in a post-industrial UK” encapsulating Britain's “uneasy transition from being a centre of heavy industry to a producer of entertainment and services...” But, although Street comes across as a sympathetic character who “basically reinvented himself for the late twentieth century”, the question is also left open as to whether such individualistic solutions and a flight to celebrity are all that is left as an alternative to contemporary service industry drudgery such as that offered by Amazon now that “solid” industrial work has left Britain.
‘All that is solid melts into air’ is currently on show in Nottingham, moving to the University of Warwick and Newcastle later in the year.