It’s been D-day in Coventry- Jeremy Deller day. All That is Solid Melts Into Air is the title of the touring exhibition he has curated which is now showing at the Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre, at the University of Warwick in Coventry.
On the opening day Deller was in Coventry to take part in an In Conversation with Mead curator Sarah Shalgosky held at The Herbert in Coventry and then there was the exhibition opening party at the Mead. I caught up with Deller in the morning as the final touches were put to the exhibition – including fixing the jukebox which takes central position in one room.
Adrian Street and his father1973 photo Denis Huthinson (c) Denis Huthinson
The exhibition is described as “Jeremy Deller takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today”.
He told me that wasn’t what he had set out to do: “Originally it was to be a show much more about music culture and industry but when I started looking at the industrial revolution it became fascinating to me and I became more and more interested in it and the effect it had on people and urbanization and the show became less about music and more about the social and cultural aspect.”
So what effect did the industrial revolution have on people?
“It created this new person, the city dweller. I think it changed how people related to each other and their beliefs. They become more conscious of their place in the world, and they are among thousands of people. Ideas spread quite quickly, ideas of emancipation and political consciousness.”
There is still a lot about music in the exhibition, including certain individuals from the music world whose family trees have been traced and displayed on the walls, namely Bryan Ferry, Noddy Holder from Slade and Sean Ryder from the Happy Mondays. Why those people?
Deller said he likes their music and “I thought they were all major figures in their areas. I thought they were very representative of industrial parts of the UK. They were people I liked and I suspected they would have great working class family trees and they did.”
Deller believes most families have a similar history, showing a gradual more from rural to urban life. His aunt did their family history and “it’s very London heavy, it’s light industry and gradually it becomes less manual labor and more white collar and managerial and then you end up with me.”
I feel the exhibition is about working class history, as it seems to focus mainly on the workers rather than the bosses: “It’s the history of the working class”. So is it political? “Up to a point.”
The exhibition includes some amazing and frankly awful images from an Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’, where endless rows of products are held and workers pick them off the shelves for customers ordering from home. There’s even a device they fit to their arms as they supply orders, which times their work. Things seem to be going backwards to how they were in the industrial revolution, when the bosses had all the control. Jeremy said: “The employer seems to have got more of the upper hand than previously, you are one of many and there aren’t many unions.”
Another work here is a banner emblazoned with the words “Hello, today you have day off”, the words of a text sent to a zero hours employee who presumably doesn’t want too many days off.
Later, at the In Conversation with Sarah Shalgosky, the political nature of Deller’s work was hard to ignore. There were slides shown from his work The Battle of Orgreave, where he arranged the re-enactment of the miners’ strike, including some miners from the time. It wasn’t entirely accurate in the end, he admitted, but that didn’t matter as he just wanted to tell the story. He told Sarah: “I want to make the world a worse place, and make people unhappier” – then admitting really he actually wanted to tell the story and make people angrier.
Another work was a car destroyed by a suicide bomb in a marketplace in Iraq, which he toured around the US, along with a serving American soldier and an Iraqi civilian. They were mostly seen by other drivers, towing the car along, and when they parked up often met pedestrians who included homeless people who were former soldiers, who were interesting to talk to.
There were also other slides of his works for the Venice Biennale which were also provocative. But he claimed: “I really hate confrontation and will cross the road to avoid it, literally and metaphorically. But as an artist I like it.”
The exhibition at the Mead includes paintings, drawings and other works from the time of the industrial revolution, and mixes them in with more contemporary pieces. The first room includes depictions of the wonders of the industrial revolution alongside the natural wonders of the country, such as Iron Works, Colebrook Dale, by William Pickett which features in The Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales from 1805. In Newman & Co’s Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor, Wales, of 1842, a lithograph, the people are tiny, dwarfed by the wondrous quarry. And Deller says the large painting on show, of The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin, of 1852 was as much about the destruction of the city through sin and excess in Victorian times as about the past.
There’s a film which is worth watching right through; it features the famous (including Jarvis Cocker), less famous and schoolchildren, including one from Frederick Bird primary in Coventry, reading our reports about child labour in the Victorian period, including one where a child whose clothes got dragged off in a machine was told off for wasting time. Heavy rock music pulsates over steel making.
Then there’s the singing of an 1873 song detailing what life would be like in the distant future – A Prophecy for 1973 – with everyone rich, young and healthy, and shown against home movie footage from 1973 depicting the reality. The film ends with a ravey dance track played over footage of repetitive factory movements, and then moves on to repetitive dance movements. It’s hard-hitting and entertaining at the same time.
The story of Adrian Street is told through film and costume. Street fled the Welsh mining life as a teenager, took up body building and modelling in London, then wrestling then at 41 went to the US to continue his wrestling career – and now lives happily in Florida at more than 70 years old. Camp and theatrical, wearing outrageous clothes, make up and with long blond hair he admitted he played on the other competitors’ homophobia – though Street was himself straight and married.
There’s a film Deller made from Street’s own footage, and interviews he did with him, plus two of his wrestling robes, and it’s an amazing story, but the picture of Street in costume with his miner father at the pithead at Brynmawr colliery in 1973, watched over by goggle-eyed miners, is one Deller thinks highly important for telling the story of the exhibition. It’s certainly an amazing story of someone escaping what would seem to be their grim destiny.
The rock family trees of Sean Ryder, Bryan Ferry and Noddy Holder also of course show people who escaped their industrial destinies; the painting The Forge by James Sharples from 1848 was made by a man who was a blacksmith but depicts the industrial setting with light and shadows which give it the significance of ‘an industrial nativity scene’ as Deller writes. However Sharples didn’t escape well enough, and died a pauper.
There are some astonishing early depictions of workers brought together for this exhibition. Very small photographs show anonymous women iron workers from Tredegar, Wales, in the 1860s wearing raggy dresses and looking exhausted. Small paintings of named mine workers from South Wales in the 1830s are remarkable because they were painted at all, and because the men are named; but Deller does say the pit owner himself led an unorthodox life so maybe it’s not that surprising.
W.Clayton, Iron Workers Tredegar Wales, 1865
The life of gangs are compared between criminals depicted in gangs in the 1880s, and the Happy Monday posing in front of places important to them in their local area.
A section headed Health and Safety Will Be The Death of Me talks about what happened to 17-year-old Anthony Frank in 1965, when he lost part of two fingers in an accident in a sheet metal factory in Birmingham. It led to him changing the way he played guitar, becoming Tony Iommi (recently awarded a Coventry University honorary degree), and as Deller described it created a sound “that became a mainstay of heavy metal music”; but his injury was similar to many experienced 100 years before, as an 1843 report shows.
If you want more music, there’s a jukebox to play for free, and it’s shown dramatically against a wall specially painted with a huge mural for the occasion. However the music is a mixture of workers’ songs – Dark As a Dungeon, about mining was played while I was there – and the sounds of industrial items at work; on the opening day it was working sporadically so be quick!
At times some of the small images seem a bit lost in the larger of the spaces, but it’s an exhibition with lots of ideas, lots to read, watch and see. Jeremy Deller is certainly one of the most interesting artist/curators working in the country today, and a rare one in raising some of the relevant and highly political questions he does about our past and present.