The joy of Deller
Friday 09 March 2012
When I predicted that Jeremy Deller would win the 2004 Turner prize, I stressed that he was among the few of the so-called Brit-pack generation to challenged post-modernist cynicism.
Apart from his work being visually and intellectually engaging it was also ideologically challenging, politically provocative and encouraged people to get involved.
Deller represented a tradition last seen in the 1970s when artists engaged with issues like anti-racism, women’s liberation and gay rights and created museums of working-class history.
It was the time of alternative comedy, punk and the culture of resistance that would slowly dissipate during the rise and rule of the Saatchi–Serota axis in the 1980s.
Neither painter or sculptor, Deller studied art history and is clearly excited by the cultural complexities arising in a multicultural society.
He likens his role to that of the storyteller, a tradition that began with the oral histories of the shamen before being expounded in sagas, chronicled by archivists and stored in libraries.
Yet given his fascination for history, he realised that it didn’t proceed in linear fashion. It was a dialectical-materialist process, with the detours often providing opportunities for exciting collusions.
Deller’s interventions are under the guise of the artist-as-trickster who delights in irony and the notion of “turning the world upside down,” a phenomenon of popular carnivals from Venice to Notting Hill.
His work, imbued with wit and wisdom, alludes to politics obliquely in pieces introducing Lenin on dialectics and a tribute to Marx’s Christmas in Soho’s Dean Street.
It’s the house that became a cafe which refused to bear a blue plaque with Marx’s name and which would later be bought and sold by the arch-plagiarist Damien Hirst.
Absurdist juxtapositions would become his trade mark – as signified by his mix of popular music, acid house, steel bands and brass ensembles along with Morris dancing and lessons in class struggle.
His tribute to the influence of the lyricism and politics of the Manic Street Preachers also made their mark.
It’s eight years since his Turner triumph and Deller has graduated to a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London simply entitled Joy In People – evidently he wants to attract those who rarely enter art galleries.
As you cross Waterloo Bridge en route to the Hayward, a massive banner with a raised red fist and the slogan “Fight the Nothingness” catches the eye.
It’s the work of David Shrigley, advertising his show Brain Activity which is also running at the gallery.
A caricature of the DIY demo banner it couldn’t be more different to the one created by Deller for Joy In People, which is inspired by the highly crafted banners of the trade union movement.
First up in the gallery is a reconstruction of Open Bedroom (1993), referencing the time Deller turned his parents’ Dulwich home into a gallery when they went on holiday, to which he invited friends and some artists.
The memorabilia – his passion was The Who’s drummer Keith Moon – is summed up in the dreaded sign “You treat this place like a hotel.”
Unlike the original installation, everything is framed and some of the objects are displayed inside fitted furniture. Surreal ambiguities abound, but what’s lacking is haphazard disorder, dust and the patina of time.
Next, you’re confronted by a black painted wall with the words “I love Melancholy,” Deller’s cynical comment on the proliferation of smiley symbols.
“No photos,” said an unsmiling attendant but there is an area for photographs around the reconstruction of Valerie’s snack bar in Bury market, where you can get a nice cup of tea and watch the Battle Of Orgreave on the telly.
On the south wall is Deller’s flow chart The History Of The World, top, which links music and politics from the brass bands of industrial Britain to the Acid House of industrial Detroit. Hanging high are banners from the Procession In Manchester (2009) proclaiming “Our Ancestors Were At Peterloo,” “The Last Of The Industrial Workers,” “Carnival Queens” and “The Unrepentant Smokers.”
In an adjacent area is The Orgreave Battle (2001), recounting the NUM’s struggle to stop Thatcher destroying the miners before her attempt to destroy the trade union movement itself.
Recreated with the help of historical-enactors and survivors of the struggle and filmed by Mike Figgis, it shows how the capitalist state waged a civil war on the working class.
My only gripe is that the Morning Star – the only daily that backed the miners’ struggle – is absent from a display of contemporary newspapers.
The next big work Standing Like A Sculpture – which Deller wanted to be exhibited on the “fourth plinth” in Trafalgar Sqaure – recalls his courageous tour with Iraq war veterans through the US with a burnt-out car. The intention was to record public responses which, as you might imagine, weren’t always welcoming.
It complements a wall with a map of Britain marked with Iraqi towns and vice-versa, with an Iraqi guide to provide information.
The other major tableau is a tribute to the legendary wrestler Adrian Street, a flamboyant fighter compared with maulers like Mick McManus.
Deller travelled to Florida to film the 70-year-old Welshman who had been knocked into shape by an authoritarian dad and he clearly proved attractive to those weaned on glam-rock and goth.
A more personal piece, its showbiz bravura ill prepares you for the Memory Bucket (2003), a film of flying bats shot in Texas with an inevitable reference to George Bush.
It’s in 3D and proves far more effective than the recent spate of 3D remakes of film released in the post-Avatar period, capturing as it does the claustrophobia of Hitchcock’s film The Birds.
In the spirit of Deller’s desire to break down barriers between artists and public, I asked one of the attendants for his view on the show.
“It’s great, very mature, lots to see, people get involved, ask questions and appear to enjoy it,” he says enthusiastically. Wondering whether he’s parroting from a prepared script, I ask him what his understanding of “mature” is.
“The last time I was here it was Tracey Emin, all about herself, self-indulgent and very boring,” he explains. Couldn’t have put it better myself and it turns out he’s a would-be art student who needs to work to pay his way.
Hours and wages are long and low, he says, and when I suggest joining a union – something Deller would surely encourage – he laughs and says it’s difficult, “given my situation.”
There’s another story Deller might want to investigate and relate – the world of those living on or below the minimum wage to staff our arts attractions on the South Bank where, among the neon light illuminating the grey concrete, there are still people living in the shadows.
Joy In Living runs at the Hayward Galllery, South Bank, London SE1 until May 13. Box office: 0844 875-0073.