RECENTLY 30,000 COPS protested in London. They marched past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and the furry-hatted Horse Guards to Trafalgar Square and the Mall. There were banners like “Occupiers for Ordn’ry Coppers” and t-shirts trumpeting, “Get Shafted And Carry On,” a twist on the old WWII slogan, “Keep calm and carry on” now so popular on mugs and, um, t-shirts. Cops even wore shirts blaming the Queen for their job cuts, saying, “HM (short for her majesty) gave me this.” On the back was a bloody ax, which seems particularly pointed a few weeks shy of HM’s diamond jubilee.
A helicopter hovered overhead, and cops watched cops. The ones on duty in high-vis jackets were detailed to mind the ones in civilian attire (and the aforementioned t-shirts) while a riot van stood at the ready, as if it should ever be needed. In this a year of protests from Egypt to Libya, Syria and Wall Street Occupiers as well as those outside St Paul’s in London, seeing cops guarding cops was surreal. Of course, the police were well behaved, barely raising their voices, but they could have been a performance piece staged by Jeremy Deller. He’s a conceptual artist who practices what he calls “social surrealism,” celebrating the human and everyday – particularly protests and marches. At the very moment the cops were marching past London’s most famous monuments, he was having a mid-career retrospective “Joy In People” at the Hayward Gallery, not even a mile away.
Deller won the Tate’s prestigious Turner Prize in 2004 and in his acceptance speech dedicated the award to “everyone who cycles in London, everyone who looks after wildlife and bats, the Quaker movement and everyone I’ve worked with.” Which says much about his work. It’s collaborative and pro-cycling, political, activist and has included bats in several pieces. It’s also not often in museums. One of the bat pieces was a competition he sponsored to build a bat house in a park. He won the Turner Prize in part for restaging the Battle of Orgreave, a protest from the 1984 miners’ strike that was particularly violent and particularly bloody when miners and police clashed. Thatcher was trying to break the unions. Police used tactics from the Roman Army and Northern Ireland (which also says a considerable amount about “The Troubles,” as they are so euphemistically called), and Deller re-enacted the protest. The whole thing was filmed by Ken Figgis and broadcast in the UK on Channel Four, making it Deller’s most famous piece.
His work on Orgreave (subhead: An Injury to One Is An Injury To All) both celebrates re-enactments as performance and is designed to draw attention to a moment that deserves as much historicizing as, say, American Civil War battles, or other events from the distant past which are more often recreated. Orgreave is also not his only protest in his work. He’s used photos of pensioners and their placards in a piece called “Karl Marx at Christmas” and talks about being inspired by the creativity of the old folks’ homemade signs. Watching the cops, I imagined Deller there too on his bike, thrilled at the scene like the Occupiers and police dogs and Sussex Gay Police Association marching under a rainbow flag. Many of the police’s signs though had been pre-printed, which I suspect would have upset Deller. He’s interested in the handmade, the humble and human scale.
He never went to art school and claims no facility for making art. He can’t draw or paint, and he’s not particularly interested in them either, not in his own work, at least. He’s said, “Art isn’t what you make but what you make happen.” He uses the power of art, the power to frame something and raise it up, to make us notice things we might not have seen otherwise, so we appreciate them or, at least, consider them anew like Orgreave. Which strikes me as a new sort of history painting, to memorialize that moment in all its moral complexity lest we forget how violent it was, how awful the cops were with their shields, and how terrible Thatcher’s regime. But, Orgreave was mostly fought locals against locals, making it particularly painful for those caught up in the violence. In the restaging, which took two years of planning and research, men who’d been police were miners and vice versa. Here was memorial infused with memory, history, documentary and some kind of moment of reconciliation and healing all in one. That’s a lot of weight for one piece, yet it carries it well.
Deller grew up in the suburbs and studied art history and was a raver, part of that moment in the early 90s, where ecstasy and music and warehouse parties and open-air acid-house extravaganzas provided a communal moment through music. That communal ethos is at the heart of his work. He’s interested in fan art and collaborative projects that spur on collectivity. Deller’s “Joy In People” is rollicking and expansive. The title is apt. He uses art to celebrate community and creativity.
A few years ago for Manchester’s International Festival instead of “art,” he made a parade celebrating the city as he saw it, formed of diverse groups that create a community. The parade included the “Unrepentant Smokers” (under a banner designed by David Hockney), “Big Issue Sellers” (made up of the homeless who sell the magazine), “Carnival Queens” (reenacting a tradition that began in the 19th century in the cotton mills) as well as the “Last of the Industrial Revolution” for those few factory workers left. One banner sported “Remember Ian Tomlinson” who died while protesting, and another, “Our Ancestors Were At Peterloo” (for those whose relatives had been at the violent 1819 protest for parliamentary reform).
The banners were all created by Ed Hall, who Deller discovered at the Lambeth Country Show. Imagine a US-style county fair with livestock but no demo derby or touring country acts transposed onto Brixton (made famous in the Clash song “The Guns of…”). Here, Deller met the last of a dying breed. Hall is one of the few who still sews banners for union protesters. With Deller’s love of folk art and protest, he was bound to be smitten. Hall’s banners have been part of many of Deller’s pieces, including others in the show. Not surprisingly, the flags flung and placards waved by the bill on protest didn’t include ones by Hall. Somehow I get the sense that the three of them, Hall, Deller and the cops, might not mix so well.
The parade also included a funeral cortege for Manchester’s late great nightclubs like the Hacienda and a float recreating Valerie’s Snack Bar, serving Britain’s best bacon butty (a “sandwich” in US parlance). Imported for the exhibit, the caf in the museum offers up free tea in aluminum pots, brewed and stewed British style, that is to say, strong and bitter, served up by women who call you “luv.” To him this moment is just as much a part of communal experience. It’s also a nice break after standing on the Hayward’s concrete floors. Sometimes, though, his work can seem at odds with a museum, almost stifled by the gallery itself, because the pieces are about people, not some frozen moment.
Deller has said he never expected to see his work in a museum, and the show begins in fact in a reconstruction of his teen bedroom. It was his first exhibit in the early 90s called Open Bedroom (like an open studio) and staged in his parents’ house (they had no idea) when they were on vacation. It’s a raucous celebration of acid house and drugs and the ‘burbs, while the bathroom recreates the graffiti in the men’s bathrooms at the British Library. (Deller was spending a lot of time there).
He’s celebrated Depeche Mode fans and joyriding, admitting that the latter can be destructive, but looking at it from another angle, he sees the creativity in it, the “anti-materialism” and engineering knowhow as kids figure out the cars. In “Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode,” he tracks down the band’s fans from Russia to Iraq and London and elsewhere. In other hands someone might take this piss, making fun of the fans’ ardor. Not Deller, and the homeless man in London who talks about how his life was changed by seeing the band live is a deeply moving testimony to pop’s power to unite.
Deller also sees art as a way to bring people together. (It’s what you make happen…). “It Is What It Is” was designed to get people talking about the Iraq War. He took a bombed car, now a writhing hunk of rusting metal, on tour through the US with an American Iraq War veteran and an Iraqi refugee to spark discussion. The piece was brave; they toured the South and Midwest, the car in tow. You can read Deller’s trip diary here, and in the museum he set up Ikea chairs (he doesn’t stand on aesthetics) and invites gallery visitors to talk about the war with those who had direct experience of it.
Calling something art sets it aside, puts it on a plinth and elevates whatever is on it. Whether it’s making the humble heroic or sparking a conversation, Deller uses his platform to underline ideas for us to consider. At the end of a show is a section called “My Failures” (under an Ed Hall banner). It’s the work he failed to realize. One piece was to go on a literal plinth, the bare platform in the far corner of Trafalgar Square, called the Fourth Plinth. The square’s other sculptures are historic figures, kings and soldiers, while the Fourth Plinth has been given over recently to a revolving series of contemporary art.
After watching the police protest, I went to see what was on the plinth now. Deller had wanted it to hold either a bombed car or else a statue of Dr. David Kelly, a weapons expert accused of leaking information about how Iraq wasn’t housing WMD. Hounded by the press, he committed suicide in the wake of a government enquiry. The plinth now holds a bronze boy on a rocking horse. It’s a comment on history and heroicism, and that the plinth was originally meant for an equestrian sculpture. When the actress Joanna Lumley unveiled it she called it a “completely unthreatening and adorable creature.” Which pretty much sums it up. Harmless. Cute. I read the text on the plinth about the sculpture, and, yeah, I got the artists’ points about youth and history and all, but afterwards wondered, who cares? It all seemed academic and not really all that adorable either.
Reading the placard for a Deller or even watching the 20-minute video of him talking about his work in the gallery, I got a warm feeling of joy (Joy in People to be exact). He’s one of the most humble artists and what he creates is not so much about himself or the object but a sense of experience, and here you need to read the didactic text to get the full context and idea. What’s amazing is that the text can produce that sense, that power and emotion. Or, maybe that’s the power of the ideas behind the art. They are rich and complex, nuanced in a way that the hobby horse and kid could hardly achieve. Deller’s objects in some way are like talismans or stand-ins for a bigger moment, and I can only imagine what the show in his parents’ house was like: house music and a house party and acid and E, like Risky Business but smarter and better. And with no hookers but better graffiti. As the poster says as you enter his room: “Bless This Acid House.”