This weekend saw Jeremy Deller’s new curation cum exhibition ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ open at the Manchester Gallery.
Deller, on the back of his 2004 Turner Prize and having represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, has collected here a variety of objects, artefacts, prints, pictures and films orientated towards British Industrialisation. More specifically, Deller is concerned here with the forging of British traditions, culture and current inequalities in the Industrial Revolution. With special mention to ‘time and technology’ Deller’s ‘archaeological method’ is explicated as a ‘lateral interpretation offering a context in which hierarchies are dissolved, printed ephemera and historical works of art, artefacts and texts are shown alongside and on equal terms with major prints; and lines are drawn between the (brutal) past and the (indifferent) present.’
As the Indy’s recent review makes clear the context in which these eclectic objects are presented is the epic ‘The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah’ by John Martin from 1852. In the foreground a huddled few flee the catastrophic wrath of God which consumes the fallen city that lies indelibly in the past. Here are many of the themes of Deller’s work expressed at once poignantly and succinctly. The hues of the heat are the same tones as the sparking metal presented in Ronald Riley and Jack Cardiff’s 1950’s technicolour film of a British steel mill. The small group of refugees, stumbling from one civilisation precipitously towards the next, carry a few relics of the past into an uncertain future. In a piece adjacent to Sodom coalers stand huddled together around the embers of the furnace in A Kiln for Coke. Deller’s arrangement suggesting that these same industrial waves of destruction are synonymously the engine around which human community will form and reform itself in coming times. This theme, of formation around industry, is picked up again in a picture of 1970’s Stockport by John Davies which is organised around two derelict factories that sit to the rear.
Sodom also suggests the analogical nature of much of this collection. As the acrimony of God becomes the enmity of industry so a mid eighteenth century grandfather clock becomes the Motorola wrist band used by Amazon to measure the footfall of the workers. The sounds and lights of industry regurgitated again in the Hacienda and the British metal scene.
Yet the centre of Sodom is neither the city nor the refugees but the finger of lightening and the arrested one, the one caught looking back. In one of Ben Roberts’ pictures of the new Amazon Fulfilment centre entitled ‘Amazon Unpacked’ we see the cardboard cut-out of an Amazon worker welcoming prospective labourers to this leviathan factory. To the cut out’s right is a security camera, next to this the surveillance TV and on the TV the photographer himself pulled, unfortunately, into his own composition.
This is, I think, the real strength of Deller’s exhibition. Deller is clearly committed to the examination of a subject beyond himself and his own interiority yet it is conducted without self-worth or lax moralisms. For Deller repeatedly reminds the well heeled audience of his own complicity in the very processes he seeks here to display and explore. Deller is the one who has been caught looking back and the photographer who has been divested of his own disinterestedness.
The final room houses a short documentary by Deller on the wrestler Adrian Street entitled So Many ways to Hurt You. In this room, as I was leafing through a set of texts on the history of the British working class (two copies of E.P Thompson…) my eye was caught by two familiar men loitering at the back of the small film theatre. Knowing these two as regulars at soup kitchen in the centre of Manchester I went over and said ‘hi’, asking them what they thought of the curation. Mumbling replies they nodded differentially at this and that, watching the introduction to the film again with me before moving on. Still looking for somewhere dry and warm. Deller’s exhibition houses an engaging collection of artefacts, brought to the fore from the lives of Britain’s poor. It houses Manchester’s current poor to.
A Hayward Touring Exhibition in Manchester: 12th October 2013 to 19th January 2014. Before moving to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle.