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The Surrealism of Everyday Life

Kevin Brazil

British Jeremy Deller: Joy in People
The Hayward Gallery, London
22 February – 13 May 2012



Street parties, the Leveson Inquiry, and surface-to-air missiles in Tower Hamlets: Britain’s Olympic summer has well and truly arrived. And if the Thames flotilla and enough bunting to reach to an unwilling Glasgow and back are not enough to set Britannia’s hearts alight, the accompanying Cultural Olympiad [1] has been putting on a program of exhibitions, performances, and concerts, all tasked with that most unwelcome of Big Society missions: “celebrating modern British identity”. Yet Jeremy Deller’s recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Joy in People, might have been the exhibition which inadvertently achieved just that, with its very different image of contemporary Britain and contemporary British art than that being currently spruced up and put on show for the world.

The Hayward show is the first mid-career survey of the video, installation, conceptual and documentary works that Deller has been producing since 1995. Yet these medium-based tags don’t really convey what Deller’s work actually is: most of what you encounter in the show is the record, or the archive, of a series of collaborative projects: a procession organised in Manchester in 2009; 2005’s “Acid Brass”, where the Fairey brass band played covers of acid house classics such as “What Time is Love” by The KLF. A giant spider diagram on the gallery wall displays the unlikely connections between these two forms of vernacular northern music. Deller calls his method of studying contemporary culture “social surrealism” or a “surrealist anthropology” and there are echoes here of surrealist artist Humphrey Jennings [2]’s use of material from the Mass Observation Movement in the late 1930’s to create films and photomontages revealing the bizarre habits of everyday British life.

The surrealist act of making the familiar strange is present from the shows first installation: a life-sized replica of Deller’s bedroom in his parent’s house, where he held his first exhibition in the 1990s. Indie band posters, tabloid clippings about the dangers of ecstasy, photographs in drawers: all the paraphernalia of suburban teenage life become oddly more recognisable through being archived and reprinted. In the next room, the results of “The Uses of Literary” (1997) are laid out for display. For this project, Deller invited fans of the Manic Street Preachers to contribute artwork in tribute to the band, resulting in a trove of posters, poems, paintings and drawings. This could come across as trite, but when you consider that Deller worked in Warhol’s Factory in the late 80’s shortly before Warhol died, and when you compare his work with the ubiquitous artist-workshop model in contemporary art practice—an artist-brand such as Jeff Koons employing hundreds of anonymous and low paid artisans to make his work for example—Deller’s attempt to work out a truly collaborative art practice is much more politically charged.

Politics comes tragically to the fore in Deller’s most famous and controversial work on show here, for which he was awarded the Turner prize in 2004: “The Battle of Orgreave” (2001). For this project, Deller restaged and filmed the confrontation between the picketing miners and police in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, an incident that marked the turning point of the miner’s strike of 1984 and resulted in the collapse of the trade union movement in Britain and with it the last serious bastion of resistance to Thatcher’s monetarist revolution. There is something horrifying about looking over the newspaper archives that accompany the film in the gallery: the blatant plan drawn up to destroy the unions in the Ridley Report of 1979; Sun headlines calling miners the “scum of the earth” (thank you Murdoch); The Sunday Timesfront pages proclaiming that Arthur Scargill was being funded by Gadaffi when in fact he was victim of a sting by MI5 (thank you Murdoch, again); the BBC admitting that they altered footage of the Battle of Orgreave to make it look like the miners first attacked the police when the opposite was true; and, above all, the chilling voice of Thatcher, in the film itself, calling the miners “the enemy within”. The way in which Deller’s piece shows how the government and media establishment systematically attacked a substantial minority group—what Tony Benn called “a civil war against the miners”—and the way in which this has been airbrushed from public memory, is almost unbearably upsetting.

But this recitation of facts pales in comparison to the film itself, in which former miners take part in re-enacting their confrontation with the police. Periodically, amidst the general bravado and slight suspicion of the camera, are descriptions of the effect of the Battle of Orgreave on these mining communities: “embarrassment”, “humiliation”, “shame”—at not being able to support their families, at not understanding why they lost, at not being able to remember. And this is why the project of a re-enactment is so formally appropriate, since it poses the question: how can you re-enact something of which the official history is so obviously distorted?

It isn’t much of a criticism to say that the rest of the show falls off somewhat in intensity. The second to last room is taken up with the archive of “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq”, which was commissioned in 2009 by a group of American museums to foster conversations about Iraq in the gallery space. Whether because this feels like a attempt to rework the format of “The Battle of Orgreave” in an American context, from Deller’s position as an outsider to American culture, or because the American experience of Iraq is too present, too diverse, and too divisive, the effect seems forced and less moving. A jolt returns, though, in the final room, which shows proposals for projects that were never realised. It is a simple and fascinating idea, and once you see it you wonder why more artists don’t try something similar; pride, perhaps. One of these was Deller’s proposal for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which was simply to have been a model of David Kelly, sitting down at the plinth’s edge, dwarfed by its size and by Nelson in the background. All that remains of this proposal is a small photo in a vitrine, a chillingly appropriate metaphor for David Kelly himself (you wonder how many people today remember the reasons for his suicide).

As this final project makes clear, beneath the surreal and joyful celebrations of British vernacular and folk art and music, there is a sharp political and indeed theoretical edge to Deller’s work. Although he has brushed it off in interviews, Deller’s work can be seen as one of the leading examples of the tendency in contemporary art that Nicolas Bourriaud has influentially termed “relational aesthetics”. Rather than wade through Bourriaud’s typically turgid French theoretical prose, we might define this concept by way of Deller’s slogan plastered on a wall in the Hayward: “Art isn’t what you make, but what you make happen”. Put like that, it’s rather simple. And one of the most interesting things about Deller’s work in general is this combination of a sophisticated and experimental approach to the practice of art with a genuine popular impact and with an acute political commitment. The contrast with the Damien Hirst retrospective chosen to be the flagship show of British art for the Cultural Olympiad could not be stronger. The Hirst exhibition shows up so much that is wrong about contemporary Britain: shallow, celebrity obsessed and media driven, pervasively anti-intellectual and completely in thrall to global finance capitalism. It is surely not irrelevant that the Hirst show is being paid for by Qatar Museum Authority.

The Hirst show will be taking up space in Tate Modern for the rest of the summer, while Deller’s exhibition has already left the Hayward. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to end a review of an exhibition called Joy in People on such a depressing note. Deller’s work is continuing with his Folk Archive, a project in collaboration with Alan Kane, documenting contemporary British popular and vernacular culture. Thanks to the British Council, you can browse it online. So, when the combined onslaught of the Jubilee and the Olympics becomes a bit too much this summer, give it a browse, and you might just find a Britain to celebrate this summer after all.

Kevin Brazil [3] is reading for a DPhil in English literature at New College, Oxford.