Text by Travis Riley
You wouldn’t be to blame if you assumed the large blue banner above the Hayward entrance, proclaiming “art exhibition”, were a David Shrigley piece. It has the immediacy and humour of Shrigley’s work, and none of the seriousness that has in recent years come to represent Jeremy Deller.
In fact, for those only familiar with Jeremy Deller’s most celebrated work, The Battle of Orgreave (2001), the exhibition title, Joy in People, might seem a bit quizzical. The full-scale re-enactment of a particularly dark corner of British history is not a common definition of the term “joy”. However, already visible from the entrance to the show is Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009), a recreation of a Bury Market café. The structure, surrounded by colourful parade banners, would be out of place in any modern gallery space, and in the Hayward’s high-ceilinged, factory-like rooms, it is wonderfully ludicrous. With my cup of tea I sat, staring out at the exhibition surrounding the stall.
To the left is The History of the World (1998) Deller’s spider diagram connecting “Acid House” and “Brass Band” music. The playfulness exuded by this work is joyful. It feels humble, like an idea conceived of over a pint, but that would never usually be followed through in the light of day. The evident mismanagement of grand-title and niche content is a humorous draw, which turns out to elucidate a greater point. It is easily possible to sit, tracing the diagram’s tangential connections for hours; there is a sort of disbelief that these two genres should ever be connected, and yet as with all distinct historical points, they inevitably find themselves related. Later on in the show there is a video of contemporary acid house music being played by Williams Fairey Brass Band (Acid Brass, 2007). Much of Deller’s work exists primarily outside of the gallery; the Williams Fairey Brass Band have continued playing Acid Brass gigs as recently as 2011.
To deal with this genre of seemingly un-exhibitable work, Deller presents a slideshow (Beyond the White Walls, 2012) in which he described several previous projects. From Karl Marx at Christmas (2000), to his “I love joyriding” bumper stickers, to a middle-class hand sign system (signs including “cup of tea”, “radio four”, and “antiques roadshow”), the works are equal parts culturally insightful and hilarious. The strength of these pieces is a restriction of scale, an almost effervescent quality. Each is a self-contained gesture, which Deller’s narration carefully and characterfully elucidates.
To the right of my spot at the café, a white-walled structure, about half the room’s height, dominates the landscape of the gallery. Inside is a recreation of Jeremy Deller’s teenage bedroom. He hosted an exhibition here when his parents were away on holiday, and although it might not have seemed groundbreaking at the time, the calculated transportation of the teenage art and ephemera to the gallery-space allows a it to become a catalyst for the other works. All the hallmarks of Jeremy Deller’s art are displayed here. There is work based on musical influence, cultural interest, and appropriation (borrowed text from graffiti in the British Library toilets, displayed on the walls of his own bathroom). The formats of event poster, archival history, and consumerist material, are explored, as they continue to be throughout the wider exhibition.
Moving on to the next room of the exhibition the inquisitive ebullience of the earlier spaces is left behind, there is no escaping the social weight of The Battle of Orgreave. The installation consists of an on-wall, month by month socio-political account of the events leading up to the clashes between miners and police, presented alongside the hour-long documentary of Deller’s Battle of Orgreave re-enactment. Despite the performance’s central role in the film, the documentary’s character is defined more by conversations with the out-of-character re-enactors. For every militant declaration, laying bare old wounds, there are numerous admissions of mistakes, and a lack of restraint on both sides. The film is by no means a celebration of the battle, but in its reconsideration of a moment in history buried through shame, there is also no condemnation. The positivity of the gesture, towards a situation always recounted negatively, shows through.
The piece It Is What It Is (2009) seems an extension of this idea. This time Deller takes a burnt-out car, a casualty of a Baghdad bombing, on tour around America in order to start a conversation with the American public, informed by the presence of an exiled Iraqi citizen and an American soldier. If approached as an attempt to bridge cultural divisions, Deller’s somewhat bleak version of the American road trip seems doomed to fail from the outset, but perhaps this was the intention. Deller terms the car “the conversation piece from hell” and as with The Battle of Orgreave Deller’s intent is to inform and confront, not to present a viewpoint on the war or make a judgement on America. The car fills the gallery space with a visceral truth much greater than its rusted metal parts.
The term “joy” is best defined as “a source of happiness”, and it is in this sense that Deller has presented the Joy In People. This exhibition, Deller’s first retrospective, is built directly from his interests. The pleasure he takes in music, culture, and indeed, people, informs the show and is communicated throughout. His drive to investigate more trying, and often overlooked issues does not become an exception in this case, but merely a continuation of the same central principle. His art is honest, but thankfully, not at all naïve. Deller’s joyful and celebratory approach, far from demeaning his subject matter, affords it a grounded insight that has allowed him to tackle subjects from war to tea rooms with equal sincerity.
Jeremy Deller: Joy in People, 22/02/2012 – 13/05/2012, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX. www.southbankcentre.co.uk/deller
Aesthetica in Print
If you only read Aesthetica online, you’re missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.
If you would like to buy this issue, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Better yet call +44 (0) 1904 629 137 or visit the website to subscribe to Aesthetica for a year and save 20% on the printed magazine.
1. Jeremy Deller Snack Bar (2009)
2. Jeremy Deller Open Bedroom (1993)
3. Jeremy Deller It Is What It Is (2009)
Photography: Linda Nylind