Review: Affinities and Inheritance: Jeremy Deller’s All that is Solid Melts into Air at the Laing Art Gallery

Dr Kate Katigbak

The travelling exhibit All that is Solid Melts into Air, curated by Jeremy Deller, made its way north this past summer to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, where I had the opportunity to walk through it. I was drawn to the exhibit immediately when I saw its advertisement on the outer wall of the gallery: of all the quotes one can draw from Marx, ‘All that is solid melts into air’ has become particularly loaded, due to Marshall Berman’s seminal work on modernity which bears the same title. Berman used the phrase to illustrate Marx’s connection to modernism, wherein ‘The cosmic scope and visionary grandeur of this image, its highly compressed and dramatic power, its vaguely apocalyptic undertones, the ambiguity of its point of view’ relate to the modernist visions of Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.[1]

I entered the exhibit familiar with these ideas, but unsure of what to expect from Deller, given the headlining image for the exhibit: a photograph from 1973 of Adrian Street, a professional wrestler in full glam rock regalia, mugging for the camera alongside a bemused factory worker, the both of them against the backdrop of the latter’s work place.

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[picture: Adrian Street and his father, 1973 (photo: Dennis Hutchinson) © Dennis Hutchinson 2012.]

The factory worker is Street’s father.

How, I wondered, might Marx’s statement, which continues: ‘all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’, fit with this juxtaposition of flamboyance and labour, where it seems that the younger generation has broken away from the old in such a way as to deny the realities of its origins? How might it fit with Berman’s reading of apocalypse and grandeur?[2]

As it happens, the text of Marx and commentary by Berman are both at play within Deller’s exhibit, which reaches across generations to capture the industrial experience, and remind us of how thoroughly it remains intertwined with even the most un-industrial parts of present British culture. While Deller’s exhibit functions very differently from Berman’s criticism, it nonetheless bears many of the same qualities with which Berman and Marx both characterised modernity. Deller brings to our attention the closeness of Marx’s thoughts to our present conditions, while avoiding the prescriptive nature of Marxism.

The exhibit itself consists of a mix of media, some in perfect harmony with the Victorian architecture of the Laing’s interior, and others that depart sharply from it. The picture of Street and his father exemplify this dynamic. As Deller himself put it, he

approaches his subject like a social archaeologist, uncovering affinities and connections across historical epochs and finding new meanings in familiar images and stories. His lateral interpretation offers a context in which hierarchies are dissolved, printed ephemera and historical works of art and artefacts and texts are shown alongside and on equal terms with major paintings; and analogies are drawn between the (brutal) past and the (indifferent) present.

This description resonated with me as part of a grander tradition of retelling the Industrial Revolution as a contemporary feature of the British experience. Deller’s exhibit is not only about affinities, but about direct inheritance, excavated from materials that seem unrelated only at first glance. One example of this is the family trees that he has mapped across the walls, connecting generations of factory workers, maids, miners, and servants to their rock’n’roll descendants. The change between generations appears drastic, but it is anything but distant or disengaged. The infusion of the industrial into popular music and culture seems to be not so much a rebellion of the son against the father, but rather a tribute to working class heritage. Deller highlights this as well, when he states that he

investigates what remains in the present day from this crucial period in British history, from our relationship to technology to the regimentation of time.

Yet his statement also invites the question of what precisely Deller means by calling himself a ‘social archaeologist’. Certainly, in his search for the ‘remains’ of the nineteenth century, Deller is sifting through a variety of data, but the way in which he curates that data is clearly the work of an artist. Deller’s role as an artist, rather than a curator or archaeologist, is particularly significant, because it puts paid to his assertion that ‘the exhibition is in essence a contemporary project—and a work of art in its own right’. In addition to aggregating glimpses of many different perspectives, Deller also presents a fragmented chronology of events and features, so that the past is not just connected to the present, but intermingles with it. A picture of an electric guitar appears alongside nineteenth century work song texts, all of which surround a title card proclaiming ‘Health and Safety Will be the Death of Me’. Familiar sights and statements on the Industrial Revolution accompany new depictions of present conditions. Deller quotes James Nasmyth when he describes early industry carving itself from the countryside: ‘The Black Country is anything but picturesque…Vulcan has driven out Ceres’. The same quote can be found in Raymond Williams’s essay, ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’, and Williams’ commentary on the passage somewhat illuminates Deller’s intent:

What we can observe, in each case, is an authentic sense of shock at the unaccustomed sight of an industrial landscape, and the mediation of this shock through received conventional images: the panorama of Hell, as painted by Bosch, or the irruption of the classical Vulcan…(214).

Such sights are no longer shocking to us, but Deller makes them shocking again through connecting that experience to the 70s and 80s rock scene. In the caption for Judas Priest’s 1979 album cover, Unleashed in the East, Deller explains that ‘the live experience of Heavy Metal is a glamourized recreation of the sights and sounds of the Industrial Revolution’. Deller’s assembled material functions in the same way that Williams argued Bosch’s Hell and the figure of Vulcan did for previous generations.

Indeed, the experience of industrial modernity, old and new, remains visually the same: back-to-back with footage of steel manufacture at Oldham in the 1940s is John Martin’s sprawling depiction of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (a change in arrangement specific to the exhibition’s presentation at the Laing, as Martin’s painting was previously paired with Unleashed in the East at Manchester Art Gallery). The effect at the Laing was a physical representation of creation and destruction forming two sides of the same coin, where ‘the heat that destroys is also superabundant energy, an overflow of life’.[3] The momentum of industrialisation is something shared and made continuous when tracing the trajectory from Jennings’s work to Deller’s, all of it revolving around the motif of the forge.

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[picture: Martin’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne]

The result is a vibrant and pointed reading of industry across the ages. In his explorations of the past and the present, Deller places his perspective among the labourers upon whose backs the manufacturing system rests. It appears conditions have only improved in some ways, and remained exploitative in others (as he puts it, the ‘(brutal) past and the (indifferent) present’). Deller’s presentation is often ‘playful’, as The Guardian observed, but it is playful in the face of generations of difficulty for the industrial working class.[4] Such difficulty continues, Deller contends, though not always in ways as easily translatable into glamour. He offers an important contribution to the reading of industry through an exploration of workers who are currently employed on zero hours contracts, which are recorded through pictures of Amazon.com storage facilities in England. He states:

Time was the enemy for many industrial workers, who had to keep up with machines often performing repetitive tasks. The seasons diminished in meaning and gas light ensured work around the clock. The struggle to shorten the working day and week was hard fought for by successive generations. The zero hours contract is another time discipline where often the worker is informed at short notice if his or her labour is required. Their use in low wage sectors of the service and digital economy is growing, effectively creating a new form of the day labourer with few rights.

The fluidity of Deller’s presentation of time is particularly apparent here—he moves from the efforts of unions in the nineteenth century to the grim reality of present conditions without any transition, marking not simply an affinity between the past and present for industrial labourers, but a history of time discipline that has perhaps changed, but not for the better. ‘Successive generations’ have fought against the work schedules technology has enabled, but what the present inherits retains much of the shape of the past.

All of these affinities and inheritances are distilled in Deller’s short film, also entitled All that is Solid Melts into Air, which I found to be the crowning achievement of the exhibit. On the bench where visitors can sit and watch the film, are several books to supplement the experience, Berman’s book among them. Others included E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and Rob Young’s Electric Eden, reinforcing the continuity between past and present through historians, as well as the historical artefacts. In the film, volunteers—many of whom are on zero hour contracts—read aloud accounts of ordinary people living during the Industrial Revolution, intercut with home movie footage of industrial towns in 1975, and a young woman singing a work song while standing in a dark Victorian library. Deller also includes the footage of steel manufacture from Oldham again, this time backed by a heavy metal soundtrack. In doing so, he backs his claim to the direct relationship between heavy metal music and industry.

The film shows Deller stepping beyond the role of social archaeologist, creating as well as curating footage. It may be grounded in Marx’s rhetoric, but it moves beyond it as well by giving modern faces to his narrators, including those of children and women, Deller brings about a mass effort to give an analogous, if not authentic, voice to the past. The intermingling of past and present collapses the apparent disparity of experiences between the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries into a coherent image of fiery production and destruction, which is made visible through previously unseen or unacknowledged working class culture.

In this way, Deller achieves the promise of his exhibition’s title: he asks us to face the ‘real conditions of life’, even as the individual arts and records of which they are composed increasingly fragment, and indeed ‘melt’, into images, sounds, and energy. Moreover, he reminds us of the presence of the nineteenth century in the twenty-first; indeed, the exhibit seems to argue that its conditions and realities are closer to us than ever.

[1] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982) p. 89.

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, inThe Marx-Engels Reader, ed. by Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978) pp. 469-500 (p. 476).

[3] Berman, p. 89.

[4] Vanessa Thorpe, ‘Glam rock, wrestlers and our family trees: Jeremy Deller finds art in an industrial past’, Art and Design, Observer, 12 October 2013. < http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/13/artist-industrial-revolution-popular-culture&gt; [accessed 22 September 2014] (para. 9 of 18).

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