Almost uniquely among the major artists of his generation, Jeremy Deller (who was born in 1966) approaches the mainstream of British – more often, English – culture in ways that are fraught with potential embarrassment or bathos, embracing subjects and communities more frequently celebrated in the pages of provincial newspapers, in cutesy Radio 4 documentaries or on mawkish fan sites, than in contemporary art. His work is often cast in terms of pop-cultural democracy or a kind of giddy-but-critical inclusiveness, as if he were simply that very English type, the enthusiast provocateur, but with superior management skills. Able to corral brass bands, historical re-enactors and civic processions into his participatory remit, he can seem at times like something of a national treasure: a hip nerd with curatorial smarts.
But the scale of Deller’s open and collective projects may well obscure their precise focus, which is surely the pivot or cusp between cultural (including political) performance and everyday private or communal practice: the way English culture can thrust the most localized recherché antics into prime-time public view, or take apparently pure and monetized spectacle as an excuse for properly eccentric, underground activities. Hence his interest in radicals and hobbyists, devoted hedonists and amateur scholars, folk rituals and fandom. Deller is for sure a democratically minded artist; but his is a more dialectically attuned and challenging notion of how cultural phenomena abut each other than it may seem, particularly given his high profile and apparent caché with mainstream cultural institutions.
As this retrospective exhibition (Deller’s first in the UK) amply demonstrated, popular music has long been – though maybe it is no longer – the point not only of the heaviest traffic between mainstream and avant-garde but between a media-sanctioned pop culture and far older emanations of Anglo oddity. The works that Deller made around the Manic Street Preachers are exemplary here: The Uses of Literacy (1997) curated ‘naive’ art and texts by their fans, celebrating not just the monomaniacal romanticism of the band’s admirers, but their lineage in postwar British literary, political and artistic autodidacticism. Deller recognized that the Manics were themselves curators, and that their deployment of certain talismanic references (Marx, Nietzsche, Warhol) also had a history – that British pop was always a curatorial enterprise, with songs, record sleeves and interviews providing gateways to more or less obscure culture, as well as occasions for folk-art practices in teen bedrooms.
Deller’s early paintings, posters and films refer to such figures as Keith Moon, Brian Epstein and Bez, the gaunt jester-dancer for the Happy Mondays. The rave culture of the late 1980s and early ’90s was in part, according to Deller, the expression of a proletarian pastoral: a repurposing of supremely urban music for jaunts into fields and woodland beyond the ring roads. It was also, as his Acid Brass (1997) posited, analogous with the musical culture that arose among industrial communities in the 19th century. Deller’s suborning of a Manchester brass band to perform tracks by 808 State and Nitro Deluxe was especially apropos in the dying days of the last Conservative regime, which had done so much in the preceding 18 years to wreck the industries around which such community ensembles, and countless other cultural institutions, were formed.
The decades-long collapse of industrial Britain also ghosts a more recent installation, So Many Ways To Hurt You (The Life and Times of Adrian Street) (2010). This portrait of the Welsh wrestler ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street, known for his outrageous costumes and make-up, is a lesson, says Deller, in the transition of the UK from an industrial to a service economy. Street had already imagined that future – at least, one hysterical vision of what a service career might entail – when in 1973 he was photographed in character, with his father, at the mine where he had once worked. That Street, all furs and feathers and Bacofoil strides, closely resembles singer Brian Connolly from the glam-rock band Sweet, is a clue to why Deller considers this one of the most important photographs of postwar Britain. Street’s clumsy-comic approximation of glam is both his ticket out of the Bryn Mawr colliery and a gawdy remnant of the culture he is leaving behind. Festive cross-dressing may be historically more an English than a Welsh pursuit, but Street still looks like a piece of living folk art: he’s tricked up like a carnival queen or even an especially flamboyant trade union banner.
So Many Ways ... raises questions about Deller’s role as cultural historian, about the ways that works made during the Blairite era of neoliberalism with a (barely) more human face assume a new urgency amid renascent Tory rapacity and spite. One room at the Hayward was devoted to The Battle of Orgreave (2001), and Deller’s filmed restaging of a violent clash between striking miners and police in 1984 was placed in the context of a timeline of the strike: from the Conservatives’ decision in the late 1970s to crush the National Union of Mineworkers once in power, through to the final capitulation of exhausted communities. What seemed a decade ago like an admirable act of historical reconstitution and a knowing take on the aesthetics and politics of such, now looks like a useful educational resource for facing the months and years to come. One could rhetorically inflate the extent to which Deller’s art is a direct intervention in the present state of emergency but not, I think, this pedagogic impulse which has always been there alongside the pleasures of cultural miscegenation.
Maybe this is what Deller himself now most resembles: the ideal teacher, fostering apparently open debate but always ready to up the conversational ante with a properly scandalous intervention. A section of the Hayward show devoted to ‘My Failures, 2004 – Present’ included rejected proposals for the (mostly) artistically ruinous Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: a car blown up in Iraq, a statue of suicided WMD sceptic David Kelly. They seem at once eminently reasonable, populist even, and quite impossible.