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Interview: Jeremy Deller

11 June 14 words: Mark Patterson

Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller’s work is chock-full of the politics of working class Britain, from the miners’ strike and riots to the effects of the Industrial Revolution on popular culture. Mark Patterson remembers his own experiences of riots, before trying to pin down the evasive Deller for a few answers...

On a night in February 1986 I was involved in a protest which has been described as one of the two most violent events in the history of industrial unrest in modern Britain. The event was the Battle of Wapping, when 5,000 sacked London printers, supporters and agitators battled riot police outside Rupert Murdoch’s new ‘Fortress Wapping’ newspaper and printing plant in East London.

My memories of that night now are disconnected: a burning vehicle on its side, the smoke from a red smoke bomb luridly tinting the whole scene and, most terrifying, being charged by a police officer on a horse. I’ve always supposed that this was a small taste of what some of Britain’s striking coal miners had faced in the other big incident of violent industrial unrest in the Thatcherite era, the Battle of Orgreave in south Yorkshire in 1984 during the miners’ strike. Then, as at Wapping, police on foot and horseback, with riot shields and long batons, charged strikers and picketers.

With hindsight, Wapping and Orgreave both seem to have been inevitable. The immediate impact of the breaking of the unions was that Murdoch gained direct control of the labour producing his newspapers, and in Nottingham the coal mines began to close with an impact on communities that goes on to this day.

Yet one big difference is that nobody has yet turned my Wapping riot experience into a kind of work of art. Orgreave has had that treatment; in 2001, Jeremy Deller brought more than 800 people together at the original site in South Yorkshire and filmed a re-enactment of the miners versus police running battle. He has said that he wanted to remember and commemorate Orgreave because the miners’ strike had been “an ideological and industrial battle between the two sections of British society.” Perhaps cheekily, he also wanted Orgreave to be seen as part of the lineage of decisive English battles, as if it should be in the same book as Sedgemoor, Naseby and Marston Moor.

Deller’s Orgreave re-enactment took place more than a decade ago. But looking at his work since then, you can see how it fits into an oeuvre that aims to steer clear of the art world’s usual elitist concerns and art-about-art, instead looking outward to celebrate the lives of ordinary people, folk art and pop culture. There was his bouncy castle Stonehenge, a film about Depeche Mode fans, and a film about a Welsh miner turned camp bodybuilder and wrestler called Adrian Sweet. There was his Folk Archive, and before that he towed a bomb-damaged car from Iraq across America with a US army veteran and an Iraqi translator. Most recently there was his curation of an exhibition about the impact of the Industrial Revolution, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, at Nottingham Castle.

As that exhibition was ending, Deller had another, older artwork on show in the Nottingham Contemporary exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, which can be seen this summer. Deller’s piece, tucked away in the study at the back, was about a modern Karl Marx impersonator who handed out Christmas cards bearing suitably Marxist sentiments about private property and so on. Despite Deller’s public school background and impeccable syllables, one could assume from artworks such as this that Deller is leftleaning in his politics and, had he been at Orgreave or Wapping, that he might have been one of the ones who was chased down. In person Deller proves to be evasive, although in the nicest possible way, about his politics and sympathies.

This refusal to be pinned down was highlighted at his recent talk at the Contemporary about the All That Is Solid... exhibition. By sheer coincidence, it had been announced a few days earlier that Thoresby Colliery, Nottinghamshire’s last deep coal mine, was to close, thus finally concluding the long decline of the county’s coal industry. During the Q&A that followed Deller’s talk, a man in the audience asked Deller whether he would sign up to a campaign against the closure of Thoresby. Deller quickly closed him down, asking him to tell him about the campaign later. When later came, he elaborated, “I don’t like to sign up to campaigns,” he said. “The Labour Party asks me to back their campaigns all the time.”

A few days after Deller’s visit to Nottingham, Imperial Tobacco announced it was closing down its Horizon fag factory. So, does he in fact think that the decline of heavy industry and the transition to a ‘service economy’ is a good or a bad thing for people? “I haven’t made up my mind whether it’s good or bad,” he replied at the talk. “I’m just interested in it as a phenomenon.”

Wanting to delve further, Deller later got back to me in response to a few more questions...

Is there a lesson in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air for a city like Nottingham, which has lost much of its working class industry?
Yes, I suppose it’s a national story though.

Given your interest in the industry, how should the closure of mines be marked in your view?
As the end of a specific way of life.

You seem to take a cynical stance towards the rise of the ‘service and leisure industries’. Do you want people to somehow resist the service industry?
It’s a fact of life. The hole left by industry has to be filled by something. There is not much an individual can do about it.

Given your attitude towards Amazon, do you ask that people don’t buy books about you from there too?
It’s not for me to tell people where to shop.

What things about the modern age do you celebrate as being better than ‘the shit old days’?
Tons. Things are without a doubt better now, in the UK at least. I wouldn’t want to be a coal miner in China though.

Do you feel compromised by your own role as an artist who provides products in one of the newer professional leisure industries: art and art galleries?
Art has been around forever. I have no qualms. I don’t mind art being used for this as long as it’s clear that it might not work. It’s more interesting, to me at least, than more shopping centres.

You seemed a bit fatalistic regarding the social changes you illustrate in your latest exhibition. Is that a wrong impression?
I am more or less fatalistic. Art helps though.

Regarding this ‘hole’ left by the loss of industry: what role does an artist have?
I am not sure, different artists have different roles and aims. I just try to do things that interest me. Art can give people a bit of an opportunity to look and think about things differently and more freely.

Deller has got us looking and thinking about things differently more than perhaps any other prominent British contemporary artist. As he can’t paint, sculpt or draw, Deller roams the world picking projects at will, filming exotic, interesting people and making unusual events come into existence in accessible, winning forms. In many ways he is the perfect contemporary artist for the leisure age he records, fascinated by social forces but refusing to be boxed in by specific commitments. It’s all the difference between making a film about Orgreave and refusing to back a campaign to save Thoresby Colliery.

Jeremy Deller website

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