All That is Solid Melts into Air: Jeremy Deller

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Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011. In their bright orange vests, 'pickers' deliver goods between various areas of the warehouse

There's an exhibition called All That is Solid Melts into Air right now at the Manchester Art Gallery. It's been curated by Jeremy Deller. So of course i took the train to see it.

In a show which title refers to a passage in Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, Deller takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.

This is not an exhibition of Deller's work (apart from his film about glam rock wrestler Adrian Street.) Neither is it a historical treatment of the industrial era. Instead, Deller brings side by side historical artefacts and contemporary works to explore several threads that expose the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British cultural life.

I was particularly interested in the connections drawn between the digital revolution and the Industrial Revolution, in particular working conditions. They were notoriously harsh in the 19th century: low wages, long hours, child labour, etc.

A document entitled Rules to be Observed in this Factory, Church Street Mills, Preston (c. 1830) informed workers that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. Whereas the "Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever." The same documents states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner.

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But accounts from the time deplored the fact that managers did as they liked, with clocks brought forward in the morning and back at night. Some clocks were even made to measure productivity as time. One of the artefacts in the gallery is a two-faced clock that was connected to a watermill at a silk factory and would show 'lost' time if the wheel did not turn quickly enough. The time would then have to be made up at the end of the working day. The struggle to shorten working days was hard fought by successive generations.

Nowadays however, the growing use of 'zero hours contracts' in the low wage sectors of the service and digital economy is shaping a new form of day labourer, imposing another time discipline where the worker is informed often at short notice if their labour is required. A tapestry (by Ed Hall, maker of remarkable protest banners), hanging near the clock, is adorned with the words, 'Hello, Today you have day off', a message texted to a worker on a 'zero hour' contract on the morning his shift was due to start. No work, no pay.

Also next to the clock are photos from Ben Roberts' series that documents the inside one of Amazon's nine UK 'fulfilment centres' where employees spend 10½ hours a day picking items off the shelves.

Visitors have no problem joining the dots by themselves....

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Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011. The interior of Amazon's giant fulfilment centre is the size of nine football pitches

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Swainson Birley Cotton Mill near Preston, Lancashire, 1834.. ©Science Museum/SSPL

The last object on that wall is a Motorola WT4000, a computing device worn on the wrist by people working in a warehouse. Retail giants rely on this kind of device to monitor the speed of orders and the efficiency of its staff in fulfilling them. It can also send warnings if the worker is falling behind schedule.

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Motorola WT4000

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But as can be expected with Jeremy Deller, there's a great deal of music in this show. Here he is posing next to a jukebox visitors are welcome to activate. Pressing buttons triggers archive recordings from factory machinery, folk songs or quarrymen singing at work.

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Jeremy Deller with Jukebox, 2013 and mural backdrop by Stuart Sam Hughes. Courtesy Alan Seabright / Manchester City Galleries

All That is Solid Melts into Air also looks at heavy metal and rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade and at how they are the products of the industrial towns their members came from. Many came from working class backgrounds and their music echoed the loud and traumatic rhythm of the factories.

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Judas Priest, Unleashed in the East (album cover), 1979

The only Deller work in the show is a film about Adrian Street. Street was born into a Welsh mining family but he refused to follow in his father's footsteps and spend his life working in the coal mines. He left home as a teenager and became a flamboyant wrestler and for a brief time also a glam rock singer.

The photo showing Street posing next to his father in the Welsh coal mine he had fled from embodies a country attempting to get to grip with its new role: services and entertainment.

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Adrian Street and his father, 1973 (photo: Dennis Hutchinson) © Dennis Hutchinson 2012


Jeremy Deller, So many ways to hurt you, the life and times of Adrian Street (excerpt)

More images from the exhibition:

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Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales, 1865, W Clayton. Manchester Art Gallery. Photographs courtesy Manchester Art Gallery

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Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales, 1865, W Clayton. Photographs courtesy Manchester Art Gallery

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Stockport Viaduct 1986. ©John Davies

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Mersey Square, Stockport 1986. ©John Davies

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G. Greatbach, 'The Black Country' near Bilston 1869 Engraving. ©Science Museum / SSPL

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Chapman, W.J., Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits. Courtesy National Museum Wales, Cardiff

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Portraits of Scuttlers, members of youth gangs characterized by their carefully coiffed hair and colourful scarves (and as such precursors of the Teddy Boys)

All That is Solid Melts into Air: Jeremy Deller is an exhibition curated by an artist so don't expect academic interpretations and rigorous narratives. It is an eclectic and thought-provoking show that confronts with each other elements from our past and present, draws parallels, and triggers all kinds of associations.

If you're curious about the show but can't make it to Manchester, you'll find more information in the film that Deller shot together with BBC. And, obviously, in the exhibition catalogue:

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All that is Solid Melts into Air Curated by Jeremy Deller is at the Manchester Art Gallery, until 19 January 2014. The exhibition will tour to other cities known for their strong industrial heritage: Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle.

Related stories: Ed Hall, the art of protest banners and Audio CD review - Jeremy Deller: Social Surrealism.

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