Jeremy Deller is a conceptual artist as much as a social cartographer. Forgoing a fine arts education in favor of studying art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the University of Sussex, Deller staged his first solo exhibition in 1993 in his parents’ home while they were away on vacation. Through everyday objects and occurrences, from street signs to t-shirts, bumper stickers to community parades and diagrams, Deller has devised a practice he describes as “social surrealism.” These interventions move beyond the surrealist practice of repurposing found objects and elevating them to the status of art by catalyzing interactions, if not outright collisions.
The protagonists and antagonists of British folklore and history, from William Morris to Prince William, populate Deller’s works alongside routine passersby. His seminal intervention The Battle of Orgreave (2001) restaged a violent confrontation between police and miners during the strike of 1984 with the participation of two hundred of the original protestors. In the spirit of such contemporaries as the American artist Mike Kelley and the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn or the Argentinean Rirkrit Tiravanija, Deller’s process hinges on collaboration and an insistence on vernacular forms. In 1999, with British artist Alan Kane, Deller cofounded the Folk Archive, an ongoing project to create a visual account of contemporary popular British art. Deller’s generosity as an artist stems not only from earnest social engagement but also from his genuine bemusement at historical turns and an embrace of the bizarre qualities of everyday British life.
The works on view at the Biennale di Venezia include selections from Deller’s exhibition All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, first shown in 2013 at the Manchester Art Gallery. Here, he unites nineteenth-century broadsides hailing industrial workers’ daily lives, loves, and grievances with a jukebox of work songs—framed artfully by a mural evoking a smelting furnace or the fire and brimstone of John Martin’s painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). The songs, in part, trace the origins of heavy metal music to the clang of machinery on the factory floor. Twenty-eight rarely seen photographic prints of unidentified female ironworkers, dating from 1865, accompany a banner bearing the text “Hello, today you have the day off.” What was once a relentless regimentation of laborers’ time has since been replaced by its dispossession, as experienced by today’s zero-hour workers, whose time at work is left to the discretion of their employers. In this collection of objects Deller excavates the painful vestiges of Britain’s transition to a postindustrial society, often overlooked although still keenly felt.