Jeremy Deller has been at large, making Art - minus the capital ‘A’ some might say – for the last two decades, but this month marks the opening of his first major retrospective. Thankfully the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery has always sought to push the boundaries of what gallery spaces are capable of containing, as staging Joy in People must have been a serious challenge; much of what is on show, was intended for public expansive spaces, other pieces are transient and intangible or large scale, participatory and interactive.
As such, much of what you see is a reproduction, but the Hayward has gone all out. Deller (still living at home at the grand old age of 30) staged his first exhibition Open Bedroom in 1993 in his Mum’s house whilst she was away and the first room is a mock up of a teenage boudoir – complete with a bed and drawers to rummage through. Equally as extravagant on is Valerie’s Snack Bar – a fully functioning cafe where weary gallery goers can rest their feet and be served tea, in the spirit of the original procession which Deller organised in Manchester back in 2009.
Deller’s work, if we can call it such, spans a veritable conclave of incongruous forms, from installations through processions, photography and straight up paintings to embossing machines and pop culture badges. If there is merit to be found in the multitudinous, then he is surely un-bested in the breadth of his range.
If you like your artists to be master craftsmen then stay well away. Those belonging to the school of thought that see contemporary art as meaningless, talent-devoid drivel will find no new solace for their fears. Herein lies the mischief. Powered by the argument that “art isn’t about what you make but what you make happen”, Deller ‘makes’ very little. Rather he collects, curates, orchestrates and accommodates.
There is liveliness and light-hearted frivolity at play here. Life mirroring art, or the Wildean antithesis of art mirroring life are both thrown out the window – art IS life – simple as! In places ‘life’ and its requisite absurdities, has had very little filtered out or imparted over, and is undiluted and presented to the gallery goer to make of it what they will. For me this is best expressed in Pensees which is displayed in a mocked up toilet and appendage of Open Bedroom. Deller has faithfully transcribed all of the loo graffiti from The British Library and the results are by turn hilarious, absurd, thought provoking and moving.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for taking ‘Art’ and its worshippers off their pedestals. Plentiful seating and interactive elements imply that you are welcome and a part of the action. Deller and his curators want you to experience art, not merely passively stroll amongst it; however I could not help comparing Joy in People to my last amble around the same space for video artist Pipillotti Rist’s Eyeball Massage (see below), which really did feel like an acid fuelled meandering through someone else’s brain. Nevertheless Joy in People is certainly a journey.
However I feel Deller’s work is too passive to truly engage me, his direction spread too thinly through the disparate elements to leave any resounding impression. In Beyond the White Walls, in which the artist commentates on many of the enterprises which were too ethereal to be physically represented, he cites Andy Warhol as a “gathering point for waifs and strays” and this is all too telling. Is there anything original in the unashamedly unoriginal artist in 2012?
Perhaps it’s a generational thing too. Being drawn from the annals of real life and popular culture obviously means that much of Deller’s inspiration comes from music. The Uses of Literary is a shrine to the Manic Street Preachers from their fans, consisting of gushing sixth form esque-poetry and rudimentary drawings. To better effect is Acid Brass which fuses the two genres of Acid House and Big Brass Bands, in light of their shared Northern roots.
Problematically for me, there is something intrinsically intensely uncool about The Manic Street Preachers, and deep pangs of the tragic in a man who documents his Search for Bez after The Happy Mondays split, that I cannot get past. A worker is only as good as his materials and as Deller often assimilates but doesn’t pass comment, I found it difficult to get excited about regurgitated Manic Street Preacher lyrics. Maybe it is just me, but much of Deller's work of this period feels mundane and colourless, simply because the music and subculture it feeds off lacks a certain depth and complexity. I’d like to have seen the result of a Deller raised amongst the explosive counterculture of the swinging sixties or in the Bronx of the mid eighties stirred by the burgeoning hip hop scene.
After Valerie’s Snack Bar and a refreshing cuppa, the exhibition does take a turn for the better as we leave Deller’s painful growing pains behind. He is at this best in the organic and visceral Battle of Orgreave, for which he deservedly won the Turner in 2004. A graphic and engaging re-enactment of the bloody conflict between miners and police, here Deller shows he is truly capable of creating a living and breathing history of everyday working class realities.
Hats off to his brave and witty decision to include a section called My Failures which documents the graveyard of his aborted projects since 1994. It is here that my favourite of his concepts is found - a proposed sculpture of David Kelly to sit on Trafalgar Square’s illustrious Fourth Plinth, representing an all too human and manifest victim of the Iraq War.
The title Joy in People was chosen by marketing folk looking for a bouncy, go get em’, crowd pullingly positive initial message. Deller wanted Animal, vegetable, pop music. Though the exhibition does revel in the idioms of everyday life, it feels to ambivalent to be dubbed a celebration. I would have taken the title from his 2009 tour of America with a bombed out Iraqi car – It Is What It Is.
Joy In People is showing at The Hayward Gallery until 13th May 2012