Jeremy Deller's art and industry

The Turner prizewinner delves into the secret British history of the Industrial Revolution

Arts+Culture Q+A
Adrian Street and his father

At the centre of Jeremy Deller’s latest exhibition is a photograph of Adrian Street and his father. Street was born in a small Welsh mining town in the 1940s but fled for London when he was 16, pursuing a career as a bodybuilder before becoming a professional wrestler with a reputation for garish outfits and an even more outlandish stage persona. In the black-and-white portrait, he stands with his father at the coal mine he abandoned, decked in Latex trousers and platform boots and proudly sporting a European title belt. The gulf between Street’s lipstick-ed pout and the soot-blackened grimace of his father couldn’t be more obvious.

ButAll That is Solid Melts into Air, which opened at Manchester Art Gallery earlier this year and accompanies the latest in Hayward Touring’s celebrated series of artist-curated exhibitions, isn’t about family division or glam rock or even wrestling; it’s about the lasting impact of the Industrial Revolution on British life. For Deller, Street is “part prodigal son, part prophet from the future, enlightening the coal serfs as to how the world would look in a post-industrial UK.”

Comprising artefacts from eighteenth century mills, photographs of factory workers and a jukebox that plays the sounds of industrial machinery, the exhibition sees the Turner Prize-winning artist explore how the social formations and cultural traditions of the Industrial Revolution have shaped our national consciousness. Much like Street, it seems we can never fully escape our heritage.

That’s the world we live in now; we live in the world created by the Industrial Revolution

Dazed Digital: All That is Solid Melts into Air looks back at a time when Britain was at its industrial peak. Is it a nostalgic exhibition?

Jeremy Deller: Not really because if you lived or worked at those times and you were working class, you would have had a very tough life. I’m interested in it but I don’t wish I’d been around in 1850 in a mill, it would just do my head in.

DD: Apart from the jukebox piece, the video installations and a banner by Ed Hall, the exhibition features few original artworks. What makes it different from a collection of artefacts?

Jeremy Deller: The show isn’t an artwork as such but it’s an exhibition made by an artist, whether that’s an artwork or not is another matter. It would be slightly different from an exhibition made by a curator because curators always want to go for accuracy and be thorough whereas artists can be a bit more free thinking and a bit more experimental. You wouldn’t really see the jukebox in an exhibition about the Industrial Revolution, necessarily. It’s a different kind of exhibition.

Thomas Hornor, Rolling Mills, Merthyr Tydfil
Rolling Mills, Merthyr Tydfil Thomas Hornor

DD: Did you draw any comparisons between social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution and the “Digital Revolution” we’re living through now?

Jeremy Deller: Yeah, the digital revolution, like the Industrial Revolution, has changed people’s behaviour. People have changed in the way they relate to others and the relationships they have. During the 1800s, for the first time, people lived in cities and you were around thousands of people whereas previously if you lived on a farm or in a village, you would have known fifty people. Your whole world would change because of that and it would probably change your behaviour. Now we have a similar thing.

DD: With things like social media and instant messaging?

Jeremy Deller: Yes, with the Internet you’re potentially in touch with billions of people. You could get in touch with virtually anyone in the world. Maybe there’s that upheaval. It’s quite strange to think that previously, you’d marry someone that was in your village, now you could have a relationship with almost anyone in the world. There’s that widening of opportunity and information.

For the first time in cities, information would have been exchanged between people, they could set up unions or new religions and that wouldn’t have been possible if you worked on a farm. This exchange of information and ideas was suddenly made possible. Now with the Internet, it’s gone onto another level, this ridiculous ability to find out things and exchange information.

John Davies_Mersey Square, Stockport, 1986
Mersey Square, Stockport, 1986 John Davies

DD: So does your art celebrate urbanisation?

Jeremy Deller: Maybe, there’s nothing really about urban life in the exhibition apart from the photographs of Victorian street gangs which isn’t that positive! Looking at how people live together could almost be another show.

Urbanisation changed people, a new breed of people came out from living in cities and working in factories. People evolved, not necessarily for the better in terms of what it did to their bodies, but people changed. It changed us and that’s the world we live in now; we live in the world created by the Industrial Revolution. We don’t work in factories but we still live in those places.

DD: Do you think the Industrial Revolution is an intrinsic part of British identity?

Jeremy Deller: Yes, I think it is. We urbanised more rapidly than any other country in the world, by 1851, half the population of Britain was living in cities and that’s faster than any other country. We were 150 years ahead of the rest of the world but urbanising quicker meant that we de-industrialised first as well.

The Industrial Revolution is definitely something we did first, whether we did it best or not is another matter but it’s something we were absolutely at the vanguard of and is so much part of our character because of that.

DD: When you were putting the exhibition together, did you think about including countries such as China that have also experienced rapid industrialisation?

Jeremy Deller: Yes, you think about China; you think about India and Bangladesh. We’ve exported the Industrial Revolution now and outsourced that sort of production to other countries. I’m sure if you went to a coalmine in rural China, the conditions would be more or less the same as they were in 1850s, women would still be doing those jobs there.

There’s just not enough space really to have it all in the exhibition! I’d hope the audience would draw those comparisons, they’d think that this doesn’t happen in Britain but it may be happening elsewhere.

All That Is Solid melts into Air is on now at Manchester Art Gallery until 19 January 2014 and will then tour to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle. www.manchestergalleries.org

More Arts+Culture