Review: Heart-rending artworks with a social conscience

Jeremy Deller: All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre. On until June 21.

Sunday, 11th May 2014, 12:00 pm
Swainson Birley cotton mill near Preson, Lancashire, by Thomas Allom. Picture courtesy of the Science Museum
Swainson Birley cotton mill near Preson, Lancashire, by Thomas Allom. Picture courtesy of the Science Museum

Jeremy Deller, who represented Britain in last year’s Venice Biennale, has a social conscience.

He cares. He cares about the miners, about the industrial revolution, about urbanisation, about folk art, about pretty much everything. The evidence for the sincerity of his concerns abounds in this Hayward Touring exhibition in which the artist acts as curator.

Deller starts as he means to go on with a typically apocalyptic painting by the Victorian artist, John Martin, that evokes the dangerous, fiery conditions of the early phase of industrialisation. But he also shows how little things had improved by the 1950s with archive footage of steel workers deftly missing incineration by mere inches.

The plight of the workers in these early, dangerous conditions is explored in depth. The facts are allowed to speak for themselves, but the mood is often lifted by the inclusion of such characters as Adrian Street, the miner who went on to become a flamboyant androgynous champion wrestler, much to the disgust of his dad.

But there are many tender moments too - such as videos of evocative readings by children of the plight of families when workers were killed in accidents or summarily dismissed.

It’s heart-rending stuff that doesn’t really let up until the final room, where a classic juke-box enshrined by a giant mural seems to offer the prospect of some welcome relief.

Peter McCarthy