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May 06, 2014
I thought it was worth dusting the blog off to write about the new exhibition in the Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre, All That is Solid Melts Into Air. The show connects with a number of the issues I’m engaged with in my research on taste and the politics of cultural participation, as well as touching on some of the broader concerns we think and teach about in the Centre. It is a touring selection of pieces from the Hayward Gallery in London, curated by Jeremy Deller. One of the more intelligent and provocative British artists of his generation, Deller manages to be both of ‘the Art World’ (he won the Turner Prize in 2004) and also at a distance from it, in that his work seems more likely to reflect on ‘big P’ political struggles than that of some of his contemporaries. The items curated here evoke these struggles in depicting the often surprising collisions between the grand ambitions of the industrial revolution and the ways in which that revolution was and continues to be experienced, lived with and even resisted.
The title, as students of Marx will know, is lifted from a famous passage in The Communist Manifesto which extemporises on the creative, transformatory powers of the bourgeoisie to shatter existing orders and usher in new ones. The tensions and ambiguities – or contradictions we should probably say – in this process are evoked in the exhibit through some telling juxtapositions between the past and the near-present. The grand-masterly painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852) for example, reveals the anxieties of romantic intellectuals of the 19th century about the human consequences of the rise of industrial capitalism. Exhibited close by is a two-faced grandfather clock, one face measuring time and the other productivity, which also reminds us of the structures and techniques which underpinned this rise. Time-keeping mechanisms of various kinds, as the historian EP Thompson famously described, emerge as fundamental tools in the industrialists’ armoury, ideal for transforming people into their measurable and commodified labour power. Rather than being condemned to the past, though, this process is perhaps completed by the technologically managed workers depicted in Ben Robert‘s photos of Amazon’s vast warehouses. We can also see up-close the wrist-held device that monitors the rate at which the tasks in this kind of workplace are performed. With a nod to an earlier work, Deller plays with the imagery of a trades-union parade banner decorated with the words ‘You can have day off today’, sent by text to a zero-hours contract worker. Such juxtapositions raise powerful questions about the real labour that underpins our weightless economy – and the extent to which our apparent freedom to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, is worth the cost of the other hard won freedoms – of collective bargaining, security and dignity at work- which can be compromised to provide it.
The show is far from a lament, though. There is also a playful, celebratory air to it, not least in its exploration of the role of various forms of popular culture in British industrial history. The exhibition charts the journey from the ‘solid’ world of the industrial revolution to the ‘air’ of the cultural economy in relation to music. It does so in part by exploring the iconography of heavy metal as a music that emerges from the manufacturing heartlands of the UK and indeed - as visitors to the foyer of the Ramphal building will know -from our very environs in the West Midlands. An album cover from Birmingham’s own Judas Priest echoes a kitsch, exaggerated version of the imagery of Gomorrah. The photo of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, minus one of the fingertips he lost in an industrial accident, reminds us that workers were and are always more than the sum of the labour power of their bodies. The short historical distance from ‘solid’ to ‘air’ is also depicted in the family trees of musical icons, displaying the professions of the ancestors of Slade’s Noddy Holder, Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music. That the latter has gone from generation upon generation of blacksmiths, domestic servants and miners located in a distinct and narrow geographical region of the North East to the very archetype of the suave cosmopolitan elite perhaps makes him the embodiment of the journey Deller is charting here.
Finally the iconic Dennis Hutchinson photograph of the South Waleian professional wrestler ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street represents a defiant two-painted-finger-nail salute to the romanticization of working class life. He is depicted returning, in spectacular costume and make-up, to the mining village he ‘escaped’ and, as a glance through the autobiography displayed nearby reveals, the father he despised. There are no comfortable, nostalgic resolutions here, but a hopeful reading might at least recognise the power of performance and creativity to subvert, reconfigure or melt the solid strictures of gender or class. It is timely, in the year of the passing of two giants of the Cultural Studies tradition, Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, to be reminded that popular culture has been, throughout history, a keen indicator of and resource for revealing the tensions in the political formations of its day (whether through the bawdy folk songs or broadside ballads of the 19th century, or TV wrestling, or commercial pop music). The exhibition has certainly raised questions for me about where those tensions might be visible in contemporary cultural life. It is on until the 21st June and it is well worth skiving an hour off work to see it.
You can see a webcast of Jeremy Deller talking about the exhibition on an earlier stop of the tour in Nottingham here.