Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Writing On Your Wall - Jeremy Deller Gets Political

When Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller made a series of posters
to raise funds for the Labour Party at the last General Election, it
was typically engaged stuff from the man who'd set up and filmed a
recreation of the Battle of Orgreave, the very real English civil war
between police and striking miners that took place in the summer of
1984. 'Vote Conservative' the white-lettered legend went on a sky-blue
background in Deller's new construction, with 'the words For a New
Britain' emblazoned below in smaller letters. Beyond such mixed
messages, however, it was the face next to the slogan that caught the
eye.

Rather than an image of Tory leader David Cameron, a far more telling
photograph of a beatific looking Rupert Murdoch beamed out, looking
like butter wouldn't melt in his somewhat wrinkly mouth. At the time,
while no-one doubted the Murdoch media empire's influence on British
politics, Deller's work appeared to be the subtlest of satires. In
light of the ongoing phone-hacking scandal, however, it now looks like
prophecy.

This image is one of Deller's contributions to The Writing On your
Wall, a new exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers which aims to reclaim
the radical roots of print as a medium. As well as the Murdoch poster,
the show will feature new commissions from Deller, Alasdair Gray, Art &
Language, Ruth Ewan and Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan. These will
sit alongside historical works, from the seventeenth century broadsides
of James Gillray and political pamphlets produced in the early
twentieth century, through to poster-poems by Christopher Logue and
works by 1960s British Situationist provocateurs, King Mob.

Deller's new piece is a screen-printed photograph taken from a local
newspaper. The picture shows four people, either with walking sticks,
crutches or in wheelchairs, standing in front of their soon to be
closed day centre. Such an image is an all too familiar piece of
community activist iconography, in which aggrieved citizens look glumly
into the camera as the physical manifestations of their doomed
lifelines loom large behind them. This is especially the case in the
current economic climate, when public spending cuts are wiping out day
centres and other services. The piece also continues Deller's
fascination with reclaiming social totems and disseminating their
message in brand new contexts.

As well as The Battle of Orgreave, Deller's projects have included Acid
Brass, in which a northern English brass band played arrangements of
first generation club tunes. More recently Deller constituted a civic
parade through Manchester city centre which put some of the city's more
contemporary iconography to the fore, including Joy Division songs
played by a steel band.

“It's the sort of image you see in newspapers a lot,” says Deller of
his new print. “In a way it's about the clich├ęs of local newspapers,
but it's very important as well in terms of how images like this are
depicting a changing society. It is a kind of community that's under
threat, and that's something that really interests me, and I'd really
like to do a whole series of pieces like this one.”

If he does, it will form part of a major retrospective Deller is
working on for the Hayward Gallery in London, where his ongoing inquiry
into hidden histories will be brought out into the open more than ever
before. The Battle of Orgreave will sit alongside a recent film about
1970s British wrestler Adrian Street, whose flamboyantly camp persona
was a million miles away from the Welsh mines he was destined for. The
film was inspired by a photograph of Street dressed in full finery
alongside his coal-miner father sporting his very different working
clothes down the pit.

“He's led a fairytale life,” Deller says of Street, who now resides in
Florida where he designs wrestling outfits, including those seen in the
Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler. “But it was a very tough one. The
film's a social history, but it's also a very personal history, about
how Adrian Street reinvented himself.”

Where once his approach might have once been ghettoised as community
art in its most patronising sense, Deller sees nothing unusual in what
is essentially a curiosity about social groupings.

“I'd like to think most people are interested in these sorts of
things,” he says. “For me it's a natural thing to be interested in
them, because we're all part of the world.”

While all the artists in The Writing on Your Wall each come armed with
their own individual approach, they have in common an oppositionist
stance rooted in pop culture. Alasdair Gray's literary and visual work
has long been lionised by the establishment his work critiques. Former
Turner nominees Art & Language have propagated an ongoing dialectical
debate, often in collaboration with Texan-born alt.rock legend Mayo
Thompson's band vehicle, The Red Krayola, for whom they have
contributed lyrics since the 1970s.

Edinburgh College of Art graduate Ruth Ewan's interest in radical
histories and social heritage is self-evident in Brank and Heckle, her
debut solo show currently at Dundee Contemporary Arts. The titles of
Tatham and O'Sullivan's The Indirect Exchange of Uncertain Value and
their 2010 CCA show, Direct Action Is Therefore Necessary, may sound as
polemical as some of Art & Language's provocations hint at, but in
reality both are far more playful.

Of these live and kicking artists forbears, King Mob were a group of
Notting Hill-based mischief-makers who took their name from graffiti
daubed on the walls of Newgate Prison following the Gordon Gin riots of
1780. They had loose connections to Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid,
with Reid's Suburban Press putting the tradition of political
pamphleteering into a grassroots twentieth century context. In 1974
Reid became involved in the design and layout of Leaving The Twentieth
Century, the first ever English language publication of Situationist
writings. These translations were by King Mob member Chris Gray, whose
idea of an anti-music group was made flesh when, depending on who you
believe, McLaren and Reid either got together with The Sex Pistols or
else created them as a concept.

“All the artists in this show definitely work in similar ways,” Deller
concedes. “I suppose they're all...trouble-makers.”

One thing neither Deller's or any of the other work on show in The
Writing on Your Wall can be described as, however, is protest art.

“It takes a position, protest art,” Deller observes, “which probably
looks good on demonstrations, but I much prefer to leave a bit of space
in the work for people to think.”

This is something The Writing on Your Wall curator Rob Tufnell concurs
with.

“Jeremy doers quite subtle things,” he says, “but they can also be big
gestures. So getting a colliery band to play acid house, which remains
the only form of music for which a law was brought in to outlaw it in
the shape of the Criminal Justice Bill, is subversive enough. Then to
get Acid Brass to play the opening of Tate Modern in front of the Queen
is a huge political act.”

As too, one suspects, will Deller's Hayward show just as much as The
Writing on Your Wall.

“It's funny looking back,” says Deller, “because some things I was a
bit embarrassed by at the time actually seem quite nice now. It's a big
deal going over all the things that make up your life, but it all stems
from being interested in the world around me in its widest sense.”

The Writing On Your Wall, Edinburgh Printmakers, Edinburgh, September
17-October 25
www.edinburgh-printmakers.co.uk

The Herald, September 16th 2011

ends

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