Jeremy Deller plunders industrial heritage for musical Manchester Art Gallery show

By Mark Sheerin | 22 October 2013

Exhibition review: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air – Jeremy Deller, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, until January 19 2014

A photo of a miner and three miners in a cage lift next to a man dressed in flamboyant glam rock gear
Adrian Street and his father, 1973.© Dennis Hutchinson 2013
If your previous experience of the industrial revolution was in a long ago classroom, you might come to this exhibition with expectations of a dry and depressing show about new technologies and working conditions in the 18th and 19th century.

You would not be prepared for a working jukebox, which looks for all the world as if sprung from the burning forge painted on the wall behind it. And you would not expect further murals exploring the family trees of Shaun Ryder, Bryan Ferry and Noddy Holder.

Then again, this is an exhibition by Jeremy Deller, an artist blessed with a gift for side-stepping the dull and engaging the imagination, even as he tackles the most serious of issues.

So the jukebox, for example, features singing quarrymen breaking rocks. The family trees underline the working class backgrounds of their subjects.

Music is everywhere, even down the mines and in the mills. One of the show’s finds is a selection of broadsheets printed with lyrics pertaining to the comic side of working class life. One notorious example documents a tryst in a weaving plant. So it’s good to know that, even in the teeth of exploitation, British workers kept a sense of humour – and innuendo.

a colour print of a coking chimney
A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent, 1799. Aquatint and hand coloured print.© Science Museum/SSPL
Things are better now. That is a clear take out from the show which features evidence of women working on slag piles and mill owners tampering with clocks to keep their virtual slaves working harder. But the owners of the means of production aren't guiltless yet - not by a long shot.

One recent phenomenon to which Deller turns his attention is the zero contract position. Pick up one of these jobs and you never know when you will or won’t be needed. So here, Deller’s favourite banner maker Ed Hall has sewn up a sad clarion call. “Hello, today you have day off”.

He also exhibits a wristband which can track the speed of warehouse workers and issue warnings if they don’t pick up the pace. Made by Motorola, it’s a reminder that even the digital economy has its slaves.

Deller has few of his own works in the show. It is rather a collection of archive material and well-recognised pieces of art.

You can, however, see his film about wrestler Adrian Street, who left behind the coal mines for a life of glamour and fame in the wrestling ring. Street now seems even more important and one of magpie Deller’s best ever finds. Intriguingly, he now makes wrestling garments, a return to industry of a sort.

But this a show in which every exhibit bears weight, from the blood red apocalypse painted by John Martin to the glossy 1945 promo film for the renascent British steel industry.

The result is educational, as clear and edifying as a lesson in A-level history. Whether or not you studied this period at school, you can learn something from the current show in Manchester, even as you enjoy it.

  • Open 10am-5pm (9pm Thursday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @mcrartgallery‎.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

a painting of three people handling a pulley through a shaft into a mine
Salt Mine, Cheshire, 1814, Aquatint© Science Museum/SSPL

a blck and white print of a dark, smoke-festooned industrial landscape
G. Greatbach, ‘The Black Country' near Bilston, 1869, Engraving© Science Museum / SSPL

a photo of a large viaduct with sixties high rise seen through its arches
John Davies, Stockport Viaduct, 1986, Silver gelatin print© John Davies

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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