Jeremy Deller: Joy in People at the Hayward Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 23 February 2012
a photo of an art installation consisting of a cafe in a gallery
An installation at the Hayward's Jeremy Deller: Joy in People© Photo Linda Nyling
Exhibition: Jeremy Deller: Joy in People, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, until May 13 2012

He doesn’t paint, he doesn’t sculpt, and it is often pointed out that former art-history student Jeremy Deller has broken the mould of what an artist might be. And indeed, his first ever retrospective at Hayward Gallery is not quite like any other exhibition.

It features moody teenagers hanging out, tea shop customers having a gossip and witnesses to the allied occupation who will chat to you about life in Iraq. Along with real people, it features a reconstruction of the artist’s former bedroom, faded copies of the NME, a 20-year-old vinyl collection and some fairly artless early photography.

A good deal of work shown isn’t really here at all. Instead, it is gestured towards with a slideshow voiced over by the artist. It was never even in a gallery to begin with, but rather in nightclubs, on student noticeboards and even on a flower strewn Mall in the days following the death of Princess Diana.

There is a good deal of the prankster about Deller. But his biggest pranks to date – reconstruction of a pitch battle between police and miners in 1984; the US-wide touring of a bomb wrecked car chassis from Iraq – transcend any sense of mischief to deliver stirring documentary films of great, thought-provoking clarity.

A photo of two people looking at the wreckage of a car inside an art gallery
The remains of a car destroyed in Iraq form Deller's powerful It is What it Is, made in 2009
© Linda Nylind
Joy in People is an odd name for a show with The Battle of Orgreave at its heart.

This epic re-enactment of a landmark in the history of labour relations emerges here as one of the most important works of art produced in Britain this side of the millennium, and you could claim its relevance has only grown since its creation in 2001.

Visitors may also be surprised that a show which begins with the reconstruction of an English suburban home builds to one of the most comprehensive and serious works of art to ever address American foreign policy: the stark remains of a car bomb together with a filmed account of the voyage Deller facilitated for the vehicle across middle America.

Along with these hugely risky ventures, it is clear we are in the company of an artist who likes to have fun. He is, after all, the man who hooked brass bands up with scores by acid house acts. He went on a fruitless voyage to find Bez, the charismatic dancer from the Happy Mondays, in Manchester. He has made speculative posters about art shows celebrating such undistinguished figures as Keith Moon, Morrissey and Gazza.

It is a piece called The History of the World which offers a segway between the pop and the politics. This is the artist’s celebrated flow chart linking acid house to brass bands, and rave culture to mining. It is not the whole world, of course, nor the whole story. Admittedly, it will mean more to British people steeped in local culture.    

But if you can share Deller’s suburban outlook, his show really is a joy. It proves you don’t have to go far to find subject matter for art. The journey begun in your bedroom can take you all around the world.

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