Joy in People is a body of ambitious work created over the last two decades by Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller, who has been describing himself as a “self-taught conceptual artist.” Ambitious not because they’re some sublime works with impossibly high production values, but because they present a true smorgasbord of Deller’s artistic personalities – original, polemic, acerbic, poetic and very, very social.
This wildly disparate experience of artwork takes the form of every stage between re-enactment (a staging of the violent clashes between miners and police men in the mid-1980s) to an extreme reality (It is What it is, a bombed out wreckage of a car from a marketplace in Baghdad), telling the most incredible folk stories in-between.
The gallery tells us he is an “assembler of things and a ‘stager’ of events,” and with that, the first thing you are presented with is a recreation of his bedroom at his parents’ house. A guy’s room is not the most welcoming of spaces but you quickly gather that he was not a typical young man.
Open Bedroom, c.1988 – c.1994, was the first in a life-so-far of opportunistic acts (his parents were away) when most other young people would’ve held a house party.
Performance, communal spirit and social documentation feel important to Deller’s work. Large walls and whole rooms are dedicated to these works, in particular a (now-iconic) lateral map connecting brass bands to acid house, drawn in the artist’s hand and occupying an elephant-sized space in a mezzanine floor of the Hayward.
The artist goes on to orchestrate a full brass ensemble to perform aforementioned acid music and calls the performance quite simply, and in a genre-defining move you become accustomed to in this show, Acid Brass.
In a room adjacent, another equally remarkable feat of performance art is The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All), 2001, a reenactment of one particular violent conflict between miners and police during the strikes of 1984-85. The record of this is presented in a faintly municipal room of collected local experience and national press in the form of clippings, notes, clothing, riot gear etc, fascinating in its own right and marking a neat change in the gallery air.
This particular work culminates in a seriously affecting one hour film of “living history” with almost 1,000 extras (800 historical re-enacters more used restaging the English Civil War (to which this particular performance directly recalls), plus the 200 local people who include ex-miners and police men) – it is an epic work.
Video-work occupies a lot of space in this exhibition as most artwork exists only as an anecdote and quick snap. Beyond the White Walls (2012), a slideshow with commentary from Deller, shows just such a work that couldn’t sit in a gallery – performances and public installations like a three-way exhibition with artist Alan Kane and Peter Stringfellow (yes, that Peter Stringfellow) or that time he took a clown to the World Expo in Hanover (Has the World Changed or Have I Changed?, 2000). The brilliant thing about these artworks being the combination of total unpredictability and rational execution.
When Deller has a concept he doesn’t necessarily feel the need to be the one who follows it through. The interpretation of his ideas by other artists, designers, musicians, craftsmen and women and, most importantly, the general public is so crucial, like the idea can only be fully realised when a third party is involved.
In the way that re-appropriation and found objects are integral to some artist’s work, the people (the joy of people) are Deller’s sine qua non.
What is the City But The People?, 2009 came from Deller’s (and 99.9 precent of all other London Underground commuters!) frustration with being “hounded all the time by continual messages” – how to get on or off a train, to mind the doors/gap/edge of the platform. The work took form as a book, the foil blocked cover reading: “Quotes and proverbs for Train Operators, SATs and Supervisors.”
Such underground workers were encouraged to use these quotes, unpredictably nestled amongst the announcements and cautions so that “stand clear of the closing doors” might prefix Jean-Paul Satre’s dictum: “Hell is other people.” The project also extended to the concave ad-space along platforms, quotes for commuters, beautifully realised with collaborative graphic design from APFEL.
His showpiece, one of many poetry-slogan banners created by Ed Hall, displays the maxim “Joy in People” is as straight-up a statement as you could want and embodies the show totally. This is what is best about Jeremy Deller, I think. The artist presents no confusion; he means what he says and his artwork says what he means. The sheer variety of work is only testament to the number of voices he uses to speak to us.