There’s a strong sense of commemoration about All That is Solid Melts into Air, the latest Hayward Touring exhibition currently showing at Manchester Art Gallery. Curated by 2004 Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, it’s a large exhibition occupying a spacious room of the Athenaeum annexe which examines the tremendous impact of the Industrial Revolution on British life from enterprising beginning to bewildering aftermath.
With Deller at the helm, it deftly avoids much of the gloominess and sentimentality which have come to form an almost umbilical association with the subject. Rather, Deller presents an intelligent suite of perspectives, balancing poignancy with the customary quirkiness of his own work and the occasional surprise. Certainly, it’s one of those exhibitions that comes along once in a while and leaves you with the feeling that what you’ve just seen was a privilege, a strong awareness that the exhibits were chosen to present an overarching reality secondary to their individual content. When art can successfully raise questions of monumental social importance, as this exhibition does, its importance becomes startlingly clear.
For an artist not known for painting, Deller – the 2004 Turner Prize winner as name-droppable in contemporary art circles as Emin, Hurst or Hockney – wields an extraordinarily broad brush in the field of conceptual art, testament to his Renaissance Man-like range of interests, including politics, music and the environment, all of which feature heavily in his work. Using film, installation and en masse public collaboration, the prolific Deller has built up a varied and extensive CV. Highlights include The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a re-enactment of the violent confrontation between miners and police during the 1984 Miners’ Strike; the Bat House Project (2006), a competition to design a bat dwelling on the outskirts of London; The Posters Came from the Walls (2007), a documentary about the ardent fans of synth-rockers Depeche Mode; and the uber-Mancunian street parade Procession, part of the 2009 Manchester International Festival, which included a replica float of a well-known Bury Market café. In addition, Deller’s exhibition English Magic represented Great Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale.
The exhibition’s cumbersome title (All That is Solid Melts into Air) is a quote from The Communist Manifesto published in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ famous delineation of the principles of radical socialism which they viewed as a cure-all for a bourgeois-induced poverty and class division exacerbated by Europe’s burgeoning industrial economy. “All that is solid melts into air” was Marx and Engels’ literary way of encapsulating capitalism’s need for the constant invention and re-invention of products in order to satisfy desires superfluous to human need; that what is made one day is dispensed with the next, and that less materialistic ways of living and the traditions and values associated with them had themselves been dispensed with by society in order to fully serve the capitalistic opportunities created by the Industrial Revolution.
The communist nature of the title is a reminder that extremes generate extremes. History has proved Marx and Engels’ thinking more fairy tale machinations of the over-intellectual mind than the succour of the world’s working classes. It’s a communist state after all – one we’re all feeding – currently pumping out the majority of the world’s goods, one that tramples over its citizens’ human rights. Besides which, many wealthy Victorians (the kind The Communist Manifesto polemicized) were hardly insensitive to the suffering they saw around them, being spurred to great acts of society-changing philanthropy.
The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first, ‘The Industrial Sublime’, gives full rein to the beauty of contemporary depictions of industry, from fetching Claude-esque aquatints and lithographs such as A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent (artist unknown), to the allegorical magnificence of John Martin’s 1852 epic The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, all fire, catastrophe and wrath. The contrast in theme between gently glowing, tree-framed kiln and all-out urban cataclysm represents industry’s leap from backwater experiment to economic mainstay of British cities. The mass movement of labour this precipitated meant that, by 1851, for the first time, more people lived in Britain’s cities than in the countryside and their rising populations allied with corresponding increases in poverty, disease and (especially) vice gave pious Victorians good grounds to predict their impending biblical-scale downfall, à la Martin’s painting.
Despite the nature of this work, Martin himself was no fatalist, nor was he merely a successful painter. Comprehending the perniciousness of London’s untreated human waste, he applied his skilled draughtsmanship and an archetypal Victorian zeal to the redesigning of London’s inadequate sewerage system, preferring to outwit the calamity of disease with the resources of the human mind. This is exemplified in the 1828 lithograph print by Michael J Campbell of his A Plan of Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James’s, Showing the Proposed Canal, Together with Insets Depicting Views in the Parks after the Improvement has been Completed. Martin’s various schemes were considered outlandish by public and Parliament alike, and his persistent lobbying of the latter for their implementation fell on deaf ears; yet they proved to be a visionary foundation for later engineers assigned to prevent any recurrence of London’s famous ‘Great Stink’ of 1858.
The vilification of Martin’s schemes is puzzling; this was, after all, an age of endeavour (albeit one in its early stages) and Victorians took pride in their industrial technology. Perhaps, unlike sewerage plans, a fossil-fuelled endeavour had the reassuring glow of proven capability. Evidence of a similar, pre-Victorian pride is to be found in the vitrine displaying the book Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales, opened at a beautiful, hand-coloured engraving, Iron Works, Colebrook Dale. The large format folio book, published in 1805 by William Pickett, is a bilingual guide to Great Britain and includes romantic images of industrial edifices alongside those of castles, caves and lakes. The iron works in Colebrook Dale have all the appearance of a classical ruin, fire exiting from chimneys more than a little reminiscent of classical columns bereft of their capitals.
Meanwhile, James Sharples’ 1847 painting The Forge gives the casting of iron in a foundry the air of a miracle birth, like a contemporary recasting of the Nativity, the glowing furnace a divine halo attended to by blacksmith Wise Men. Sharples, a Bury blacksmith, was a man of humble origins who learned to draw and paint in his spare time. He was a prime example of the Victorian middle-class ideal of the self-improved working man, enough to be included in Samuel Smiles’ famous book Self-Help, published in 1859. Such philosophy became a tub-thumping cause for the likes of Smiles, John Ruskin, Thomas Horsfall and other prominent Victorians.
Such scholarly inclusions by Deller are punctuated by the cover of heavy metal band Judas Priest’s 1979 album, Unleashed in the East. Indeed, several album covers grace the exhibition, including those of Slade, Happy Mondays and Brian Ferry, accompanied by the band leader’s family tree traced directly onto the exhibition room walls, stretching back to the origins of the Industrial Revolution. This isn’t a case of Deller being fey, however: while the album covers act as welcome oases of modernity, they also mark the decline of British heavy industry and the turning of young, working-class people (whose ancestors commonly found work in factories or mills) to popular music as a form of self-expression and sometimes employment. Bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, for example, both hailing from the Midlands, infused their musical landscape with a sense of post-industrial despair, helping to forge the sound of heavy metal in the late 1960s. Furthermore, Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, the subject of Dean Shaw’s 2012 Digital C-print Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington (found in the ‘Health and Safety will be the Death of Me’ section at the end of the exhibition) developed the power chord motif and a mean, minor key sound as a consequence of detuning his guitar to accommodate more comfortable playing after losing the tip of his middle finger and part of his ring finger in a Birmingham sheet metal factory.
Music of an entirely different kind is provided courtesy of a jukebox with a carefully selected playlist of archive recordings, including the prosaically titled working song Down the Pit We Want to Go sung by Roy Palmer, and Drop Valves and Steam Leak on Piston, the sound of a Dee Mill Engine operating in Royton. Of course, music provided relief from the rigours of working class life. The second section, ‘Broadside Blues’, looks at the broadside, a popular song printed on a sheet of paper which could be purchased cheaply and sung at home or in the pub for example – the equivalent of a 19th century chart single. The subject matter of these ‘English blues’ invariably centred on love or hardship, an example being Salford Bastille: “God keep all poor people that they may ne’er go, To do penance in Salford Bastille…”. For Northerners like your reviewer, there’s something of a tragi-comic resonance to the aligning of ‘Salford’ with ‘Bastille’, tempered by the fact that such a dismal-sounding place existed.
It would be entirely understandable, of course, if many British workers looked upon their workplaces as a kind of Bastille. Factory rules graced with intimidating majuscules were strict and visible to all and would have added to a sense of oppression, their observance necessary to avoid harsh fines. Those of Church Street Mill in Preston (site of the infamous Preston Lock-Out of 1853-4) are included here. “Any person taking cotton or waste into the Necessaries shall forfeit 2 shillings, 4 sixpence”, states the ninth rule – a small fortune for a lowly worker to pay for what might be considered an understandable transgression.
Contemporary portraits of working people in the 19th century are rare but Deller has dug deep to include a selection from a series commissioned by Francis Crayshaw, an industrialist, painted by W.J. Chapman in 1835. Originally labelled with the employee’s name, position and place of employment, they are small and not of the highest quality but have great personality and charm. Why would Crayshaw, though, who owned two factories in South Wales, commission portraits of his employees? Given working people’s lack of status in a time of acute class division it seems remarkable he would honour them in this way. The simple answer is that he made it his business to know his workers on a personal level and took a keen interest in their welfare. Though there can be no doubt that many British workers suffered as a result of working long hours for little pay at the hands of indifferent masters, these portraits prove that the stereotype of the oppressed industrial worker cannot be entirely trusted.
By contrast, the unsubtly titled section ‘The Shit Old Days’ includes a series of photographs of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks, again in South Wales, taken by local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, however, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class and, in many cases, a fatigued demeanour rooted in overwork. Perhaps the photographs served their purpose, then, taken as they were to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers in response to a public debate.
The physical remnants of the Industrial Revolution are abundantly clear in the architecture of Salford, Manchester and many other British cities. John Davis’ striking 1986 photograph Stockport Viaduct shows that formidable Victorian structure still in use, while Ian Tilton’s 1987 photographs of the Happy Mondays picture the once fresh-faced band gathered in moody Salford landscapes and outside the new Cannon multiplex cinema at Salford Quays, documenting the area’s transitional beginnings to a leisure economy. Old industrial spaces have presented the ultimate challenge of redefinition to post-industrial generations, one that has been successfully met in many parts of Manchester and Salford.
The problem of air pollution is the subject of an extraordinary etching, Smoke Consuming in Ancoats (1820, artist unknown), showing 14 well-heeled Mancunians discussing a new form of smoke-reduction technology in the street against a backdrop of factories. Their comments, listed below the main illustration, are conveyed with Regency genteelness and express a variety of thoughts on the matter. For example, we discover that it’s now possible to open the windows everyday (not just on Sundays); that, once upon a time, haymakers would return from the fields covered in soot; and that the principle behind the smoke-reducing technology is the ‘burning of smoke into flame’. The etching, almost a caricature, offers a peculiar middle-class perspective on the Industrial Revolution.
The section ‘How’s the Enemy?’ gives a tangible sense of the restrictive impact of time on working class life. Time oppressed in the workplace through the need to maintain a constant work rate over long working hours, and disappointed in leisure through its paucity. Behind the charming appearance of the Double-dial Longcase Clock from Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield (c.1810) was an employer’s solution to the problem of measuring productivity. The clock has two faces, one that kept time by normal hand-winding, the other by means of attachment to the factory’s rotating water wheel. The time kept by the latter could be compared at a glance by the efficiency-conscious employer to that of the hand-wound clock. Any shortfall had to be made up by the workforce at the end of the day.
Adjacent to the clock, the inclusion of a Motorola WT400 attached to a mannequin-like arm demonstrates that the target-driven culture of yesteryear is still very much with us. Unlike the clock, however, this device is used to calculate productivity on an individual basis and can warn the employee in the manner of a gentle whip-cracking if they are not up to speed. A similar device is worn by Amazon warehouse employees, like those in Ben Roberts’s giant photograph Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013), which effectively conveys soulless warehouse vastness and gives worker ant significance to the fluorescent- coated operatives.
The exhibition’s sensory appeal is broadened by the inclusion of film. Steel is a dry, British Council-produced documentary from 1945 focusing on steel production and the British Steel industry. Much more entertaining is Deller’s own film, So Many Ways to Hurt You, about wrestler Adrian Street who rejected working in the Welsh mine his father had worked in for 51 years in order to pursue a career in wrestling. Street became a consummate wrestler-entertainer, glamming it up in a blonde wig and spangled, rock star attire, adopting an effeminate persona entirely at odds with the machismo of the industry he turned his back on. The inclusion of Street’s story gives the exhibition a lively, humorous twist and is another example of how the entertainment industry has offered a less bleak career path for those daring enough to break with traditional forms of employment and the expectation conferred by parents and communities to follow a particular occupation. In addition, Dennis Hutchinson’s black and white photo Adrian Street with his Father at the Pithead of Brynmawr Colliery, Wales (1973) is an exhibition highlight, showing Street’s father in his coal-mining gear looking at his pouting son in full glam get-up with a mixture of compassion and confusion.
All That is Solid Melts into Air is an extensive, truly remarkable survey by Jeremy Deller that grabs the Industrial Revolution by its coke-dusted coat-tails and exposes a rich, cultural lining sewn into every part of British life. It works by quietly informing on aspects of a heritage that can be traced back to the vitality of centuries-old enterprise and persists in our art, our architecture and the way we structure our lives through our individual commitments to upholding the unspoken common bond of capitalism. Importantly, it brings into focus the achievements of our ancestors who gave Britain extraordinary wealth and power while reminding us of the sacrifice many of the working class made to those dubious altars. Without their efforts, too, we would be bereft of the legacy of a more humane society.
Photos taken in the gallery are by Chris Payne
What: Jeremy Deller: All That is Solid Melts into Air
Where: Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester
When: until January 19, 2014