All That is Solid Melts Into Air, an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller (Britain’s representative in the Venice Biennale last year) explores the impact of the Industrial Revolution on contemporary British society. Deller combines contemporary music, archival film, historical artefacts and written text panels to forge connections between materials and finding new meanings in familiar objects. This exhibition is a personal, intuitive journey which reveals how the trauma of urbanisation and modernisation has affected the culture of this country, from our music to our shopping habits. However, the exhibition is an extensive survey of our cultural heritage and how every aspect of British life has been informed by the Industry of the country. Because of the enormity of Deller’s project, I will only attempt to write about a small part of this remarkable exploration.
This exhibition opened in Manchester last October, and has travelled through Nottingham and Coventry before finally arriving in Newcastle upon Tyne. This last stretch of the journey is being shown in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle’s city centre, a gallery which features a notable historic permanent collection, including John Martin’s 1852 painting, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a biblical illustration of Gods destructive power; a glowing pit of fire as a whole city are punished for the sins of its people. This incredible apocalyptic painting, familiar to Laing Gallery audiences, is the first that we see as we walk into Deller’s exhibition.
The red light and smoke of Martin’s historic painting is cleverly paired with imagery of the steel industry, exemplified in Steel, a British Council produced educational film made in 1945, which depicts men producing steel in a factory. In this film, displayed on a large monitor in the space, bright orange molten metal bubbles in huge crucibles while showers of sparks fly over the heads of the workers who stare into the hell-like mouth of the intense, fiery heat. Martin grew up in the rural Northumbrian countryside, but it is easy to see the influence of London in his painting; the smoggy urban landscape of the capital and the glow of industry are definitely in this painting of the burning city. Bringing the imagery up to date is the jacket of Unleashed in the East, the 1979 Judas Priest album, where the band are shown standing in smoke, amber lights illuminating them and their instruments.
Deller draws comparisons not only between the imagery of the theatrical Victorian painting, the heavy metal album artwork and the post war steel industry, but he also uses Martin’s painting as the starting point for other associations. In the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the people of Gomorrah are punished for their vice and their desire. Just as there were similar moralistic Victorian concerns about excess and sexual desire leading to sin and disease when Martin was painting, so we too, in contemporary society, worry about the physical and ethical effects of our consumerism. This anxiety is reflected in Ben Roberts’s large photographic print Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013). This image shows the vast interior of an Amazon warehouse where unskilled workers appear tiny among the expansive shelving units, each one filled to the brim with stuff. The text panel mounted underneath this image explains that most of these staff members are on zero hour contracts and work for minimum wage. To the left of Roberts’s image is a poster, the rules of Church Street Mill in Preston from the nineteenth century. The very first rule feels particularly poignant. It reads that factory workers must ‘give one month’s notice, in writing, previous to leaving his or her employment …but the Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever.
Deller’s careful juxtaposition of materials draw worrying links between the rights of mid-Victorian factory workers and the current working conditions for low level employees. All That is Solid Melts Into Air is a carefully curated exhibition which is full of incredible objects, ideas and artworks, effectively exploring British culture and the roots of capitalism in this country. The works read like a piece of research, a visual essay where you can draw your own associations and conclusions. If you’re in the North East between now and October 26th, this is an opportunity not to be missed.