MEXICO CITY — Although presented as a series of discrete events across time, history is written every day through humanity’s incessant production of time-sensitive ephemera that define the aesthetics, sounds, and languages of our epoch. British artist Jeremy Deller uses everyday materials to recreate and illustrate cultural reference points such as Stonehenge, the Industrial Revolution, and the struggles of organized labor in his homeland.
Band posters, T-shirts, stickers, graffiti, and murals adorn the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo’s (MUAC) main exhibition space in Deller’s first Latin American retrospective, The Infinitely Variable Ideal of the Popular. The work is often self-referential, definitively British, and rooted in European events and culture. As the title suggests, Deller uses a variety of media to allude to the ever-changing ideals that shape pop culture. He uses humor and sarcasm as pencils to underline contemporary ironies or enduring medieval ideologies. His work suggests that experimentation can help us understand history by giving shape to the tangible chaos of events that are encapsulated in history books.
Sometimes the work picks up more momentum than intended. It may have been naïve of Deller to re-create the Battle of Orgreave — a violent clash between striking British coal miners and police in 1984 — but, as he said with a grin during the exhibition preview, “maybe it is the artist’s role to be stupid.” Things got out of hand during the reenactment, as seen in the final video work “The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All)” (2001), which reflects an enduring relevance and grudges just below the surface. Deller’s work is aware of its naïveté. The reenactment of the riots revealed real and lasting tensions between social classes in contemporary Great Britain. The video work that resulted from the reenactment plays more like a documentary than a period film, with interviews and behind-the-scenes peeks at tensions between actors and real miners who were involved in the strike.
More than 200 former miners who were involved in the actual event in 1984 participated in the reenactment, along with around 800 historical reenactors. The resulting video, now nearly 15 years old, shows that the retired miners still hold many of the same concerns and struggles in their hearts and minds. Between photographs of the real riot in 1984, the reenactment — which took place in 2001 — and the exhibition now on view, the work creates the sensation that history repeats itself, a recurring theme in the retrospective at the MUAC.
Rather than History with a capital H, Deller illustrates and investigates a social history by recreating objects and moments in time. In a piece called “The History of the World” (1997), a mural depicts a sketch that sums up the acid house movement in Britain and connects the genre to brass brands. The simple sketch is incredibly informative, yet sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to make the viewer giggle. The title of the work suggests that the history of the world resembles a complex web of details, rather than a timeline of events. Two seemingly disparate genres are connected by a cultural constellation that includes bandstands, civil unrest, summers of love, 808 drum machines, and the 1990s music scenes in Chicago and Detroit. The mural led Deller to hire a brass band to perform a repertoire of acid house music, which is also documented in a video in the exhibition.
The artist sees his work as humorous, but not as comedy. Although some of the work reads like stand-up, it remains connected to larger cultural movements. Deller’s posters help illustrate this important distinction. The kitsch medium points to teenage bedrooms as incubators of popular culture. One Rasta-hued poster reads, “Send Bat Echolocation sounds to Dub Reggae Producers.” Although the idea of bat sounds on a reggae track sounds absurd, Deller sarcastically points out that dub reggae music already incorporates equally esoteric sounds. This poster and others featuring similar phrases create multiple punchlines for jokes that poke fun at and revel in the ridiculousness of popular culture movements and their relationships to history.
The MUAC retrospective, which includes an enormous body of work spanning nearly 20 years, draws out the musical undertones that are pervasive across much of Deller’s oeuvre. Music is evidently an enormous influence for him, and he uses musical movements and genres as touchstones for dissecting history and time.
The Infinitely Variable Ideal of the Popular also reveals an obsession with certain historical sites and structures, like Stonehenge, which makes multiple appearances in the show. One poster depicts the profile of the prehistoric monument with the words “A Time Before Shopping.” One of Deller’s best-known works, “Sacrilege” (2012), is a full-scale inflatable replica of the ancient monument that was commissioned for the 2012 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Stonehenge is widely believed to have been a sacred burial ground, a sharp contrast with the playful nature of Deller’s version. Unfortunately, visitors to the MUAC get video documentation of the piece, watching enviously as children and adults bounce joyfully around the enormous installation.
The Industrial Revolution is another recurring subject in Deller’s work, and specifically the cultural repercussions that came about as a result of mass production. It’s unclear whether Deller blames the Industrial Revolution for all of the world’s woes or for all of its wonders — probably both — but there is a definite nostalgia hidden behind the cheeky interludes and historical references. One poster-style lithograph showing a dark city spewing smoke bluntly reads: “I blame the Industrial Revolution.” There is a dichotomy between the plastic, pop surface quality of the pieces and the anti-capitalist, anti-industry messages they transmit. Deller may very well be a socialist, maybe even a hippie, but the formalism of the work, which relies on industry and capitalism for its production, is pointedly critical of the same history that made it possible. The exhibition reflects the very materiality of capitalism that it seeks to protest, leaving a blasé aftertaste.