Jeremy Deller’s Battle with History and Art
Originally published in 2010 at Chicago Art Criticism.
Turner prize-winning artist, Jeremy Deller, installed his traveling project, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last fall. The ephemeral, quasi-performative exhibition contained objects, photographs, maps, and a schedule of paid speakers (soldiers, refugees, scholars, artists, and journalists). The room’s centerpiece, or “conversation area,” as Deller calls it, contained comfortable seating and a delightful table offering tea and cookies. Guest speakers were to converse with museum visitors about their experiences in Iraq: topics covered anything from geography to history, or current government infrastructure and art.
The work carries Deller’s name, but his participation is absent, or as present as any curator. The artist has created a space for conversation in an art space that might otherwise not be possible. Everybody who walks into the room is transformed into an element in the piece, and their actions, non-actions, whether they are aware of it or not become part of the artwork. The work’s success or failure lies not only in the eyes of the beholder, but in the actions, interaction, engagement of those in the space. The meaning of the work is so loose, so open in fact, that it borders on meaninglessness.
The object that offers the viewer the most potential for an aesthetic experience is the rusty, crumpled remains of a car destroyed in Iraq during a suicide bomber’s attack. The car, like the other objects in the room, is a conversation piece as well, intended to agitate and provoke conversation; but what kind of conversation can be provoked with such an object?
The timing of this particular piece is of essence here. Is this is an anti-war project, or a post-war one? With headlines focusing on Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, Deller’s impulse behind the piece cannot solely be motivated by an anti-war mentality. Is there a fear that we are forgetting about Iraq? In that sense the work is an ephemeral memorial.
Deller’s work falls under the rubric of socially engaging, participatory art; it has been discussed as dialogical art, and as art concerned with what French curator-critic Nicolas Bourriaud has termed relational aesthetics: “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”
Relational art practices seek to enhance the relationship between the work and the audience, assumes the separation, but wishes to collapse and dismantle the distinction between the subject and the object of the work. These participatory practices–in which participants’ physical and cognitive interaction is integral to the work itself and dependent upon it–became prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. This moment is arguably driven by a reaction against works largely promoted by Clement Greenberg that were considered too formalist, alienating, and elitist. This moment can also be characterized by a general artistic reaction, strongly manifest during the cold war era, against the alienating effects of capitalism and totalitarianism. One of Deller’s earlier works, Battle of Orgreave, epitomizes a more contemporary version of relational or participatory art.
Police mounted on cavalry charge through the fields of a mining village of Orgreave in South Yorkshire to confront and disperse hundreds of picketing miners. This is not June 18th 1984: It is not the culminating confrontation between the striking National Union of Mineworkers and the British police, or what is best known as Margaret Thatcher’s deathblow to British unions. It is, rather, seventeen years later, June 17th of 2001: Jeremy Deller, has staged a re-enactment of this half-buried, traumatic, historical event as a work of art. The Battle of Orgreave is not a historical moment pregnant with class conflict, like the events of 1984, it is a large-scale theatrical recreation as a work of art. The tension in Deller’s Battle of Orgreave is that between history and the present, between art and political action, or more succinctly an event that seeks to ease (rather than heighten) the tension between art and reality.
The critical assessment of such work by someone not present in the event itself demands an analysis that is removed from a direct experience of the work: A difficult task considering the question of experience is a central issue raised by the work. Even more difficult to address, through non-experience of the work, is the question of possibility–or refusal–of transformation that the experience of such reenactment-as-art might posit. The task of judgment is limited to assessing its broad social impact, the artist’s intentions, revealed through the production process, and its place within art history, as revealed through its reception.
Deller proposed the reenactment of the Battle of Orgreave to Artangel, a British foundation conceived to give artists a unique opportunity to realize unusually ambitious projects. A panel comprised of Brian Eno, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Cork and Artangel co-directors James Lingwood and Michael Morris selected the Battle of Orgreave. The re-enactment was organized by EventPlan and carefully orchestrated by Howard Giles, a re-enactment specialist, who recruited, trained, and directed 800 extras for the two-part script. The event was filmed under the direction of Mike Figgis for TV, and first screened on England’s Channel 4 on 20 October 2002. The majority of the participants were members of re-enacment societies across Britain, but about 280 of the participants were locals who had been present, as police or as miners, in the events of 1984, that originally had over six thousand participants.
Deller wanted the event to include members of reenactment societies because he felt that not only would they be trained for such a task, but their involvement would also make the 1984 confrontation at Orgreave become part of the lineage of decisive battles in British History. He intentionally sought out the interaction between reenactors and veterans from that battle, that are literally the personification of it.
Art has frequently been concerned with critically addressing history, and re-enactments are often associated with historical nostalgia.Deller’s work is ambivalent: it does not seem to take a position, but embodies a place in between them, or a place that absorbs both of them. It is, however, an exploration of historical memory and an attempt to bring a renewed interest to an event that otherwise could have receded into obscurity and incomprehensibility.
The reexamination of history is motivated, in Deller’s own words, by his interest in the term “living history.” Frequently used in relation to reenactments, history lives in people who experienced those events and are still alive to share their experiences. Nostalgia here, it must be noted, is unlike the reenactment of revolutionary and victorious historical moments like that of Sergei Eisentein’s October, on the October (Bolshevik) Revolution of 1917, or Peter Watkins’s 2000 re-enactment for film of La Commune, a revolutionary government pregnant with potential, that nevertheless ends in defeat of the working class. The Battle of Orgreave is representative of a moment of political defeat, for the working class, and the Left.
The notion of “blurring of the distinction between art and life” as an intentional approach to art making, a characteristic of relational aesthetics, can be concretely traced in the writings and work of Allan Kaprow. In a 1958 text, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” Kaprow proposed “a quite clear headed decision to abandon craftsmanship and permanence.” The theatrical situations created in the “Happenings,” together with Guy Debord’s Situationist aesthetics, were a major influence to art practices of the 60s that sought to subvert the alienating effects of either formalist or object-oriented art practices. Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, though of epic proportions in comparison, can be threaded back to early Happenings and Situationist events. By attempting to brush aside the alienating effects of art, relational aesthetics weakens art’s social impact as well.
To talk about the Battle of Orgeave purely in terms of relational or dialogical art would be reductive and tragic. Indeed the work created a conversation between the artist, veterans of Miner’s strike, re-enactment specialists, and the audience present that day. The work too has a stable position in art history now, as evinced by exhibitions like “History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary Art” openly declare the Battle to be a canonical point of departure.
Deller perhaps succeeded in making the Battle of Orgreave hold a significant place in English history, but even this is tenuous. What the reenactment-as-art should produce that regular reenactments don’t, however, is to force a different degree of reflection, participation, and reconsideration of the event. Something new must be experienced, not just re-experienced. If this does not occur the work is mere reenactment, pastiche, and an aestheticization of history that trivializes reality.
As Adorno noted in his essay Commitment, addressing so-called committed art, “For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized.” By reconstructing the event, and taking it out of the realm of history into the realm of art, it is being trivialized, and the result is only a banal, and inconsequential political gesture. A moment of severe political defeat is reduced to a series of events that were inevitable–never in the hands of those who originally experienced it. The experience of art is reduced to a banal experience of a movie extra—who walks away uncertain if their acting experience will show up in the final product. Such reenactment-as-art flags how precarious the position of art is today, how art more and more keeps on taking up the task once left to political practice. Somewhat ironic it is to re-enact a moment of one of the most violent confrontations of the 1984/5 miners strike, and in fact a moment of a political defeat of a sector of society that was demanding the maintenance of their jobs and standards of living. Indeed a moment that illuminates arts general disposition towards life—art is only an afterthought of an experience, not an experience in itself.
Deller also thought pushing the boundaries presented by a recreation of an event that was “essentially chaos.” To claim that such an event was chaos, is also problematic and even further obscures the motivations and consequences of such events. Namely, it removes it from the cause and effect dynamics of conservative politics under Thatcher. As Karl Marx once wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, about Louis Bonapart’s coup d’état in 1851, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” This is the tension between reality and art presented by Deller’s Battle: it comes all-too-close to semi-fictionalizing reality.