Jeremy Deller’s “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air” – A Review

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Adrian Street with his father at the pithead of Brynmawr colliery, Wales. Dennis Hutchinson. 1973.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a journey through the Industrial Revolution; being guided up on to the top floor of the gallery, you are faced with a wall feature of Dennis Hutchison’s photograph of the pro-wrester Adrian Street.[1] This photograph shocks insofar that it shows us something novel.[2] The uniqueness of the image is held within the situation and the dissimilarity between the two generations. It illustrates how Britain was changing at the time and how it has since changed. The photograph symbolises a connection between the Industrial Revolution and the birth of British rock music, drawing together labour and leisure, moving from an industrial method of creation towards alternative ways of making things, such as entertainment. Going into the exhibition, the arrangement is thematic, rather than chronological, allowing you to explore the sights and sounds of the Industrial Revolution through contemporary photography, film and music as well as a range of nineteenth century objects and images. Deller approaches his subjects like a social archaeologist, uncovering connections across historical periods whilst finding new meanings in familiar stories and images. From carte-de-visite photographs of industry workers to the focal piece of Adrian Street, Deller highlights the key themes of the exhibition: the impact of modernity; our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time; and the continuity and influence of the Industrial Revolution.   

While Deller explores the phases of modernity through his pieces, “all that is solid melts into air” is quoted from Marx’s Communist Manifesto and explored by Berman in his book “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: the Experience of Modernity”. Just as Benjamin described the crisis of modernity as both an economic and political revolution, modernity also surrounds the ability to reproduce oneself, which is manifested in all areas of culture and neutralizes many traditional concepts.[3] The use of Marx’s quote paralleled by the exhibition as a contemporary project creates a sense of constant reproduction of oneself and society. This is contrasted by the regimentation and positioning of the pieces by Deller, suggesting modernity to be more disciplined and systematic. This juxtaposition highlights the relationship between the body and the image, and the technicalities governing the relationship between the two.  

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Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales. William Clayton. 1865.

Moreover, Berman argues that this experience of modernity ‘is a mode of vital experience… a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish.’[4] This is encapsulated in Deller’s exhibition by a selection of carte-de-visite photographs entitled ‘The Shit Old Days!’ These photographs by William Clayton were taken in response to a public debate about the role of women in heavy industry, and the effect it was having on domestic life.[5] The title: ‘The Shit Old Days!’ highlights the experience of modernity as a triumph. According to Carnegie, the “good old times” were not in fact good old times and a relapse to such old conditions would be seen as disastrous, sweeping away civilization.[6] Studying this photograph, it can be argued that returning to a period in which photography was used as a tool for class oppression, portraying women as political capital, is in fact returning to a pre-modern and ‘shit’ period. The perception of women as political capital stemmed from their inability to reproduce themselves within this newfound age of technological reproduction; they may not have been ‘shit old days’ if they could. This example of Victorian anthropology shows a new tribe in the making: the industrial worker. It is the camera which creates an archive upon which knowledge can rest; actively functioning in the creation of this new tribe through its ability to create working typologies for political functioning.

Berman states that ‘modernity is constituted by its machines, of which modern men and women are merely mechanical reproductions.’ He suggests that modernity has created a corrupt and monotonous social system which society follows: ‘modernity’s kiss of death’.[7]  This is shown in Clayton’s social documentary photographs– mechanically reproducing photographs to show or ‘document’ conditions of industrial women workers.[8] However, Sontag argues that documentary photographs can also be seen as works of art: ‘even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.’[9] How is it that something documentary gains artistic value? Photography simply captures the reality that is put in front of the camera; therefore it is the functioning of the image at a particular moment in a particular society that is fundamental. These carte-de-visite photographs were created for a particular social functioning; photographs to be handed out as a tool of exchange and social mobility for the working classes. It is this changing role of photography as a form of representation which creates a new sociality based on the exchange of image worlds.[10]

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Happy Mondays. Ian Tilton. 1987.

Our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time highlighted by Deller’s exhibition is epitomised in the photography he selects. Photography captures a trace of time which no longer exists. It differs from all previous image making techniques by permanently fixing a specific moment in time and space by purely mechanical means. However, photographs are interpreted differently now and are seen with different eyes than when they were taken. It is not possible to just see what they denote, but also what they connote to contemporary society. This is to suggest that every photograph is a document but this is not to say they are unmediated documentary records. What photographs depict are a result of their composition, development and printing and also what they evoke. [11] Deller’s example of Ian Tilton’s ‘Happy Mondays’ photographs not only document a new band in the making, but also capture Salford’s extensive redevelopment during the 1980s.[12] However, this photograph can be interpreted differently in the present day, connoting gangs of young men who are often associated with crime. The subjects all stare into the camera – more evocative of a mug shot than a portrait, whilst they hang around an urban area, building upon criminal typologies and Oriental ideas of the ‘Other’. This perception of time as the enemy is paralleled in Deller’s exhibition with the inclusion of a Motorola WT4000.[13] The Motorola WT4000’s are worn on the wrist of employees in Amazon Warehouses in order to track the speed of orders and warn employees if they are falling behind schedule. This existential sense of time as a common element between photography and the body implies that the body is a viable means of regulating a sense of production and the reproducibility of oneself, not as a singular thing, but as multiple reproductions to be controlled and documented.  

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Vaisse describes that ‘from the moment it first became possible to capture an image on a light sensitive surfaImagece, the camera lens was turned on the human face.’[14] By comparing Clayton’s and Hutchinson’s portrait photography, it is possible to see the sense of continuity (and discontinuity) captured within Deller’s exhibition.[15] Within both of these photographs, the Eurocentric view of Otherness is highlighted and emphasizes the process by which societies exclude ‘Others’ who do not subordinate or who do not fit into their society.[16] Clayton’s portraits are used as a political tool to exclude women from industrial work by creating depressing scenes in which the subjects appear tired, worn and despondent. Similarly, Hutchinson highlights a colossal break from the past and the creation of an ‘Other’ as Adrian Street poses next to his father in a mine at Brynmawr. The concept of ‘Otherness’ is encapsulated within this photograph by the wary and bemused expressions of the miners as Street fails to fit back into their society. Yet there is a fragmented truth within this photograph. Street is arguably disconnected from the ‘real’ work time of the ‘industrial’ class, seen simply as a player in the ‘artificial’ community of photography.

The exhibition space itself also captures the impact of the past on the present. Berman states that modernity is ‘a landscape of steam engines, railroads, of daily newspapers, telegraphs and other mass media.’[17] Deller uses the exhibition space to demonstrate this theme; the past Deller ‘manufactures’, one in which hierarchies are dissolved and analogies are drawn between the brutal past and the indifferent present, is arguably embedded in the very infrastructure of contemporary society. The use of multi-media, including ‘So many ways to hurt you’, reveals this new world as different ways of representation intersect with contemporary society.[18] The past is manufactured in the very fabric of the present, highlighted by Deller’s installation of a jukebox into the exhibition, paralleling the effect of photographs and unknowingly creating imagery based on nostalgic reflection.[19]     

Deller’s exhibition highlights the power and scope of photography in capturing our modern world. The creation of the visual language, in which ‘the medium is the message’, highlights how photographs work as much from what they evoke as through what they depict, creating a double sense as we ask what they connote as well as what they denote.[20] The sharing of this common modernist “visual language”, independent of subject matter, upholds Deller’s themes examined within his exhibition. The concept of modernity; our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time; and the continuity and influence of the Industrial Revolution are successfully explored through Deller’s selection of portraiture and the use of multi-media.  


[1] 09/01/14. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Manchester Art Gallery, All Pictures Taken by the Author.

[2] Susan Sontag. On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p.19.

[3] Walter Benjamin. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ in Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940 (London: Belknap Press, 2003), p.252.

[4] Marshall Berman. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1982), p.15.

[5] 09/01/14. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

[6] Cited by Paul Halsall. (1997). Modern History Sourcebook: Andrew Carnegie: The Gospel of Wealth, 1889. Available: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1889carnegie.asp. Last accessed 18/01/14.

[7] Marshall Berman. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p.29.

[8] Lewis Hine. ‘Social Photography’ in Alan Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), p.109.

[9] Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p.6.

[10] Mary Warner. Photography: a cultural history (London: Laurence King, 2002), p.84.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Positions (London: Athlone Press, 1987), pp.3-14.

[12] 09/01/14. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air; See Appendix ‘Figure 1’.

[13] See Appendix ‘Figure 2’.

[14] Pierre Vaisse. ‘Portrait of society: the anonymous and the famous’ in Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography (Cologne: Kӧnemann, 1998), p.495.

[15] 09/01/14. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

[16] Edward Said. Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003).

[17] Marshall Berman. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p.18

[18] See Appendix, ‘Figure 3’.

[19] Susan Sontag. On Photography, p.15.

[20] Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: the extensions of man (London: Sphere Books, 1967), p.9.

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, W. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ in Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940 (London: Belknap Press, 2003).

Berman, M. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (London: Verso, 1982).

Deller, J. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Manchester Art Gallery, visited 09/01/14.

Derrida, J. Positions (London: Athlone Press, 1987).

Halsall, P. (1997). Modern History Sourcebook: Andrew Carnegie: The Gospel of Wealth, 1889. Available: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1889carnegie.asp. Last accessed 18/01/14.

Hine, L. ‘Social Photography’ in Alan Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980).

McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: the extensions of man (London: Sphere Books, 1967).

Said, E. Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003).

Sontag, S. On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1979).

 

Sontag, S. Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin Books, 1979).

Vaisse, P. ‘Portrait of society: the anonymous and the famous’ in Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography (Cologne: Kӧnemann, 1998), pp-494-513.

Warner, M. Photography: a cultural history (London: Laurence King, 2002).

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