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Jeremy Deller & Steve McQueen: Interpreting Recent British Political History

During the 2000s, art has re-emerged as a practice with social and political functions marking an end to the sensationalist art of the YBAs in the previous decade.  Art throughout the nineties was dominated by shock tactics and cynicism and was devoid of any political or social meaning, functioning merely as witty responses to the cultural backwardness of Conservative rule.  YBAs grew directly out of Thatcher’s free market economy, responding to her call for entrepreneurialism through their exploitation of the media to cause frenzy and gain notoriety. However, the next generation of artists that came to the fore during the 2000s and under the rule of New Labour began to create works with social and political inflections; art that adhered to New Labour’s demand for an art that should help heal the social wounds left from previous regimes and engage communities normally excluded from the gallery.1 Jeremy Deller’s The English Civil War Part II: The Battle of Orgreave (2001) and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) are both works that take as their subjects highly charged political events from the 1980s and in doing so place themselves within this category of art as a politically and socially engaged practice.  It remains to be seen however, to what extent these art works, particularly Deller’s, conform to New Labour’s model of the arts as having a solely affirmative function within society. Issues also arise over the actual level of political engagement present in these works and this essay will attempt to address these problems as well as consider the various interpretations of each piece.

Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave is a re-enactment of the violent confrontation between the miners at Orgreave coking plant and the police that took place on the 18th June 1984. The battle occurred during the National Union of Mineworkers’ year long strike following the announcement from the National Coal Board of plans for colliery closures. The confrontation was the most violent clash between police and picketers with unprecedented numbers of each involved and represents the culmination of the struggles between the NUM and Thatcher’s government.  Deller’s re-enactment, commissioned and funded by Artangel, was orchestrated by Howard Giles, former director of English Heritage’s event programme and historical re-enactment expert.  Actors from re-enactment societies were drawn in to partake in the event from across the country whilst Deller enlisted the participation of former miners, many of whom had taken part in the original clash in 1984. For two years he researched the project, gathering newspaper archives and television footage as well as interviewing those originally involved and using their eyewitness accounts as his central source of evidence.2

The project was of huge personal interest to Deller who recalls seeing footage of the strike on the news as a teenager and was left with a lasting desire to one day commemorate or re-enact it; his first attempt at it was in the early 90s when he made a poster advertising the fictional re-enactment of it by the Sealed Knot Society (a Civil War re-enactment group).  He likens the confrontation to a civil war, placing emphasis on the divisive effect that the struggle between the left-wing politics of the NUM and the right-wing politics of Thatcher had on the whole of the UK.3 In simply choosing to recreate this particular politically charged moment in history, Deller has already assumed some sort of political engagement into his work, and cements this choice through his portrayal of events from the perspective of the miners involved; a perspective that had previously been without a voice, overlooked by the authoritative versions of history as represented by the government and media in the 1980s. Thatcher’s strong associations with the police force led, throughout the decade to the representation of the strikes as mob violence whilst the miners themselves were portrayed as “the enemy within”, a stereotype that was lodged into social consciousness with the help of the media.4 The BBC news report on the 18th of June 1984 presented, as did other news corporations, the mounted police charge into the village of Orgreave as having occurred after escalations of violence by the picketers,5 a representation that has been contested by eyewitness accounts and one that is also contested by Deller in his re-enactment. He is careful to show the mounted police charge as occurring before any major escalations of picket violence, and in doing so aligns himself with the miners, thereby instilling his work with a clear political bias.

However it was not just a desire to retell history through the eyes of the undermined and defeated that drew Deller to this project, but a keen interest in the re-enactment societies whose help he enlisted.6 “Living history”, a term used to identify these re-enactments as a form of historical research and an educational way of accessing the past, held a fascination for Deller in terms of what it could encompass.  Re-enactment societies ordinarily confine themselves to recreating battles that sit comfortably within an established version of national history and those battles that are decisive in the establishment of a national identity. So in using a re-enactment society to re-create the battle of Orgreave, Deller is essentially inserting the battle into the lineage of decisive battles in English history and in doing so challenges the notion of what it is that makes a battle decisive. A term normally associated with victory, it is here used to describe the fate of the miners after the physical victory of the police on the battlefield which was synonymous with the defeat of the NUM and the ideological victory of Thatcher’s government.7 He was also interested in offering another form of “living history”, that is the inclusion of those who had actually lived through the original battle. In using both professional re-enactors as well as men who were part of that history being re-enacted, Deller introduced political context into the performance, something professional re-enactments are normally devoid of.  His inclusion of ex-miners and ex-policemen for whom the original confrontation was of incredible meaning and importance, also gave the performance an emotional intensity; reports of the re-staging and rehearsals leading up to it comment on the palpable tension and fear that the acting could veer towards real violence,8 an unusual edge that lends Deller’s work a level of authenticity not normally achieved in such events. It could also be argued that for those who had been present for the original confrontation and the consequent negative stereotyping by right-wing media that followed, Deller’s re-enactment provided them with the chance to express their distrust of the official truth and a chance for them to form their own narrative of it. This narrative has been given a lasting legacy in the form of the artists’ book The English Civil War Part II: Personal Accounts of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike which contains, amongst other things, essays and oral testimonies by individuals involved,9 forming a record of those people ordinarily excluded from official historical documents.

An alternative way of interpreting the re-enactment is to view the event as a type of cathartic exercise, as a way of coming to terms with something that we, as society, are powerless to change. In this view, the battle of Orgreave becomes a symbol for the wider destruction of old social bonds of working class Britain, set against a widespread sense of mourning for a bygone era of strong communities.10 Between 1960 and 1970 43% of Britain’s collieries closed and by 1978 a policy had been drafted proposing the denationalization of primary and secondary industries, statistics that demonstrate the abrupt loss of industry and identity experienced by thousands over the country.11 It could therefore be argued that by using not disinterested actors but ex-miners and policemen in the re-enactment, Deller sought to turn the personal traumatic experiences of the miners into an act of group therapy; combining the emotional experiences of a local community with the wider group consciousness of contemporary British culture, thereby reducing the political defeat of the miners to a public display of emotional catharsis.12 Looking at the re-enactment from this angle somewhat simplifies the project to a patronising and sentimental portrayal of working class Britain, replacing political content with a nostalgia for vernacular twentieth century culture. This celebration of twentieth century culture and its inclusion under the term heritage relates to a shift that occurred during the 1980s that saw the commodification of industry into cultural heritage as an attempt to mask and combat the rapid economic and social decline in Britain following the dismantling of heavy industries. With this in mind, Deller’s re-enactment could be accused of turning the ex-miners who were paid for their participation into cultural employees partaking in the commodification of their industry for economic benefit.13 Though this interpretation could be said to have some grounding in the fact the re-enactment did, undoubtedly have some sort of cathartic effect for the original participants, to heal the wounds and produce a therapeutic experience was not Deller’s intention. His original aim was to do the opposite; he likens his project to the re-staging of a crime to provoke thoughts and anger, demonstrating that although his piece does have a certain nostalgic quality to it- a quality that stems from such meticulous details as the “coal not dole” stickers, it is a multifaceted piece that explores historical memory and the politics of re-enactment practices, as well as providing a platform for miners to put their own narratives into the legacy of the battle.14

Hunger, the 2008 film by Steve McQueen is an artwork that, like Deller’s, responds to political events of the 1980s.  The film is a cinematic re-enactment of the 1981 hunger strike led by Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands at the Maze prison in an effort to regain special category status for all prisoners convicted of Troubles related offences. The status had been revoked by the British government five years previously sparking what were known as the blanket and dirty protests which formed part of a long campaign of passive resistance in which the prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms and smeared their excrement on the walls of their cells. The precedent for the 1981 hunger strike which is represented in the film was the first hunger strike by IRA members in 1980 which was called off after the British government appeared to concede to their demands. The realisation that these demands had not in fact been granted was the catalyst for the second strike which proved to be a stubborn showdown between Margaret Thatcher and the prisoners of the H Block.15

The film is structured into three parts though remains inside the prison except for a few brief scenes.  A claustrophobic atmosphere dominates throughout whilst much of its impact is produced by the forensic like detail and uncompromising prolonged camera shots which immerse the audience in this nightmarish vision.16 The historical context of the film is never directly spelt out bar a few brief excerpts of Thatcher’s voice playing between scenes which help to place the piece within a recognisable historical narrative. It relies on the audience possessing some prior knowledge of the political events surrounding what is being shown which has led many to view the film principally as a portrait of the icon, and the film’s protagonist Bobby Sands. Visual imagery in many of the scenes has religious connotation, particularly the motifs employed by McQueen that draw overt links between Sands and Christ, most notably in the third and final part of the film which depict Sands’ last days. The central focus is on his mutation into a corpse and the silent focus on his frailty and starvation has an almost spiritual quality, heightened by McQueen’s use of iconic imagery such as the Pieta, clearly referenced when Sands is carried from the bath by an orderly.17 The film’s focus on sensory experience can be said to do little to provoke readings that go beyond immediate visual and sentimental response, an observation that many have cited as one of the film’s major shortcomings.18 By giving Sands’ physical transformation such attention as McQueen ensures with an entire act dedicated to his decline, viewers are confronted with their own mortality which, though cinematically effective, does little to address and comment on the wider implications and reasons of what Sands was doing.  This heavily aestheticized approach has given way to readings of the film as having only tacit political concerns in which the wider national and international repercussions of the hunger strikes are overlooked.

Though Hunger is obviously related to political events in Ireland during the 1980s- it does, after all, take as it storyline an overtly political ideological struggle, McQueen refutes notions of it being a political piece, claiming that “for me, it’s essentially about what we , as humans, are capable of, morally, physically, psychologically. What we will inflict and what we can endure”.19 He recalls seeing footage of Sands on television as an eleven year old boy and was struck by what an individual is capable of doing in order to be heard. Even though McQueen denies political readings of it, he talks of how, though the hunger strike was one of the biggest political events in recent British history “it’s already forgotten over here (England), swept aside”,20 a comment that suggests McQueen may have been motivated to make the film, in part at least, because of a wish to re-instate the event into public consciousness, much like Deller aimed to do with Orgreave.  McQueen also claims that his film represents both sides of the Irish conflict, stating that he shows both what the prison guards did, but also what they went through.21 Though this is true to a certain extent with the inclusion of the murder of a prison guard by a member of the IRA, the film’s moments that evoke most sympathy from the audience are reserved for scenes which show the Republican prisoners being brutalised. Regardless of McQueen’s intentions to fairly present both sides of the conflict between prison guards and prisoners, the fact that audience sympathies lie with the Republican prisoners demonstrates the difficulties involved in attempting to give such an event neutral political treatment and represent it in terms of aesthetics.

The only media representation to come out of the Maze prison in the 1980s was a ninety second video clip of poor quality which was banned by the government shortly after filming, and one which thirty years later, is incredibly difficult to obtain.22 McQueen’s representation of events therefore becomes a surrogate for the real thing, placing a huge amount of pressure on the film to represent a full account of a controversial and largely undocumented part of history. Given this pressure, one could argue that McQueen’s film was always destined to fall short, especially as the artist himself openly admits to having “no answers to the bigger political questions”23 although the point does bring into question the responsibility of the artist. If there is an inbuilt responsibility in producing a film like Hunger that deals with such overtly difficult political themes, it can surely be argued that McQueen neglects this responsibility by reducing the political struggle and widespread violence that many saw as a war, to a myth like narrative of what “an individual is capable of doing just in order to be heard”.24 Having said this, McQueen’s work undoubtedly achieves what he as a filmmaker set out to do in terms of creating a piece that shows the audience what it was like to “see, hear, smell and touch inside the H-block”,25 and it is perhaps too much to burden a film intended for general release with expectations of it being able to fully and fairly represent the complexities of an intricate political history.

Because Deller’s and McQueen’s artistic projects are both taken from their childhood memories of political events from the 1980s, they can be superficially grouped together, although a more detailed examination of each shows they vary enormously in their aims. The English Civil War Part II is put forth openly by Deller as a counterpoint to the dominant narrative of history; his re-staging of the confrontation based on eyewitness accounts and recollections of miners presents a challenge to the authorities of government and media representation. The fact that his re-enactment involved roughly a thousand people places Deller’s work under Bourriaud’s notion of relational aesthetics, or socially interactive art, an idea reflected in the art policies of New Labour which saw art as a socially affirmative tool with which they sought to expunge the class divisions left by Thatcher’s government and promote community involvement.26 Though Deller’s piece seems initially to fit neatly into this framework of socially affirmative art, Deller is the first to point out the irony in New Labour’s funding of the re-enactment. The piece presents a moment of an old Labour struggle against the process of marketization undertaken by the Conservatives, a process which has been extended by the New Labour government, demonstrating a discrepancy between the subject of Deller’s work and the ideology of those funding it. Their policies also assume that the primary function of the arts is to confirm and reproduce dominant social ideals as part of a process to encourage a sense of mutual well-being, something Deller’s work absolutely does not do, it’s main aim being to re-write the representation of a part of history.27 However, this irony appears only to lie in the work’s subject matter; the rest of the piece does indeed promote the values advocated by the New Labour arts policy, particularly as a work that allows a community to “express their identity”.28 Despite Deller’s insistence that this piece was not intended as therapeutic, it is possible that it was given funding by the government in a kind of cathartic attempt to counter and heal the class divisions left by Thatcherism.

Hunger, effectively also a re-staging of a political struggle, differs hugely from Deller’s on almost all counts. McQueen’s motivations behind making the film appear relatively disconnected from politics; he uses the piece primarily as an arena for exploring human suffering rather than political comment. Neither is the film engaged with any form of social interactivity, although it is less elitist than a film made specifically for a gallery so is disseminated to a wider audience. One of the only substantial similarities between Deller and McQueen’s work is that they both bring largely overlooked political events of the past three decades back into public consciousness, but whereas Deller seeks to use artistic methods to make a political point, McQueen uses a political point in history as a stage onto which he can project his visions as a filmmaker.

Alison Lasenby, 2011

_______________________

1 J. Stallabrass, ‘Truth or Dare: The Political Turn in Contemporary British Art’, FT Magazine(December 23 2006), pp. 34-5

2 ArtAngel, Battle of Orgreave http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2001/the_battle_of_orgreave [accessed 26 November]

3 J. Deller, Introductory talk for screening of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ at Sussex University, 16th November 2011

4 A. Correia, ‘Interpreting Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave’  https://studydirect.sussex.ac.uk/file.php/13712/s5_1_.pdf [accessed 24 November] pp.95-96

5 BBC News, ‘On This Day 18th June 1984 video archive http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/nol/newsid_6560000/newsid_6568800/6568857.stm?bw=nb&mp=rm&news=1&bbcws=1 [accessed 18 November]

6 J. Deller, Introductory talk for screening of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’

7 J.J, Charlesworth, ‘Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave: Politics as Art Therapy’ http://www.jjcharlesworth.com/articles/orgreave.htm [accessed 26 November]

8 A. Farquharson, ‘Jeremy Deller; The Battle of Orgreave’, Frieze Magazine, September 2001  http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/jeremy_deller/ [accessed 26 November]

9 J. Deller, ‘The English Civil War Part II: Personal Accounts of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike’, Artangel, London, 2002

10 J.J, Charlesworth, ‘Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave: Politics as Art Therapy’

11 A. Correia, ‘Interpreting Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave’ p.95

12 J.J, Charlesworth, ‘Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave: Politics as Art Therapy’

13 A. Correia, ‘Interpreting Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave’ p.102

14 J. Deller, Introductory talk for screening of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’

15 BBC, Recent History ‘Northern Ireland: The Troubles’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/troubles/fact_files.shtml?ff=pp01#factfile [accessed 26 November]

16 R. Close, ‘The Great Hunger: (Re)Visions of Aesthetics and Politics in Irish Republicanism’:   http://ph-research.co.uk/?p=511 [accessed 20 November]

17 R. Close, ‘The Great Hunger: (Re)Visions of Aesthetics and Politics in Irish Republicanism’

18 M. Fusco, ‘Steve McQueen’s Hunger’, Art Monthly 320, October 2008, pp.37-38

19 S. O’Hagan, ‘McQueen and Country’, The Observer, 12/10/08 http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/oct/12/2 [accessed 20 November]

20 Ibid

21 Ibid

22 R. Close, ‘The Great Hunger: (Re)Visions of Aesthetics and Politics in Irish Republicanism’

23 S. O’Hagan, ‘McQueen and Country’

24 Ibid

25 M. Fusco, ‘Steve McQueen’s Hunger’

26 M. McKinnie, ‘A sympathy for art: the sentimental economics of New Labour Arts Policy’ in Deborah Lynn Steinberg and Richard Johnson (eds), Blairism and the War of Persuasion, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 188

27 Ibid

28 M. McKinnie, ‘A sympathy for art: the sentimental economics of New Labour Arts Policy’ in Deborah Lynn Steinberg and Richard Johnson (eds), Blairism and the War of Persuasion, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2004, p.192

Bibliography

BBC, Recent History ‘Northern Ireland: The Troubles’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/troubles/fact_files.shtml?ff=pp01#factfile [accessed 26 November]

BBC News, ‘On This Day 18th June 1984’ video archive http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/nol/newsid_6560000/newsid_6568800/6568857.stm?bw=nb&mp=rm&news=1&bbcws=1 [accessed 18 November]

‘Battle of Orgreave’ on ArtAngel.org.uk: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2001/the_battle_of_orgreave [accessed 26 November]

Charlesworth, J. J, ‘Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave: Politics as Art Therapy’ http://www.jjcharlesworth.com/articles/orgreave.htm [accessed 26 November]

Close, Ronnie, ‘The Great Hunger: (Re)Visions of Aesthetics and Politics in Irish Republicanism’:   http://ph-research.co.uk/?p=511 [accessed 20 November]

Correia, Alice, ‘Interpreting Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave’ https://studydirect.sussex.ac.uk/file.php/13712/s5_1_.pdf [accessed 24 November]

Deller, Jeremy, ‘The English Civil War Part II: Personal Accounts of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike’, Artangel, London, 2002

Deller, Jeremy, Introductory talk for screening of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ at Sussex University, 16th November 2011

Farquharson, Alex, ‘Jeremy Deller; The Battle of Orgreave’, September 2001  http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/jeremy_deller/ [accessed 26 November]

Fusco, Maria, ‘Steve McQueen’s Hunger’, Art Monthly 320, October 2008, pp.37-38

McKinnie, Michael, ‘A sympathy for art: the sentimental economics of New Labour Arts Policy’ in Deborah Lynn Steinberg and Richard Johnson (eds), Blairism and the War of Persuasion, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 186-203

O’Hagan, Sean, ‘McQueen and Country’, The Observer, 12/10/08 http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/oct/12/2 [accessed 20 November]

Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Truth or Dare: The Political Turn in Contemporary British Art’, FT Magazine (December 23 2006), pp. 34-5

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