But it’s not just the distant past that the artist has drawn on for inspiration. A work for which the 2004 Turner Prize winner first became more widely known is The Battle of Orgreave (2001). This involved a re-enactment of the bitter 1984 conflict between police and striking miners: a violent culmination of a decades’ long ideological battle between successive governments and the British trades union movement.
It was in his late teens that Deller first saw news footage of the brutal events of June 18th 1984 and remembered thinking ‘There’s something seriously wrong with this country if this is what we have to do to people.’
Nearly a 1000 folk took part in Deller’s reenactment. And the work is as much about the participants – some were miners or related to miners present at the original fracas – as it is a prompt to considering what happened subsequently. A coming together of people who’d lived through recent history yes but hardly cathartic, more like (ironically) a police reconstruction of events relevant to a serious crime.
Deller challenges buried histories, brings unresolved issues to light, this is no exercise in healing but rather confronting something unresolved, bringing it back into discussion. Reminding us of the trauma of individuals, families and communities affected. ‘There’s no way you can recreate a 20,000 person riot but you can resurrect a version of it,’ explained the artist. It opened up wounds that have been sunk by subsequent shifts in ideology. But there’s also humour, a comedic absurdity as well as the very serious intent to challenge establishment cant.
In Mike Figgis’ film about Deller’s reenactment Tony Benn revealed how the BBC has always been a tool of the state. Journalists’ footage of the battle near Orgreave coking plant showed that miners threw rocks only after a police ‘cavalry’ charge. When it was aired on television events had been edited, turned around to suggest it was miners who struck first. The BBC later claimed that the re-constructed truth (a lie) was an inadvertent mistake. Something not dissimilar appears to be happening with some of the current election campaign coverage.
So much contemporary, socially engaged art wants ‘the world to be a better place’ but Deller is neither confident in nor satisfied by such a pat answers. While emphatically oppositional the artist is never didactic, thereby avoiding the straitjacket of some politically inclined artworks. Instead, through what’s been termed his ‘curation of the improbable’ Deller opens up and encourages debate, invites multiple viewpoints.
Admittedly the artist’s practice sees him introducing what by his own admission are sometimes quite blunt instruments into the public domain. Deller wants to rile people, get them angry, to challenge how things stand and through a bringing together of disparate points of view and the people who hold them have a tangible social impact. The artists’ role in society is s/he’s ‘always a bit of a troublemaker. They fight with ideas and imagery […] of course there’s artists who make beautiful things and that’s fine but that’s not where my focus is.’