In this essay I shall interpret The Battle of Orgreave, a 2001 re-enactment by Jeremy Deller of the violent fighting which occurred at Orgreave in South Yorkshire in 1984 between the striking miners and the police as a conclusion of more than an year-long confrontation, and consider the form and context of the piece, and its relation to time and place.
The video excerpts make for an emotionally strong experience: the rapidly alternating points of view from the streetside to the advancing then fleeing miners, from behind the policemen screens to the horseback charging, and to the men brutally hit to the ground – the jerky movements of the camera – the rhythmic obsessive sounds – all these elements produce a poignant feeling of physical involvement. But while reliving those events as if they were just happening it is of course impossible to ignore that that very day the battle was lost forever, that mistakes cannot be repaired and that there is no playback in history (The Battle 1, 2).
It is a constant time shift perception, a continuous moving back and forward from 1984 to 2001 and vice versa, combined with a sense of displacement: Orgreave is a real place, where events are restaged and relived and contemporarily a place remembered and changed forever, as shown by the black and white still frames of the 1984 clashes punctuating the film. The effect is that of a compelling seesaw in time and place which I believe well translates Deller’s original idea of ‘confronting something and not being afraid of looking at it again’ (The Battle, 3): we stay where we are and from here reassess the past and ‘relive one of the greatest symbolic moments of modern industrial struggle’ (Wainwright, 2001). This combination of proximity and detachment, closeness and distance is a powerful tool to gain a refreshed perspective.
The re-enactment was at the core of Deller’s project (Deller, 2002), and this choice made it part of the glorious popular tradition of historical re-enactments and gave to that fight the symbolic status of a crucial historical event – the term chosen, ‘battle’, is very significant in this respect. Furthermore the historical film as a medium is a well-known form that most people can easily connect to and get involved with. So it seems a perfectly suited vehicle for an ambitious community art project like this.
It is interesting how the artist, in a very contemporary way, freely chooses the media that he thinks most suitable to serve his purposes, without discriminating between high or low. The re-enactment is also a form of participatory art or live performance of Futurist and Dada descent, which directly engages the public into its making. During the re-enactement of The Battle of Orgreave the participants and the viewers alike may have relived feelings of anger and pride, of belonging and awareness, and possibly found a new sense of personal and local identity.
I noticed as I was viewing the film (The Battle, 3) that the players’ reactions were mixed, at times the veterans seemed flooded with vivid emotions and turned almost aggressively – as if in a flashback – against the re-enacters. At other times they remained in the present and joked and made games as in a festive gathering. It looks as if the players were experiencing the time shift perception and displacement I mentioned before. Interestingly some old miners played the policemen and the policemen the miners, exchanging roles and perhaps liberating past negative emotions as a result, according to the cathartic theory of Aristotle in the Poetics.
The site- and time-specific re-enactment of 2001, which required two years of research and preparation (Artangel, 2001), was the pivotal event around which all the project of The Battle of Orgreave was born, but it also included other significant elements – the film and the installation – that allow it to live beyond that place and day and reach a greater audience without which that intense collective experience would have been short-lived and limited in action. The film effectively combines dramatic shootings of the re-enactement, original images from 1984, interviews with the people involved, while the installation at The Tate adds additional social and political context in the form of documents and texts of the time, videos, objects, notes and research materials (The Tate, 2001).
The combination of several elements and media creates a complex experience that being site- and time-specific is a form of ephemeral art, but also relivable and reproducible. Art and life are interwoven in uninhibited ways and the message is unequivocally social and political as reads the subtitle of the exhibition at The Tate: ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. Orgreave is made a place of collective defeat, and ‘place is always political’ (Dean and Millar, p. 105).’But is it art?’ asks Jones in The Guardian answering that ‘the Battle of Orgreave is art of a surprisingly traditional kind … is a history painting’ (Jones, 2001). Though if it’s true that like all historical paintings it depicts an event of the past that cannot be changed and so to say puts it at rest forever, Deller’s intention however was the opposite: ‘I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem …’ (The Battle, 1) and I believe that his intention was successfully realized.
This far-reaching project is not an unicum in Deller’s work. He has often cooperated with groups of people in artpieces which make a combined use of videos, images, texts, music and sounds in installations dealing with political and social issues as collective memories, folk art, pop culture, community identity particularly within the British society but relevant also to the contemporary themes of globalization. After treating popular British culture in Folk Archive (2005), at the Venice Biennale in 2013 he refocused on past and present British society in English Magic, and again in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2014) he explored the influence of the Industrial Revolution, while in Do Touch (2015) the artist disseminated historical objects in contemporary public spaces.
In an interview (Artreview, 2013), Deller declares his deep interest for people, cultures and history and I think that with his art he successfully raises public awareness on these issues.
1 – The Battle of Orgreave (2001) Directed by Jeremy Deller, footage by Mike Figgis At: http://www.jeremydeller.org/TheBattleOfOrgreave/TheBattleOfOrgreave.php (Accessed 10/10/16)
2 – The Battle of Orgreave (2001) Directed by Jeremy Deller, footage by Mike Figgis At: https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/the-battle-of-orgreave/ (Accessed 10/10/16)
3 – The Battle of Orgreave (2001) Directed by Jeremy Deller, footage by Mike Figgis [documentary film] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ncrWxnxLjg (Accessed 11/10/16)
Wainwright, Martin (2001) Strikers relive battle of Orgreave [online] in The Guardian At: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2001/jun/19/artsfeatures (Accessed 11/10/16)
Deller, Jeremy (2002) The English Civil War: Part II [online] At: https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/the-battle-of-orgreave/ (Accessed 12/10/16)
Artangel, The Battle of Artangel project, 2001 At: https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/the-battle-of-orgreave/ (Accessed 15/10/16)
The Tate, Deller, Jeremy The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/deller-the-battle-of-orgreave-archive-an-injury-to-one-is-an-injury-to-all-t12185 (Accessed 18/10/16)
Rappolt, Mark (2013) Interview with Jeremy Deller [online] in ArtReview At: https://artreview.com/features/feature_jeremy_deller_venice_interview/ (Accessed 19/10/16)