Jeremy Deller, Open Bedroom, 1993, mixed media. Installation view, 2012. Photo: Linda Nylind.

Jeremy Deller, Open Bedroom, 1993, mixed media. Installation view, 2012. Photo: Linda Nylind.

Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, Open Bedroom, 1993, mixed media. Installation view, 2012. Photo: Linda Nylind.

THIS RETROSPECTIVE presented a formidable challenge: How to organize a show of an artist who has defined his practice precisely by working outside the white cube? The problem of institutionalization is hardly uncommon, of course—artists who work site-specifically confront similar challenges—but Jeremy Deller’s profound social engagement raises the stakes. With its conventional approach, however, the Hayward Gallery exhibition skates over the contradictions: It focuses on Deller’s commemoration of folkish creativity (the show is titled “Joy in People”) but invites aesthetic appreciation from an urban cosmopolitan audience; it celebrates the lowbrow, but with its ten-pound admission fee, the gallery depends on viewers with disposable income and leisure time; it features collaborative projects but assembles their documentation in a monographic survey, reifying a singular artistic identity.

Viewers first enter Open Bedroom, 1993, a re-creation of an exhibition Deller set up in his childhood home (where he lived at the time) while his parents were away. Printed T-shirts, rock posters, and photographs of friends line a low-ceilinged and carpeted room, while a TV near a bed in a corner plays a low-tech video documenting the dangerous pleasures of joyriding. If the piece prefigures Deller’s later investigations of the pop- and subcultural, it is provocative mostly in that it recalls the audacity of the original show; indeed, the reconstruction presents Deller as an installation artist without the ability of a Mike Nelson or a Ryan Gander—or indeed, of Deller himself—to produce mysteriously compelling spaces.

After a few more early works—including The Uses of Literacy, 1997, a collaborative project with fans of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers, and Jerusalem, 1993, a short film about popular pageantry and protests in London—the show leaps forward to Beyond the White Walls, 2012, a slide show of documentary images of past projects with witty voice-over descriptions of their real-life context and motivations, which directly address the conflict at the heart of the show: Deller’s narrations bring out aspects of the work that the exhibition simply can’t access or reproduce otherwise. For instance, the original iteration of Valerie’s Snack Bar, 2009, was an impressive reconstruction of a local café from the Bury Market in Manchester, UK, which Deller presented on a float for the city’s International Festival parade. At the Hayward, the small structure is surrounded by handmade banners (crafted by Ed Hall), the increasingly uncommon kind carried by union members in British demonstrations, and one could squeeze into a small plastic chair and enjoy a cup of free tea served by volunteers. While it was clear that the original presentation unleashed surprise and celebrated the singularity of its local context and clientele, the reinstallation loses its charge and appears as reductive participatory art.

The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One Is an Injury to All), 2001, comprising an archive and a documentary, occupies the two subsequent galleries. The piece represents Deller’s best-known project: a thousand-person reenactment of the infamous 1984 British miners’ strike, that emblem of the early Thatcher years, when the Tories set out to break the unions and privatize industry. A time line of events interspersed with printed and audio materials and ephemera from the brutal operation offers a historical account of the confrontation. The film, made by Mike Figgis, carefully contextualizes and documents Deller’s mass staging, in which some of the original strikers and police intriguingly switched sides for the reenactment. Interviews show this history as an open wound, with Deller’s event providing a means to address the trauma and take the first steps to repair still-existing community ruptures. Going beyond social work, however, the form of reenactment instilled an aesthetic complexity drawing on participatory agency, historical consciousness, and psychological depth. The work is one of the best examples of socially engaged art of the past decade, and here the documentary successfully situates the event.

For It Is What It Is, 2009, Deller toured the United States in an RV towing the remains of a car that had been destroyed by a bomb in a Baghdad marketplace on March 5, 2007—what the artist calls “a conversation piece from hell.” The mangled hunk of metal appears near the end of the show, next to a few chairs and a coffee table, along with videos of the often fascinating conversations that the artist—along with an Iraqi citizen and a veteran US soldier who accompanied him on the road trip—held with diverse people on the streets of places such as Houston and Santa Fe. The design for another work featuring an exploded car from Iraq, a project for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, appears in a final section of the show called “My Failures,” presenting unrealized proposals that would have challenged the politics of public space. Within the white walls and enclosed space of the Hayward, however, Deller’s collaborative and site-specific principles struggle under the burden of their context.

Travels to Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, Brussels, June 1–Aug. 19; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Sept. 19–Dec. 30; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Feb.–Apr. 2013.

T. J. Demos is a reader in the department of art history, University College London.