What's On

Your guide to everything in North East

Review: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle

An exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery shows how our lives were shaped by the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution

Dennis Hutchinson/ Hayward Touring Exhibition Adrian Street and his father, 1973
Adrian Street and his father, 1973

You might wonder what theme links a famous painting by John Martin, a documentary film about miner-turned wrestler Adrian Street and the family trees of rock stars Bryan Ferry, Noddy Holder and Shaun Ryder.

All appear in the latest major exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, in Newcastle, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

Perhaps the most important link is Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist.

Described as “an assembler of things and a stager of events”, he acted as curator in this instance, putting together a touring exhibition for the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank.

All these assembled artefacts result from his “personal journey through the Industrial Revolution”, investigating “what remains in the present day from this crucial period in British history, from our relationship to technology to the regimentation of time”.

With Deller as guide, it’s an exhilarating journey – not staid, as you might expect of a traditional museum exhibition, but touching and whimsical.

The title of the exhibition comes from the Communist Manifesto. Capitalism, it says, relies on constant expansion and reinvention.

Arguably this process is pesonified by Adrian Street who left the pits of Wales in the 1950s as a disgruntled teenager with the jeers of his workmates (and his dad) ringing in his ears and returned in triumph, a glammed up wrestler and TV personality.

A huge photo of Street with caged, black-faced miners is plastered over a wall at the entrance to the gallery and Deller’s documentary film, flanked by a pair of his flamboyant ring costumes, enables the man – still muscular in retirement – to give vent to his feelings about the industry and the people he left behind.

Contrasts between the hard grind of labour and the popular culture it spawned are everywhere in the exhibition.

Street has plenty of time to talk about his escape from drudgery. The rock star family trees show that some of the most colourful frontmen of recent decades came from families with deep working class roots.

Noddy Holder, singer, we learn, comes from a paternal line featuring a haulier, a stamper in a buckle factory, a gardener and an agricultural labourer.

A 1979 album sleeve by Judas Priest comes with the assertion that heavy metal bands “offered a new form of masculinity to the de-industrialised youth of the UK”.

The point is made in Deller’s own film from which the title of the whole exhibition is taken. Archive film of a steelworks – the heaviest industry you can image – is given a heavy metal soundtrack courtesy of Saxon’s pounding 1980 hit, Wheels of Steel.

On the same film, schoolchildren and adults on zero-hour contracts read accounts of 19th Century working conditions. Nearby sits a mighty clock-like machine, a day register which once was used to clock people on and off their shifts.

The message in many of the assembled items is that people during the Industrial Revolution were slaves to time and some people still are (we are invited to consider an Amazon warehouse as the 21st Century version of the steel or cotton mill of the Victorian age).

From South Wales, there are photographs of female iron workers from the 1860s and rare paintings on linen of factory workers from the 1830s.

There’s a jukebox with a choice of industrial sounds such as pitmen riding to the coalface, a mill hooter and the sound of quarrymen singing as they hew stone.

Key to it all, though, and the first thing you see as you enter, is John Martin’s painting of 1852, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Heavy metal fans would thrill to Martin’s depiction of the fiery flames of hell but many won’t know that the North East-born painter (this painting belongs to the Laing) campaigned long and hard for a sewerage system to take waste and the threat of disease away from London’s city streets.

During his lifetime he was ridiculed for his efforts but this dramatic painting was created two years after a cholera epidemic that killed thousands. In depicting Armageddon so vividly in his art, was he creating a wake-up call or venting his frustration?

It is one of many questions that linger as you leave this absorbing and entertaining exhibition which runs at the Laing Art Gallery until October 26.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer