All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is an art show largely without art (at Manchester Art Gallery until 19 January 2014, then touring). No matter: Jeremy Deller, the curator, has found some surprising knick-knacks to illustrate how the Industrial Revolution has influenced popular culture. For instance, he plays rediscovered factory songs on a gloriously lurid jukebox. They are similar to Negro spirituals; but, while spirituals inspired R&B, our industrial folk music has descendants in heavy metal and rock. Deller charts this lineage by displaying the family trees of Noddy Holder and Bryan Ferry, reaching back to the 1790s.
Continuity through time is Deller’s chief preoccupation. He stands a double dial clock of 1810 (one dial showing the real time, the other ‘mill time’ measured by a turbine’s revolutions) beside a digital watch that monitors the efficiency of modern factory employees. He also displays a marching banner against zero hours contracts. This isn’t social history, but a call to arms.
As with any personal selection, there are sins of omission. The worst is the absence of mill owners from the account, though there are a few engravings and aquatints of mills and mines, such as ‘Salt Mine, Cheshire’, 1814, above. Manchester is dotted with magnificent public buildings funded in part by industrialists. Cross the Pennines and you come to Saltaire, a town built by the Leeds clothier Sir Titus Salt. Philanthropic trusts remain a feature of modern Britain. Deller’s neglect of these positive contributions leaves this fascinating and funny show incomplete