Majoring and minering in theater

'The World as a Stage' at the ICA
By GREG COOK  |  February 5, 2008
BRING POPCORN: Jeremy Deller’s video is well worth the hour-long viewing time.

“The World as a Stage” Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave, Boston | Through April 27
Imported from London’s Tate Modern, where it premiered last fall, the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new “The World As a Stage” has one terrific piece: London artist and 2004 Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller’s infrequently seen 2001 video The Battle of Orgreave, which documents his large-scale re-enactment of an infamous clash during a British miners’ strike. The re-enactment is part community therapy, part exorcism; the resulting video is tense and visceral and heartbreaking.

It’s also an hour long. I know it’s difficult to devote that much time to a single video in a small uncomfortable museum gallery, but here’s how to do it: bring a pillow, sneak in popcorn, and skip the rest of the show.

The Battle of Orgreave begins with jarring, close-up, re-enactment footage of miners grappling with police in riot gear, then shifts to a peaceful meeting hall where a coordinator prepares a room full of men to re-create the 1984 incident. The 2001 re-enactment involved hundreds of performers, among them former miners who participated in the original strike and their families. Part of the drama is the question of what might happen when you bring hundreds of people together and churn up their really bad memories. “If you’re watching this, Mrs. Thatcher,” one former miner says, “thank you for the future of my children.”

In 1984, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government sparked a strike by union miners of the state-run coal industry by announcing plans to close 20 pits and eliminate 20,000 jobs. Conservatives argued that the industry was unprofitable and productivity low and that the miners made irresponsible wage demands. Deller’s sympathies are with the miners. His video argues that the Thatcher government deployed cruel tactics to break the rival political power of the unions.

Several thousand striking miners showed up at Orgreave in South Yorkshire one June day in 1984 to stop trucks from bringing coal from a processing plant there to steel factories. Thousands of police officers came to stop the miners. It turned into a brawl. The miners were routed; eventually they lost the strike, as well. The mines closed, and that devastated many of the communities around them. Watching the re-enactment with knowledge of the outcome, it’s still hard not to hope that the miners will win, that somehow history can be rerouted, that it all might go better for them this time around.

Re-enactment of great moments in lefty history has become a bit of a trend in art. Providence’s Mark Tribe restaged a 1971 Howard Zinn anti–Vietnam War speech on Boston Common last July. In 2004, John Malpede re-enacted Robert Kennedy’s famed 1968 tour of poor Kentucky communities. Deller’s film is one of the best of the bunch. It’s closer in power and polish to Paul Greengrass’s 2002 vérité-style film Bloody Sunday, a re-creation of the infamous 1972 Derry massacre of Irish protesters by British soldiers.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Robert F. Kennedy, Visual Arts, Institute of Contemporary Art,  More more >
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