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Jeremy Deller: Joy in People – review

Hayward Gallery; Trafalgar Square, London

You enter through the teenage bedroom and are instantly back to the 1980s. Arthur Scargill pronounces from the posters, Lord Sutch is still alive and screaming, Jeffrey Archer is foolishly suing the Star. The life cycle of Keith Moon is lovingly recorded in black-and-white paintings, and above the Polaroids of party-goers, their faces faded to featureless moons, a parental voice recedes in trailing letters: "You Treat This Place Like a Hotel".

It's personal and it's universal, Jeremy Deller's reconstructed bedroom. Bands we saw, days we lived, frustrations we endured ("We may not have girlfriends, but we know how to have a good time," reads the caption to a shot of schoolboys towering up the empties.) Outside, a girl sits reading beneath a high, dark wall: "I ♥ Melancholy" is lettered in scintillating gloss on matt, getting the thrill of teenage angst down to perfection; painting it black, immense.

Personal and universal is exactly Deller's range, though it is extremely rare for the person in question to be himself. He is probably better known for The Battle of Orgreave, a restaging of the worst conflict of the 1984 miners' strike from multiple viewpoints that united two strands of English culture – trade unionists and civil war re-enactors – than for winning the 2004 Turner prize, and certainly better known for raising voices other than his own.

In this generous and deeply absorbing retrospective, for instance, you will hear from German gardeners, Yorkshire policemen, Welsh wrestlers, Iraqi writers and male fans of Depeche Mode running into trouble across the world for going about in eyeliner.

In Texas, Deller listens to Quaker peaceniks, George Bush extremists, the Waco survivor moved to the mild comment that they really shouldn't have used that CS gas. In Mexico he encourages children to interview bureaucrats with tragicomic results.

In addition to the many films are relics of street parades he's organised from Manchester to San Sebastián – glorious banners embroidered with eccentric slogans, songs written for the occasion, an exact replica of Valerie's caff in Bolton, serving the best bacon butties in the world. You can drink Valerie's brew; you can stamp your own slogans with an embossing machine, look at the extremes of London life through old 3D Viewmasters (don't miss the day they took a crowbar to Asprey), or lounge about reading the Hutton report and Dostoevsky.

Liberty Hall is the ethos, with an underlying sense that visitors are themselves taking part in some democratic public event. To adapt a Shakespearean question that Deller is fond of: what is the exhibition but the people?

When he won the Turner prize, people were still asking whether Deller was an artist at all if he couldn't sculpt, paint or draw. His material is drawn straight from the life around him, from people's experiences, from conversation, from history almost as it happens. He is an enabler, intermediary and maker of connections, a producer, collaborator and activist. He has expanded the traditional idea of how an artist may work.

But Deller is now in his mid-40s and as time passes his approach looks less nonconformist – this show has paintings, films, installations and photographs, albeit some of them the visual testimony of past happenings – especially as the material passes into social or political history.

An ephemeral exhibition – one day only – in Norwich in 1994 which borrowed its title from Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy consisted entirely of work made by fans of the Manic Street Preachers who had drawn, painted and written their homages, described their responses, presented the books the band had inspired them to read. Deller commissioned them in admiration – a fan of the fans – but also to show a tiny alternative education system in the making. It looks more poignant than ever in these low-literacy days.

There are memorials (and commemorations of memorials, to Brian Epstein and Princess Diana). There are newspapers, public records, oral histories and parliamentary transcripts for the furthering of knowledge. Everything is connected by culture, by badges, films and music and by words found on walls, in novels, on placards. "Let London Breathe". "There is More to Life Than Increasing Its Speed". Anyone who saw that maxim from Gandhi on the London Underground two years ago will have felt the frisson, particularly at rush hour. If there is a connecting aesthetic in Deller's ceaseless variety of media it is his eye for epigram and context. It is there in the bedroom – "Suburbia" embroidered across the Union Jack – and in the "I ♥Joyriding" sticker fixed by night to a police car, doubling the double entendre.

And it is there in the most affecting gallery in this show, which contains the wreckage of a car bombed in Baghdad. A mangled hump of scorched metal, its doors and exhaust pipe only just discernible, the seats long since melted away, it is irreducibly shocking: 38 people died in the attack. The car was brought here from the Imperial War museum. Set something in a new context and perhaps it will mean more, inspire new reactions, different thoughts: that is at least one of Deller's methods. But many artists work that way.

In the accompanying film, Deller goes much further, ferrying an Iraqi artist and an American reservist from New York to LA with this grave relic to discover how people feel on seeing it. The Iraqi is a man of saintly patience, forced to make all kinds of compromises just to get round to discussing Iraq; the American is repeatedly challenged. The subtlety of the interviews – all given equal length and emphasis – belongs to Deller. It Is What It Is – that's the title: the inane tautology of our times applied to devastating effect.

It is quite a stretch from teenage kicks to Baghdad, and to the show's final film, a bat cave with the critters streaming towards you in 3D twilight. But the spectacle turns to beauty in the end, and a mutual sense of audience excitement. By this stage, you and your fellow visitors have been moving, thinking, talking and exploring for long enough to become a kind of community in yourselves. Which is what this show is all about, in its energetic and open-minded way: expanding our sense of society.

In Trafalgar Square, the bottled ship has disembarked and a golden lad now rides the Fourth Plinth on his golden rocking horse; except that there is no sense of suspended animation. The boy is static, anonymous, generic: a euro-child in shorts on an Ikea flat-pack toy. One hand waving free, he is too cute to be heroic any more than the statue is equestrian – which is, of course, partly the point.

Elmgreen and Dragset, the Scandinavian art duo whose plaything this is, have made many acute think-pieces in the past. They have a knack for installations that turn the passing visitor into an unwitting performer on a stage; like Deller, they have strongly democratic interests. Noting that the plinth was originally designed for an equestrian statue of William IV, they have raised their little commoner to the equivalent level and scale. The boy's innocence becomes heroic, his horse has nothing to do with monarchy or war.

That is the implication, at least. But the statue is not subtle enough to embody these ideas. Brightly shining (though from a certain angle it disappears against the yellow backdrop of Canada House) and undeniably winsome, it lacks any tipping point or purchase. The casting process is cumbersome and the bronze looks plastic. Instead of elevating a child, the artists have produced a great big toy. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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