Masculinity is at the core of Gary Clarke’s best work: from “Bagofti” which used masks to distort through Francis Bacon’s violent triptychs, to the surreal, dreamlike “2 Men and A Michael” and “Horsemeat,” his is an iconoclastic approach to the representation of modern men. So it is with “Wasteland,” the follow-up to his award-winning “Coal.” “Wasteland” interrogates the effects of the closure of mines (in this instance, the Grimethorpe Colliery) on the local working-class male community, and the galvanising influence of rave culture on the younger lads. Using film footage, video work from Charles Webber and live vocals from local men with links to the local mining community, it’s a real labour of love from Clarke, and stridently political.
As the Last Miner, Alistair Goldsmith, pale and lean and spent-looking, performs a balletic solo riddled with self-harm. He flails around, contorts, claws at his chest. His elegant extensions are at first impressive, becoming smaller and smaller until he collapses: it’s symbolic of the sense of his own emasculation; the feeling of abject worthessness in the face of losing his job at the pit. A reason to get up every day, having a purpose for living, has been replaced with impotent rage and sorrow, and the need to self-medicate through drink.
It’s as heart-rending as it is brutal. He picks a fight with his son, the Boy (Tom Davis Dunn) until he is knocked out flat, and scooped up into his arms like a small child—the older generation, once so robust, is now rendered weak and vulnerable. Now the Boy, performing a writhing, popping solo to the KLF on a mattress, has discovered acid house and techno, and it’s his way of cutting loose from the poverty and desperation of his surroundings. Raving is his raison d’etre, something to live for. Now, he is part of a collective, something bigger than himself.
The generation gap is made implicit: the Last Miner is slumped in a near catatonic state in front of his television to one side of the stage, as a group of kids, once running amok with shopping trolleys and bikes, set up podiums and decks for a warehouse party on the opposite side.
The music is of course brilliant. Heads nod as one to the pulse of Charles Webber’s pumping techno score, and there are almost gospel like exaltations in the ravers as the pulverising music intensifies and they reach for the lasers, arms outstretched. But the cliches of “big fish, little fish” and “cardboard box” (where ravers did dodgy moves involving stretching arms out and chopping the air) are thankfully eschewed for Clarke’s more complex routines, a stew of wild styles. Even Tchaikovsky is declared a “chooooon”!
There is street dance, freestyling and even some Northern Soul type kicks and shuffles on the floor. A cheeky reference is made to Happy Mondays miscreant Bez, though, as one young dancer does a baggy, loose solo with maracas. There is always one willing to emulate his hero.
As the police set in, Jimmy Cauty’s riot shields have smiley faces; this is of course alluding to Smiley Culture—the face of ecstasy made iconic in the face of authoritarian brutality, as the government’s Criminal Justice bill sought to shut down music events throughout Britain, particularly when featuring dance music with repetitive beats.
“Wasteland” is at once an elegy and a cry for freedom, a paean to “The Jilted Generation,” as The Prodigy called it. It’s furious, moving and a warning from the past to the present, that we don’t lose sight of industry and become so focused on the individual that community itself becomes an anachronism. Dance is a way of bringing people together, and club culture itself was the great leveller when hope seemed lost. Clarke himself states that rave was one of the ways he himself found an inroad to dance.