Paul Reas. Flogging a Dead Horse (1989-93)
The Hyman Collection of British Photography includes the complete series, Flogging a Dead Horse, as published in 1993.
Flogging a Dead Horse presents a nationwide survey of the emergence of the 'heritage industry': museums and theme parks such as Beamish Open Air Museum that offered a nostalgic and often commercialised version of the past in the wake of the collapse of heavy manufacturing and industry.
The title of this work takes it name from a colloquial term which literally means a pointless exercise, and in this context also "implies the wholesale marketing of a dead, redundant and often moribund past".
This self-initiated project grew out of Paul Reas' personal interest to document the way places that had previously been working industrial sites were being closed down and transformed into museums and theme parks. It is his response to the 'heritage industry' that in his opinion presented a cynical rewriting of the past, with history over simplified and heavily sanitised. These photographs represent: "heritage as a branch of the leisure industrybitter and ironic rebuke to those who are appropriating working class history. with all its hardshipsmaking it into entertainment".
Flogging a Dead Horse, Reas' second book was published by Cornerhouse in 1993. A selection of these photographs were first exhibition in the group exhibition Heritage, Image + History at Impressions Gallery, 1990.
In a review in The Independent newspaper, Tom Lubbock wrote of Paul Reas's "scathing photo-essay on the Heritage Industry", declaring:
"The range is wide, taking in such established spectacles as Horseguard's Parade and the Tower of London, or trips to Bronte and Hardy country. His eye is particularly on the reconstruction of labour history: old mills and mines, now manned by mannikins, or robots, or human beings, and resurrected into quaintness with neatly kitted-out pit ponies. Reas travelled round these sites - which are of course designed for the visitor's camera - as an anti-tourist, looking for the gaps in these charades with their jarring fantasies of time travel
The pictures dwell on the spectator as much as the spectacle, on the strained juxtapositions of olde and new, of leisure and labour which these occasions produce. Visitors stand before a famous view in Constable Country, in evident perplexity as to what sort of experience they're meant to be having. Meanwhile, at the Big Pit Mining Museum in South Wales, a family tries to participate in the mining experience with helmets, lamps and picks, and a child in a Loadsamoney T-shirt holds up a huge lump of polystyrene coal, its blacking now badly chipped.
Reas says: 'The scary thing is, the history is getting closer'. Or rather, almost anything can be 'heritaged', and the more recent it is, the more perfect the 'experience' it can become. An industry closes down. It then re-opens, only slightly changed, as a living re-enactment of what it was. If you want to believe the gospel according to Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, that the world is rapidly turning into a representation of itself, look to the Heritage industry."
Tom Lubbock, "The Broader Picture / The vision thing", The Independent, 24 April 1993.
British Photography / The Hyman Collection