Jeremy Deller is
an artist who gets down with the people, wherever he happens to be. Based
in Britain, where he has created artworks with coal miners (The Battle
of Orgreave, 2001), marching bands (Acid Brass, 1997), and Manic Street
Preachers fans (The Uses of Literacy, 1997), Jeremy Deller spent much
of the past year in residency at the CCAC Wattis Institute in San Francisco.
The result of his stay is an unlikely art project: an unorthodox (though
usable) guidebook to the once Golden State. After the Gold Rush is a ninety-six-page
collection of maps, history (penned by Matthew Coolidge of the Center
for Land Use Interpretation), interviews, photographs, drawings, and an
audio CD (which includes, among other things, songs featuring Irish banjo
player William Whitmore). Jeremy Deller taps into more than a hundred
years of California history, from nineteenth-century miner mania to post-dot-corn
doldrums, but it's the things that never went away--rural California's
status as a haven for outsiders and its seemingly incongruou s conservative
political history--that animate his wry European perspective on dusty
desert highways, roadside museums, even a prison gift shop.
Jeremy Deller used his honorarium to buy a beat-up Jeep (in which he scoured
the back roads) and five acres of land ($2,000 at auction) in the beleaguered
nine-church, one-bar town of Trona, California, staking a presumably enduring
claim on the West Coast. There's no ocean view, however; Deller's homestead
is a barren slice of the Mojave Desert.
Inspired in part by the lucid muckraking spirit of Eric Schlosser's Fast
Food Nation, Jeremy Deller's guidebook points out revealing landmarks
and minor tourist attractions--a mini-museum devoted to burlesque, for
example--that have deep, sometimes insidious cultural meanings (like the
seemingly ubiquitous correctional facilities along the highway) and, as
it happens, house individuals who carry the torch of some vanishing belief
system. On his trips, Jeremy Deller got out of the car and met folks--former
Black Panthers, aging strippers, political exiles. "I listened to
these characters for hours, drinking it in," he enthused in a conversation
about the project. "You forget a landscape, but you don't forget
I came to
America on September 9, 2001, for a residency. I didn't want to produce
an exhibition but something more involved with California. I wanted to
go out and discover things about the state and in some small way test
the level of the culture.
I made a lot of trips to the desert. Because I'm European, it's something
I didn't know anything about. Death Valley exceeds your expectations.
Even if you've seen it in films, the experience is actually shocking--so
I decided to do something about the land in California.
I bought a plot of land because I figured if I were going to spend a year
in America, I might as well own a piece of the country. It's the idea
of coming to the West where everyone wants to own a piece of land. I bought
mine at an auction, which was a very old-fashioned event--like a religious
revival meeting revolving around money and land. The first bit of audio
on the CD is me buying the property. The clip is only about forty-five
seconds long, but it gives you a sense of the experience. It's like an
art installation, with a slide show of the acreage and all these quotations
from people like Mark Twain about how land is the best thing ever.
The idea of creating a guidebook came to me after talking to a friend
about treasure hunts, an element I've incorporated into the book in a
low-key way, and it dovetails nicely with the idea of the gold rush. A
guidebook is a convenient vehicle with which to tell a story and connect
disparate elements, and there's an interactive, even performative aspect
to it, with readers acting out the journey in their own way. The book
is more about the people than the places. It's literally a tour of people:
You can meet the folks I've met. They run museums and shops or whatever.
If you do meet them, you will get a free gift--and if you take the whole
tour, you can collect a complete set of gifts.
The stop-offs are very personal places. They're homemade in the best sense
of the word, with people giving their own opinion about the world and
their relationship to it. One of the stops is to visit these two guys
in the desert who make folk art. The museums on the tour are often folk
museums; they're not corporate in any sense of the word. Another stop
is the Exotic World Burlesque Museum in Helendale, where I went to the
Miss Exotic World Pageant. There's a photo of Tempest Storm in the book,
and though she's in her seventies, she looks great.
who run these places usually end up talking to you for an hour, telling
you their life story in a way that Americans are very happy to do. In
Britain, people are more reticent talking about themselves. It interests
me that the people I met opened up very quickly, and that so many of their
stories are entwined with historical events.
There's a section in the book on the Black Panthers, for example. Before
I came to America all I knew about them was their negative media image.
Of course there's so much more to what they represented and what ultimately
happened to them. The Panthers were a pivotal political movement. If you
look at what they wanted it's really straightforward: One of their main
goals was, after all, decent health care. That's not a really revolutionary
idea in Britain, but in America it is. There are two ex-Panthers who run
a gallery and museum in downtown Oakland, which is basically an African
American history lesson they've constructed with paintings and sculptures.
It's the first point on the tour.
So these two ex-Panthers are still out there working in the community.
One of them is also a prison minister. He visits inmates on death row
and gives art classes. That opened up the idea of jails. The book has
a section on prisons, as they seem to pop up along the California highways
every twenty miles.
Another person on the tour was involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
He's a Cuban exile who worked for the CIA. All these people reflect a
larger American history. In Britain we have this term "living history,"
which is overused by those in the heritage business, but I think in the
case of the interviewees in the book it's the best way to describe them
and their personal stories.