Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane
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Plant House

 

 
 

 

Parading Realities


Written by Emily Stokes

Jeremy Deller's telephone rings. He apologises, answers and talks to his friend, artist Alan Kane for a few moments, then hangs up looking pleased. 'We've managed to track down a guy that has a mechanical elephant..It's the size of a baby elephant and it gives children rides. It's amazing.'

He and Alan Kane are collecting objects for a 'folk art' exhibition at the Barbican in May..His enthusiasm for regional activities and 'people that make things' may seem surprising; dressed in a spotless light pink sweater and jeans, Deller seems exactly to fit the part of the stylish London contemporary artist as he sits in his small, white studio-office..But it is the celebration of people who do unusual things that often go without recognition - people who generally aren't thought of as trendy - that is perhaps at the core of his work. 'Not heroes, or heroic people, but important people... I've worked with lots of people, hundreds, thousands of people, who aren't artists, who do just as amazing things as artists do'.

Since winning the Turner Prize in December, Jeremy Deller has been interviewed continuously about the exhibitions and events that he initiates as his artwork and he's fed up with questions about how he can be an artist if he doesn't paint, draw or make things..'The media are about twenty years behind the general public... They're still obsessed with the idea of painting as the only art form', he says..He speaks softly and carefully: 'my skills are in meeting people, doing things with them, chatting to them about stuff rather than drawing..I'm just using my skills as best I can'.

In a street parade in Spain, organised by Deller for the opening of last year's Manifesta exhibition, he wanted 'people who you usually see as individuals to walk down the street in groups, slightly marginalised people', and all this to be set outside the pretexts of 'religion, politics or folk culture'..One of the surprisingly moving things about Deller's work is that he takes people so seriously; he is never judgemental (about the sort of person who might own a mechanical elephant, for instance), forever respectful..He likes the idea of 'safety in numbers' and so, he tells me, 'the parade was led by a group of blind people, thirty blind people leading the way'..He pauses, and corrects himself; he does this often, apparently keen not to make sweeping statements: 'well, actually, it didn't totally work out because we had a guide dog to lead the guy but of course these dogs are taught never to walk in the road'..He laughs suddenly, seeing the funny side, 'so this guide dog was freaking out..In the end he had to be led by another man'..If it were not for his almost childlike sincerity, I probably would have laughed as he says after another pause, 'it was probably very bad for the dog to do that'.

He explains that the idea came from watching the Lord Mayor's Show: 'it's really weird, it's like a corporate parade'. He tells me about the floats of the different banking companies with a half-smile: 'you know, all "Look at us" and "we're wearing silly hats"' and then pauses..'There was one show that was fucking amazing, though,' he says..'It was the Society for Childrens' Homes and it was just these kids looking really fucked off to be on this float, just standing there and one of their mates was playing incredibly loud raga music'..He smiles..'It was an injection of reality in a parade that was totally unreal ... and I thought, I'd love to do a parade of things like that'...Jeremy Deller talking about the 'real' doesn't seem inappropriate - no matter how beautifully turned out or well spoken he might be. Admittedly, his trip to New York to hang out in Andy Warhol's factory at twenty has the dreamy quality of a modern legend, but he talks openly about his past, being on the dole, living with his parents until the age of thirty-one. He also talks about his mortgage and the steep rent for his 'cosy' office before noticing what must have been my ridiculously forlorn face: 'don't worry about me..I'll be ok', he says with mock-seriousness. He makes no grand claims for what he is doing: 'I think artists have such a high opinion of themselves..They think that art can change things. I mean, Guernica hasn't stopped war and it's meant to be the greatest anti-war statement of all time.'

While his work is consciously 'anti-big-p-politics', it is clearly political 'on a small-p level', as he clarifies it..He sees the unpopularity of folk art in Britain as a symptom of what he calls our 'top heavy definition of ourselves'; 'it's the class system in Britain - we don't define ourselves through folk art, we define ourselves through country houses and the royal family . . . Every pub, every crappy hotel you go to is meant to look like a country house..Oxford and Cambridge: that is Britain. It has a stultifying effect on people, it's not healthy.'

But his love of what he calls folk art is about more than just a conceptual desire to celebrate British culture from the bottom upwards. He lists next week's scheduled stops on his 'little trip around Britain': 'We're going to meet the guy with the mechanical elephant and then meet the secretary of clowns international . . . then a guy in Wales that does the Mari Lwyd and then we might go to the women's institute HQs in Oxfordshire to try and get some flower arrangements for the exhibition'..He wants me to know that his passion isn't a joke, and, as he speaks, I begin to wonder if his enthusiasm for all things regional might not rub off on London..'Outside London there's a lot of stuff that happens..It's not twee, it's not country house - it's visceral, it's politically incorrect a lot of the time, it's rude, it's energetic'.

He organised an exhibition in Cardiff in 1999 called 'Unconvention', inspired by the influences and reference points of the Manic Street Preachers, and shows me pictures of a weekend when political groups and unions set up stalls within the gallery space that was showing 'hardcore artists like Munch and Picasso'. It is easy to see why this is one of his greatest memories; the event seems to symbolise his ideal of the mix of politics, the arts and folk culture in its energetic, raw 'village fete atmosphere'..He likes to put other people in charge, 'to hand over an opportunity, a situation.

Whatever happens happens'. .I ask him how he feels about being described as a 'party organiser' and immediately feel guilty, as he looks a little shocked.Then he laughs: 'party organiser,' he repeats, 'that's amazing..The media are pretty appalling I have to say'..He cringes when he thinks of all the media interest: 'There was one week when I was in the Guardian four times . . . I wanted to apologise to the readers'. This isn't modesty - it's a distaste for celebrity..He is wary of becoming 'one of those people who are always on TV..I've been asked on TV shows, but...you know... really sad ones' he says dryly.

But I sense that rejecting fame means more to him than simply being cool about not being a talking head on a 'Top One-hundred Documentaries Of All Time' programme..He seems to feel a sense of responsibility not to lose his connection with the hundreds of people who have taken part in his projects, to dedicate himself to them; his passion is no act..I shouldn't be surprised then by the Deller-ness of next week's interview list:.'I'm doing one for a cycling program on the radio next week... and one for a magazine about bats'..Bats?.Yes, he likes cycling and he likes bats..He seems to be avoiding the Guardian rather well.

 
 

 

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