Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

The Absent Enthusiast
Jesse Birch and Nicholas Brown

I’ll buy any spare tickets, anyone need tickets seated or standing, anyone need tickets seated or standing, anyone need standing tickets, who wants standing tickets. I’ll buy spare ones.

Jeremy Deller’s Advanced Capitalism Pt. 2 (1999) echoes in the hallway outside of the Art Gallery of York University. This sound recording of a scalper selling his wares provides an apt introduction to Jeremy Deller (2006), an AGYU retrospective at two sites. Positioned at the gallery’s entrance, it reminds us that even though we are visiting a government-funded institution, the market’s influence presides. Tote bags and T-shirts promoting AGYU Director Philip Monk’s “Out There” marketing plan reinforce this notion just inside the gallery doors and illustrate Monk’s vision of the AGYU as an extension of Toronto’s downtown business district, refuting any notion of the public gallery as a commercially neutral space. These preliminary encounters provide an uneasy context for viewing Deller’s retrospective, ensuring that the reception of his works is always-already anchored in considerations of capital.

The exhibition, split chronologically and spatially between the AGYU and Queen West artist-run centre Mercer Union, featured Deller’s Turner Prize winning work Memory Bucket (2003) at Mercer and Battle at Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) (2001) at AGYU. Entering the AGYU in anticipation of seeing Battle, Deller’s celebrated collaboration with English miners that re-enacts their monumental strike of 1984, it came as a shock to find well over one hundred objects and images from the artist’s earlier work with very little signage to help contextualize them.

Within the framework of the exhibition, bits of ephemera offer evidence of Deller’s relational performances, which have taken place at pubs, on double-decker buses, and around the streets of London. Housed in vitrines, these pieces are set alongside short descriptions that briefly explain their origins, allowing the artist to discuss some of his interactive early works. However, examples such as Assorted Calling Cards (1992-95)—a set of humourous conversation starters distributed to patrons at various nightclubs—are reduced to one-liner status when preciously displayed under glass.

These archives neatly contrast to posters displayed on the north wall of the gallery. There, the famous Keith Moon: A Retrospective (1995) appears alongside posters for equally unlikely “artist retrospectives” attributed to Morrissey and N.W.A., which were put up in and around galleries advertising exhibitions that never actually took place. Unlike the performance documentations in the vitrines, these hoax pieces aren’t explained for the viewer. In their opaque presentation, one is left to wonder whether they can function as they once did, since their original place was within the context of the galleries being spoofed. Taken further, Deller’s institutional pranks could be flipped on the AGYU itself—could such interventions be performed within the context of this actual retrospective?1

If an intervention were to exist at the AGYU, it would lie on the floor of the gallery’s congested first room. Posters asking, “What would Neil Young do” were stacked there, in a style reminiscent of Félix González-Torres, available for visitors to take home. With this gesture, Deller addresses the suburban Canadian recontextualization of his older works and enlivens a retrospective that primarily contains leftovers from a distant past, by giving us a present that perhaps he thinks we will really be able to understand.

Still, searching hopefully for disenfranchised miners, our eyes come to rest on the saddest raver: a slouching mannequin adorned with a fisherman’s hat, beads, and a fluorescent whistle. As part of the 1996 project, Search for Bez, the dummy is accompanied by a crudely drawn map, a stack of New Music Express magazines, and a 46-minute video that is narrated by the artist as he meanders around various locations in Manchester, including forgotten landmarks of the rave scene. Everywhere he goes, he asks the same question: “I’m looking for Bez, do you know where he is?” While Deller assumes the Manchester locals will know who he is referring to, the same cannot be assumed for the audience of the AGYU. Even if we approach the work with the knowledge that Bez was the dancer from the drug-infused Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays, the artist’s intentions seem unclear. However, it soon becomes apparent that it isn’t Bez he is actually looking for, but the record store employees, menacing skinheads, incredulous record label secretaries, and other individuals he encounters on the street. These seemingly random people, who reside on the periphery of a washed-up subculture, become exoticized in this work, especially when viewed from within the context of a Canadian gallery.

Even in its melancholic aspects, Search for Bez provides a model of an icon whose absence is registered in the vestiges of a fading scene. But where Bez—either in the pathetic embodied form of a mannequin or as a missing subcultural hero—stands for the faded enthusiasm of his fans, we see enthusiasm reconfigured through Deller’s Uses of Literacy (1997). The installation features dozens of artworks, poems, and fanzines produced by fans in tribute to the English cult group the Manic Street Preachers. Like Search for Bez, the work looks for the voice of the enthusiast in the form of obsessive fan activity. But here Deller steps into the role of curator, assembling this group of mostly anonymous contributors whose works attest to the experiential, emotional, and intellectual impact of the band on its audience. The works are brought into sharp relief by their juxtaposition against a bookshelf packed with selections from a literary canon. Among works by Orwell, Plath, Wilde, Nietzsche, Fitzgerald, and Sartre emerges the Richard Hoggart text that bears the same title as the work: a “vivid and detached analysis of the assumptions, attitudes, and morals of working-class people in Northern England and the way in which magazines, films, and other mass media are likely to influence them.”2 Taken individually, the elements of Uses hinge on the audience’s awareness of the Manic Street Preachers and their impact on English youth. But with the aid of the zines in particular, we are able to glean that the bookshelf selections are closely connected to the Manics and their fans. Other ethical considerations rest on an awareness of the North/South divide in England and the fact that the Manic Street Preachers and many of their fans are of Irish descent—here, class, religion, and politics are embroiled in Deller’s rejection of Hoggart’s premise through the parallel between folk and fan activity with a literary tradition. In performing this gesture, Deller treads a shaky line between collaboration as a means of empowering a seemingly voiceless group and an artistic practice that verges on ethnographic objectification.

Collaborations are enjoyable exercises: a good collaboration is like going on a long journey without a map, never knowing quite where you will end up. Working with another person or people automatically makes art a social experience, which is often revealed in the work.3

It can be useful to consider the effects of collaboration when looking at most art exhibitions. But with Deller’s retrospective, it is unavoidable. The exhibition itself is a collaboration between two galleries, the Art Gallery of York University and Mercer Union, and even though Deller’s major collaborative effort with Alan Kane, Folk Archive (1999–2005), was absent, most of the works included involved collaboration.4 By working in solidarity with marginalized groups, Deller ostensibly brings awareness to undervalued positions.5 In this regard, it is especially worth considering the relationship between Deller and the many contributors to The Uses of Literacy as reconfigured within the AGYU. After all, this is his retrospective, which means everything in the show might reasonably be considered Deller’s output, at least to an uninitiated audience. And since the portraits and other fan-authored submissions are anonymously presented, we are left with lingering questions about the nature of collaboration when one person assumes authorship.6 Though it may have been Deller’s intent to empower his collaborators, giving their passionate identifications with the Manic Street Preachers a place on the gallery wall, we must consider the potential for confusion on the part of an audience faced with little information to guide them. Without a prior familiarity with the work­—Deller is, after all, an English artist with limited exposure in Canada—viewers would be within reason to believe the artist had produced this work himself. Considering the prevalence of aesthetically naïve drawing and painting in contemporary galleries like the AGYU, such misunderstandings would be all the more likely.

But from another perspective, the likelihood that the viewer won’t get the full extent of Deller’s collaborative process leaves open the possibility of an empty commodification of the enthusiast Other—the emotional and political convictions of the fans as mere fodder to an aesthetically-detached foreign audience. Are audiences taking Deller’s message about the insular nature of the art world at the cost of effacing, or worse, mocking his collaborators? Like any other heterotopic sphere, only those in the know can really be a part of the discourse. Here, it is unclear who is actually part of the conversation.

  1. The poster, Keith Moon: A Retrospective, was presented not only within the exhibition, but also as one side of the gallery’s foldout newsletter.
  2. See Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (London: Pelican Books, 1958). Taken directly from the book’s cover, this description makes clear the text’s implications within the overall installation, that is, presuming the audience is brazen enough to pull the book from the shelf and dig deeper. The same can be said for the fanzines and NME issues—without direction, audience members rarely feel comfortable digging around through objects that exist as part of an art installation.
  3. Jeremy Deller, quoted in Jeremy Deller Life is to Blame for Everything: Collected Work and Projects 1992-99 (London: Salon, 1999).
  4. It should be noted that Deller’s version of collaboration is predicated on his role as nomadic participant whose level of collaboration fluctuates according to each project and is constantly put into question by the fact that he frequently retains sole authorship.
  5. When viewing Battle at Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All), shown in the second room at the AGYU, it quickly becomes clear that this project meant a lot to a great many people. Many of the miners who were part of the 1984 strike, also took part in Deller’s re-enactment. For them, this was a chance to tell their side of the story, and to feel empowered in regard to an event that, due in large part to biased media coverage at the time, was quite disempowering.
  6. Consider also the relationship of this installation to the Unconvention exhibition of 1999, which took place at the newly inaugurated Cardiff Centre for Visual Arts, wherein other materials referenced by the Manic Street Preachers (including canonical works by Picasso and Warhol) were set alongside contributions by groups such as Amnesty International and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, all endorsed by the band. Whereas Deller retained the title of artist in The Uses of Literacy, here he formally adopted the role of the curator and it is perhaps this reason that prevented Unconvention from being restaged within the AGYU’s retrospective.

Image: Jeremy Deller, Memory Bucket (2003), video. Courtesy of the artist and the Modern Institute, Glasgow

About the Authors

Jesse Birch is a visual artist working primarily with photography, an MA candidate in Critical and Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia, and co-proprietor of STORAGE (with Jacob Gleeson), a multifaceted gallery, event space and shop situated in a former corner store in Vancouver.

Nicholas Brown is a writer, curator, and arts editor of Color Magazine. He lives in Toronto, where he is currently pursuing an MA in Art History at York University. His research interests include artist collaboration and community outreach.

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