‘Please help me,’ whispers the text of a tiny white business card on display in a drawer, ‘I went to a single- sex public school.’ I know how that feels, I think, as I snoop around Jeremy Deller’s boyhood bedroom, which is actually a painstaking recreation of his first exhibition as an artist, from 1993, cheekily placed at the entrance to this major coming-of-age retrospective at the Hayward Gallery (until Sunday May 13). ‘We really mustn’t meet up and go out for a drink sometime’, says another of his anti-chat-up calling cards.
Growing up in suburban south-east London, hating his time at the aforementioned posh fee-paying school, Dulwich College, and then drifting in and out of jobs after studying art history at the Courtauld, Deller’s disgruntled youth is spewed out on the walls in posters (four of which have been reproduced in place of our regular Time Out newsagent posters) and photographs that reflect some of his abiding passions and pastimes: acid house parties, indie music and a vague sense of political protest. Again, these are all things I can relate to, having been schooled by the same institutions and even having lived on the same street in Dulwich (he was at number 121 Woodwarde Road, my family lived for a time at 162). There seems to be a lot I have in common with Deller, but, then again, maybe it’s not just me…
Deller was actually 27 years old, unemployed and still living at home when he staged ‘Open Bedroom’ – his parents were away on holiday and won’t have seen the witty prose pieces and punky paintings Jeremy hung in the living room and above their loo until now. They might not appreciate his silkscreened T-shirts: ‘My Drug Shame’, ‘My Booze Hell’ and ‘They Fuck You Up Your Mum and Dad’, but now that he’s won the Turner Prize and gained international success as an artist, I’m sure all is forgiven.
Opening a two-decade survey with such awkward admissions of callow amateurishness is a typically subversive and self-effacing move by Deller. Not only has he always had to field media interest in his lack of art-school training (BREAKING SCANDAL: Deller admits he can’t draw!), he has also curated serious reappraisals of many frowned-upon folk art practices with his colleague Alan Kane – from public lavatory graffiti to homemade Princess Diana memorials – not to mention a straight-faced staging of a gurning contest and a fruitless search for the wayward Happy Mondays dancer Bez (it turned out he was in Ibiza the whole time). If this ad-hoc approach to art making presents Deller as some insouciant, slapdash ironist then that is to miss his sincerity and sensitivity as one of contemporary art’s most quixotic, itinerant truth-seekers.
Beyond any tinges of disenchantment found in ‘Open Bedroom’ or Deller’s ‘I ♥ Melancholy’ wallpaper, beneath which sits a number of forlorn youths quietly reading some wistful literature, the uplifting title of his Hayward show, ‘Joy in People’, seems an especially appropriate way to celebrate the Deller experience. Indeed, much of his unconventional artistic output – there have been no more paintings since 1993 – involves co-authorship, collaboration and a championing of the achievements of others. This often includes the banners of Ed Hall, who sews campaigning flags or trade union pennants and has contributed at least a dozen of his fabric pieces to the current exhibition. Or else the work might involve groups of musicians, workers, fans, gardeners, smokers, OAPs, ramblers, blood donors, blind people and even bats – Deller often acts merely as the project’s facilitator, overseer, cheerleader or chief drover. His proposals for a work of art can be as little as a suggestion, an intervention or a whim, but are no less infectious and interactive as a result.
Deller has found joy in such unlikely people as Russian superfans of Depeche Mode or an ex-miner-turned-pro-glam-wrestler, who became the focus of his latest heartrending film: ‘So Many Ways to Hurt You (The Life and Times of Adrian Street)’. For this show, Deller has also invited a busker called Chuck, who plays guitar and bongos on the South Bank, to perform throughout the run and cut a record of his own, while the rest of the accompanying talks, events and performances will showcase the artist’s friends and their voices as much, if not more so, than his own.
This notion of the artist as a friendly guy with an involving synergistic streak when it comes to creativity, who is himself equal parts hanger-on and groupie-magnet, is not an entirely false one – Deller is indeed a silver-tongued charmer, a good-humoured companion and a keen listener – but it’s also far too simplistic a means of encompassing his tentacular activities (although it would explain why other viewers might share my strange empathetic connection to his life’s work, beyond the circumstantial similarities to Deller’s Dulwich upbringing).
Perhaps more than any fascination with the endless variety and energy of his fellow human beings or lofted pop-culture idols, Deller is driven by a desire to understand the underlying histories, social strata and relationships that knit us all together. ‘Acid Brass’ (1997), for example, surreally juxtaposed the underground rave scene with that of the traditional marching band, although behind the rousing renditions of classic house ‘choons’ by parping trombones and trumpets was an attempt to tease out possible connections between these musical sub-genres – arguably, both are unalloyed rituals of a geographically disparate yet nationally conjoined, communal spirit (only one of which, generally, involves the chemical boost of Ecstasy).
Through his research into colliery bands came Deller’s crowning collaboration, between himself and nearly 1,000 ex-coal miners, actors and policeman who re-enacted the famous 1984 colliery fracas in South Yorkshire as ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ (2001), which was filmed by Mike Figgis for posterity. The many layers that normally constitute such an ambitious, rangy Deller work – of local history, political protest, open-ended participation – became entwined with the far more public outpouring of shared memory connected to that tumultuous event and its connections to Thatcherism, police brutality and other ’80s riots. Consequently, the project gained in controversy, despite the participants embracing his considered, exacting treatment of the complex subject matter. Detractors accused Deller of reopening a wound he had no right to disturb, of callously appropriating other people’s problems for the sake of his art.
This distrust and Deller’s supposed disingenuousness can be added to the list of badges he has to wear alongside his public school background and hands-off, ‘non-artistic’ approach. For the purposes of this exhibition and last week’s ‘Culture Show’ special on BBC2, the artist has been dubbed a ‘middle-class hero’, which is also to enter into the Deller self-deprecation game. The suspicion remains that someone from a well-to-do suburban milieu can never fully engage with the really big, thorny political issues but can only wear them for effect, like a Sloane Ranger in a Barbour jacket. Yet it is hard to find a more searching exploration, in any country’s contemporary art, of the failure of the allied invasion of Iraq than Deller’s suicide-bombed car sculpture and his ensuing, fact-finding road trip across the USA, collectively grouped as the piece, ‘It Is What It Is’ (2009). After all, in Deller’s world, even the most momentous historical or newsworthy events have people at their centre, none more so than the continuing uprisings of the Arab Spring: ‘It’s the first time in our lives that we’ve seen revolution happening up close,’ says Deller on his visit to Time Out as this week’s guest editor, ‘and you realise it’s about individuals and groups of people. That revolution has a human face.’
If I feel the particular plight of a once try-hard, pseudo-radical, CND-badge wearing, occasional student-rally attendee (from a nice middle-class home) more than most, then forgive me, but I now know I’m not the only one because Deller has made the Hayward somewhere welcoming for anyone to hang out. So, in defence of Deller the cultural magpie and confirmed people-person, his show proves that it is possible to think critically about creating enjoyable art without the old anvil of a desirable, beautifully handcrafted object weighing at the end of that thought. It is also possible to be an artist with a youth-oriented gaze and the same genuine passions that spurred you on as a young artist, and still do so aged 45. In fact, why not call up your friends and put on an exhibition in your mum’s shed – you never know, I may come along.