ArtPace residents take a little bit of the Lone Star to a gallery far far away
London's museums were crowded just before the holidays. Japanese tourists snapped one another's photo in front of the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum; college students giggled in nervous awe at the perfect anatomy of Michelangelo's David, replicated full size in the plaster cast room at the Victoria & Albert. And over at the Tate Britain, Europeans squeezed onto a long wooden bench to watch "Memory Bucket," the short film about Texas that won Briton Jeremy Deller the prestigious (and lucrative, at roughly US$50,000) Turner Prize. A panel of five judges, including Henry Moore Foundation Contemporary Projects Curator David Thorp and Tate Director Nicholas Serota, selected Deller from a group of four finalists (five, really, since one finalist was the team of Ben Langlands & Nikki Bell). Deller produced "Memory Bucket" while a 2004 international artist in residence at ArtPace. He and his fellow finalists created new installations for the Turner exhibition, but the prize is specifically awarded for a work created in the previous year, in Deller's case his ArtPace project.
Deller is Britain's art darling of the moment, lauded by most of the island's press for his happenings, which often take the form of commemorating an element of populist culture. "Turner prize shock: out of four serious competitors, the best artist wins," trumpeted an article in the Guardian (although we might take their reaction with a grain of salt since the Guardian is a sponsor of the prize and its art critic, Adrian Searle, was one of the jurors) which went on to say that Deller is almost "unnaturally" popular with critics and the general public alike. "For once the right artist won," affirmed another commentator. The not-so-general public is often quoted on Deller. David Byrne has called his work "hilarious and touching." Former KLF band member Bill Drummond, who collaborated with Deller on a project called Acid Brass, is another fan, as is prior Turner Prize nominee Cornelia Parker. (Parker, also a former ArtPace resident, exhibited at Finesilver Gallery last year.)
So the clutch of people squeezing in to see "Memory Bucket" while the other finalists' projects could be perused in relative solitude might be attributed to Deller's personal popularity or to his triumph, but it might also have something to do with the subject matter. It certainly wasn't for the production value, which hovered around "first home video," although this is not the artist's virgin video foray. (Many of the comment cards in the "Judge for yourself" section of the show carped about the overall low image quality. "Would it kill you to work with professional videographers?" asked one.) For compelling material it was hard to beat Kutlug Atman's portraits of Turks discussing reincarnation against a backdrop of social unrest, violence, and loss, or Langlands & Bell's "The House of Osama Bin Laden," an interactive, virtual tour of an otherwise unremarkable house once occupied by the terrorist leader. And if you were looking for richly imaginative work painstakingly realized in a variety of formats, London and Lagos citizen Yinka Shonibare would be your man. But when Bush's re-election is greeted with little enthusiasm across the big pond even as cowboy boots line the shelves of trendy Knightsbridge shoe stores, nothing can beat the Lone Star State as a subject for ambivalent fascination.
Allowing that a great deal of Deller's appeal stems from his anti-art world patina, the press tends to settle on "sincerity" or "passion" as the 38-year-old's greatest attribute. "That's sort of a buzzword to reassure us that he's not cynical," says ArtPace Executive Director Kathryn Kanjo. And, I think, to reassure the art world that the work they love today doesn't resurrect some of the Romantic and Modern habits that post-modernism and deconstruction delegitimized: objectification, cohesive narrative, Anglicized perspective. But Kanjo places Deller in an international trend of humanizing contentious political and social issues, a theme that was certainly prevalent at the Turner Prize exhibition. "What is abiding in Jeremy is the folk."
Kanjo observes that when Deller studied art history, he was particulary interested in the baroque period, because as a Counter-Reformation aesthetic, it's role was to reach ordinary people with opulence and bring them back into the fold of the church. The inherent contradiction in baroque design, then, is also the question that lies at the heart of Deller's work: Is it art for the people by the people, or is it art from on high that engages the public in servicing its own ends? A quote from Deller on display at the Tate may provide the answer: "Art isn't what you make, it's what you make happen."
It's an extraordinary phrase to celebrate from someone also described as "part social anthropologist." Colin Turnbull, the now-infamous British anthropologist who turned science on its head by identifying with his African subjects and questioning Western assumptions of cultural superiority, is largely discredited today for allowing personal affinity to overtake observation. Perhaps he should have billed himself as "part artist."
"I think the interest in Texas is not limited to the art world," says Kanjo, but the art world may be a bellwether. Sweden's Moderna Museet is currently featuring a retrospective of the last decade of Sidén's work. The cover of the catalog is a still from "3 MPH," and Kanjo has contributed an essay titled "Sublime, Texas," in which she reports that the artist's "childhood vision of the United States was shaped by subtitled images of Spaghetti Westerns and the Apollo space landing. Horse and rocket shared the stage - or screen - in Ann-Sofi Sidén's home and in her mind."
That private idea of Texas may seem trite to the natives, or as a lonely Deller critic, Richard Dorment of the London's Daily Telegraph, described one installation, "disgustingly twee, infuriatingly precious, insufferably condescending," but what needs to be curbed is not the artist's personal vision but the art world's tweaking of terms such as "anthropological." If that's what you're seeking, and you haven't got the patience for academia, there's always Christopher Hitchen's Texas: America Supersized, which memorializes the veteran journalist's encounters with a passel of Texans from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to Joaquin Castro and, yes, a horseback ride. •
By Elaine Wolff