Three days before the opening of Jeremy Deller: Joy in People, Jeremy himself is lying on his stomach on a single bed in ICA’s first floor gallery, scribbling on the wall with a Sharpie. “I’m a boy,” he writes. “US vs. UK.” “We’re gonna make you a star-ar-ar.” To one side of the bed, a lamp sits on a table, and across the way cupboards and drawers have been specially built. The walls of the room, which is a kind of gallery within the gallery, are hung with posters and photographs. “A Special Event: Jack the Ripper’s Norwich” one poster says. “Brian Epstein Died for You,” says another. A photograph near the bed shows three guys—one of them has got to be a younger Jeremy—posing with a gravity-defying tower of beer bottles.
Over the door a third poster reads, “Home Sweet Home.”
Jeremy gets off the bed and starts opening and shutting the new drawers. “This one is a bit sticky,” he says.
Edwige nods. She’s nailing a hook into the top of one of the cabinets, but she’ll go tell the crew about the sticking in a minute. Jeremy’s assistant, Edwige has shepherded the show through its various international venues. Right now she hangs up a T-shirt bearing a legend from a Philip Larkin poem that I, too, am fond of. “They f* you up, your Mum and Dad,” it begins; I learned it by heart in college.
If this looks more like a boy’s bedroom—music fan, middle class, late twentieth century—than like an art museum hosting the first mid-career retrospective of a major artist, well, that’s the point. This installation, “Open Bedroom,” recreates one of Jeremy’s first shows, which he organized in his parents’ house in 1993 when they were out of town. In those days many of Jeremy’s friends were in art school hosting Open Studios, but he had studied art history (the Baroque period), and he had no studio to open. He had done some paintings, though—of Keith Moon, mostly—and made some posters and T-shirts. “It was an opportunistic way to get a bit of attention,” he says now. Most of the other works in Joy in People showcase his later, ambitious orchestrations of groups of people doing surprising things—from improvising impromptu slapstick routines to restaging a violent clash between striking British miners and police—or they document his imaginative quests and propositions. “Open Bedroom” is more modest, but it offers a sense of intimacy, the feeling of peeking behind the façade of The Artist to the face of the young man he used to be.
Edwige needs stickers to affix to the Bedroom drawers, so I take her up to the offices where we raid the supply closet for mailing labels. We bring them down to Jeremy, and he sits on the floor writing on them: “Suburban Scenes,” “Gallery Cards,” “At Home Invitations,” “Beer Mats,” etc. Visitors will be invited to open the drawers and rummage through the contents, but it’s hard to do that now because there aren’t any handles.
Edwige disappears, then turns up again with a package of handles for Jeremy’s approval. “You okay with these?”
Soon Ingrid, who together with Kate is coordinating the show at ICA, comes in and starts opening cupboards, checking out the contents. “There’ll be a black light in this one,” she says.
“There is,” Jeremy says. “We just need to turn it on.”
One of the crew, passing through pushing a large crate, pipes up: “You just have to turn the bulb.” Ingrid screws it in, illuminating a sign about Annie Leibovitz photographing President Reagan, and another about Tony Curtis in the Playboy Mansion.
Ingrid looks through one of the red plastic View-Masters dangling from the ceiling. “Who are these guys?” she asks.
Jeremy comes over to look. “Some posh guys I know.”
She points to a picture on the wall. “What’s this?”
“That’s the mayor of a town in France. Whenever I’d go there, I’d visit the mayor and bring him a present. A record usually. Spreading good will.”
“Are you going to visit the mayor of Philadelphia?”
“I met your mayor in 2009. Is it the same guy? He came to see the car.”
The car Mayor Michael Nutter came to see is the wreckage of a vehicle blown up by a bomb in a Baghdad market. Traveling with a US soldier and an Iraqi, Jeremy towed the car on a trailer across the United States between New York and Los Angeles museum venues. “We stopped in about fifteen towns,” he’s said, “and just waited for people to come by…What we didn’t do was present it as an overtly political artwork. We presented it in a very bland way.”
A lot of people did come by, in Philadelphia, Nashville, Dallas, Santa Fe, and elsewhere, to look at the car and to talk. Some were veterans, or relatives of veterans—from the Vietnam era as well as the recent past—each with their own stories and points of view. Students came, and proselytizers, mothers and waitresses. Cheerleaders, migrant workers, Hurricane Katrina survivors, golf dads, nuns. Sometimes the conversation was about politics, or war, or religion. Other times it veered to art.
With Jeremy’s work, it’s not always easy to tell the difference. Categories bleed into each other, actions and people are transformed, or transform themselves. As Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery in London, who organized Joy in People, said at the walkthrough for ICA members—his tone teasing at first, then serious—“Jeremy is not an artist who started out with a conventional toolkit. He can’t draw, he can’t paint, he can’t sculpt….He links things up. That’s what artists do. They connect things in ways other people don’t see.”
Jeremy Deller: Joy in People is on view at ICA through December 30.
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