People who come into the gallery often look over at Valerie’s Snack Bar from the other side of the room, not quite sure how to respond to it.
When they get close enough, I ask them if they would like tea. Mostly they would. During my first shift in Valerie’s, I served a woman who works at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, over on the other side of Penn’s campus, who often comes to ICA on her lunch hour. Later, a man in a white baseball cap came in. “Do you have espresso?” he asked. But although the café has signs advertising crumpets, or a toasted tea cake for £1, or a hot beef barm (sandwich) with or without onions, we only have tea.
Between now and the end of December, all ICA staff members are taking turns serving tea in Valerie’s, which is part of the exhibition Jeremy Deller: Joy in People. Valerie’s Snack Bar is a replica of a real tea room, really called Valerie’s Snack Bar, in Manchester, England. It was in Manchester that Jeremy Deller organized a procession (called Procession) with dozens of local clubs, committees, bands, and social groups of all kinds. During the year and a half he worked on the project, he liked to hang out in the real Valerie’s so much that he built this replica and put it on a float in the parade. You can see it going down the street in a video on a little TV on the counter here. There are also black-plumed horses, and a Hindu bagpipe band wearing kilts, and old cars, and people dancing and carrying banners. Designed and sewn by the extraordinary Ed Hall, many of the banners are on view here in the gallery. One says, “Remember Ian Tomlinson” and another one says, “Carnival Queens.” A somewhat different-looking banner, which turns out to have been designed by David Hockney, says “ Unrepentant Smokers.” I suppose this is what Deller meant when he said that he wanted to celebrate social group activities that are “lazily referred to as antisocial when in reality they are the exact opposite.”
It wasn’t easy to get the tea room here. It had to come by ship—in pieces, in two shipping containers loaded onto a truck that parked outside ICA one afternoon last September. Dana tried to get the city to close off our block of 36th Street, but the target date kept changing as the ocean freight was delayed—by weather, or customs hold-ups, or some other foggy oceanic mystery. Then, the crates were too heavy to get into the building, so the crew had to unload the pieces out in the street and bring them inside. The trucking company gave us two hours. If we went over, we would have to pay a penalty.
After asking me how I would sum up Jeremy Deller’s work in one sentence, the woman who works at Children’s Hospital told me about her favorite ICA show of all time, back in the nineties. It was about the senses. You entered a dark room, and after a while purple lights slowly came up. She saw the exhibition, the name of which she no longer remembers, several times before she realized that actually the lights, though very dim, were always there—that seeing them was a matter of waiting for her eyes adjust. “I have always remembered it,” she said. I have served tea to an artist who had a show at ICA some years ago and was visiting the museum with her sister. One afternoon a class from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore came in and filled every seat.
Karen Beckman, a professor of Cinema Studies at Penn, volunteered to serve tea and hold office hours in the café, and I have eavesdropped as ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner held a series of meetings in here, taking time out to chat with customers about the exhibition.
One day I even met my daughter’s high school English teacher—now retired—drinking tea and chatting with Associate Curator Anthony Elms about different Philadelphia museums! The surrealness of this particular experience reminded me of something else Jeremy Deller said about this project, that he hoped the parade might be “full of bizarre, funny, wrong-seeming things,” like a parade you might see on The Simpsons.
I am not prepared to sum up Jeremy Deller in a single sentence, but his work certainly has to do with constructing situations—a café, a restaged police-and-miners confrontation, a bombed-out car as a conversational prompt—in which people are invited to come together and interact. Given that, this modest tea room with its white Formica tables and sole libation is in a way the heart of the exhibition. This is the place where the viewer is invited to step through the invisible looking glass and become part of the art on view.
Jeremy Deller: Joy in People is open at ICA through December 30. The author of this post will serve you tea in Valerie’s on alternate Wednesdays between 1-3 PM.
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