Autumn 2005

‘Folk art’ without the quote marks

Folk Archive

By Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane. Ed. Bruce Haines with an essay by Jeremy Miller. Book Works. £14.50. Design: James Goggin / Practise

When I first met Jeremy Deller eleven years ago it was a match made in heaven. I was masquerading as an art critic who knew nothing about contemporary art, and he was masquerading as an artist who no one knew anything about. The ‘show’ called ‘Search for Bez’, documenting his quest for Manchester’s own Mikhael Baryshnikov, looked like a school project. It was supposed to look like this only because it was the expression of Deller as a ‘fan’.

Ten years on and the Turner Prize-winning Deller has curated the show Folk Archive’ at the Barbican Curve with artist Alan Kane. ‘Folk Archive’ raises the same questions of what it is to ‘do art’; who is an artist; and where do you find art. With the accessible scholarliness of Jeremy Millar’s essay ticking off the right names and more, the catalogue explores ‘folk’ art.

As much as it is an anthropology of culture it is also a geography of culture. There are some Belfast political murals, some Glasgow football art and a Welsh pub ritual involving a horse’s skull, banter and money. But really, like much of Deller's work, it’s about expressions of Britishness. The catalogue cover shows a speaker stack from the Notting Hill carnival, a girls’ night out – dressed as old women – in Blackpool, and militant sex workers marching whose banner graphics are agit-prop Playboy.

Deller and Kane have always been as much impresarios as artists, providing platforms for those with no entry point into the ‘art world’. They are curators of the imagination, motivated by a desire to uncover pure expression. Deller and Kane’s art is in creating a space for such work that is unspun, devoid of quotation marks and uninflected. Like James Goggin’s cover, which features the first half of a preface.

Its design is stripped of emphasis; your eye can fall on any part of the page and it will be as important as everything else. Like the objects in the Folk Archive itself. It is not relativist postmodernism either, where everything means as much as anything else. In fact it is the opposite. It is the art of the artless. Which is as good a definition of art as any.

First published in Eye no. 57 vol. 15 Autumn 2005