A giant flowchart titled The History of the World (1997) stretches across a large wall in London-based artist Jeremy Deller’s mid-career retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art. If you’re looking for a logical schematic, you won’t find it here. “Brass bands” apparently lead to “melancholy,” “Techno” funnels into “hardcore,” and “pit bands” are distinguished from “warehouse parties” by just one degree of separation. While a gestural flowchart of musical affinities might befuddle traditional historians concerned with world events, it makes perfect sense in the context of Jeremy Deller: Joy in People: For Deller, it’s always been less about the chart and more about the flow.
In fact, if you made a flowchart of Deller’s career, it might look something like this: “Art show in parents house” (bold, written in caps); “Turner Prize, most prestigious art prize in Britain” (bold, written in caps). Connecting these diametrically opposed events would snake a web of unlikely art projects such as parades, road trips, dance parties, fanzines and historical reenactments—energetic tangents all—that have led to Deller’s current status as one of the most important artists of the past 20 years.
Visitors can see relics from most of these projects at Joy in People, which spans Deller’s curatorial, agitational, organizational and relational artwork from the early 1990s through 2012, all of which is to say that Deller doesn’t so much make things as get really excited about the potential to frame other people’s creative mania or cultural production. Sub-cultures, particularly musical ones, have been long-time sources of inspiration. In the video Our Hobby is Depeche Mode (2006), Deller documents the antics of die-hard Depeche Mode fans in Mexico, the United States, Germany, Romania, Brazil and Canada. It’s a surprisingly touching—and sometimes mystifying— testament to the cross-generational, international appeal of the 1980s synth-pop sensation.
Other collectives featured in the exhibition are united not through fandom, but hard labor. In one of his best-known and most epically complex projects, Deller corralled approximately 800 historical re-enactors and 200 miners involved in the original 1984 National Union of Mineworkers strike to restage the infamous confrontation between British miners and police. The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) (2001) intersperses scenes from the re-enactment with interviews from miners and strike supporters and police and government officials.
If Deller’s projects often celebrate the collective, then they also leave room for the individual. His 2010 So Many Ways to Hurt You (The Life and Times of Adrian Street) is an engrossing profile of a Welsh miner-turned flamboyant pro-wrestler. Flanked by mannequins sporting two of Street’s self-designed costumes—a floor-length velvet frock with white lace trim and a glam cape of blue sequins emblazoned with a hot-pink union jack—sits a video embedded in the center of a rainbow-hued mural. Street sits comfortably at ease under an airbrushed rainbow as he recounts the story of his rise from the pits to the ring. The dissonance established between the hyper-feminized accoutrements on view and the macho physique of a body builder is—as we soon learn—Street’s signature method of intimidation. He kisses men in the ring, he tickles them with his feather boa, and then he takes them out. I ♥ Melancholy (1993) toys with expectations in a different way. Appropriately situated across from the reconstruction of Deller’s childhood bedroom, a large black wall scintillates with the sparkle of I ♥ Melancholy written in gloss black paint. A disaffected youth lounges on a black leather couch, pointedly engrossed in a book. It’s surprising that the only live person in a show otherwise devoted to drawing people out totally ignores you. But then again, you can always comfort yourself with a free cup of tea, available at Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009), the functional cafe that Deller has erected for visitors just across the way.
Through Dec. 30. Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. 215.898.7108. icaphila.org