Kit Williams' Masquerade (1979) tells the tale of an emissary - a hare dispatched by the Moon to deliver an amulet to the sulky Sun. It's a sweet story, but the book owes its bestseller status to something else. A professional painter, Williams wrote Masquerade with a treasure hunt in mind. Before the book was published, he buried a golden hare somewhere beneath the British countryside (the broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne was his only witness). To find the treasure Masquerade's readers had to look for clues in the book's illustrations - 15 fabulously cluttered images. In 1982 Tom Mascher cracked Williams' code. He dug up the booty in a Bedfordshire village. The hunt was over. The hare was his.
Masquerade has been on my bookshelves since I was a child, surviving an adolescent cull in which I jettisoned Richmal Crompton's Just William (1922), replacing it with serious stuff by Joyce and Camus. I'm not sure why it's stayed there so long - the hare, after all, is on Mascher's mantelpiece, defusing much of Masquerade's fun. Maybe I've hung on to the book because of its other-worldliness, its melancholy. Stripped of their puzzle purpose, the illustrations - of a talking trout, Sir Isaac Newton, a girl of sixteen in a sensible Speedo - appear alien and slightly sad, like paintings washed up in a charity shop window. Perhaps I kept it because it feels important, a half-forgotten fragment of British folk history. Reading Masquerade makes me think of the thousands of people (with their maps, their thermoses, their woolly tights) who trudged through Britain's backwaters in search of the treasure, gold prospectors in muddy pac-a-macs. Lately it's also made me think about Jeremy Deller's art and the questions it raises: What happens after the gold rush? What happens when the good times go away?
One answer, I guess, is other times - not-so-bad times, banal times, history with a small 'h'. One night in 1996, when dance culture was at its glammed-up nadir, Deller taped a sign above the sinks in a Glaswegian club. It said simply:
Anyone found on the
premises 'on drugs'
will be off their heads
It's kind of funny, but it's also kind of lame, a combination of a shoddy Situationist stunt and one of those T-shirts - fashionable in the first flush of the '90s - that corrupt corporate logos, so that 'Ford' reads as 'Fuct' and 'Enjoy Coca-Cola' reads as 'Enjoy Cocaine'. I like its lameness, though, its struggling syntax, its horrible, out-of-date humour. Someone else liked it too. The sign was peeled off the wall by a pill-popping clubber who stuck it to his sweatshirt (Adidas, non-vintage, typical townie wear). This act of appropriation, says Deller, 'is the greatest compliment I have ever been paid'.
At times it's difficult to pinpoint the art in Deller's practice. In itself, the Advance Warning Sign (1996) is pretty slight, not much more than a knowingly naff joke. Add people, though, and it comes alive. Its art is in its appropriation - a serendipitous thing, impossible to predict - but also in the experiences that this appropriation provoked: the gurning clubber's glee as he fastened the sign to his front, the smiles he received from strangers on the dance floor. Similar ontological problems occur when we consider Deller's most widely known works: Acid Brass (begun in 1997), a project in which a brass band plays Acid House anthems, and The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a project in which the residents of a Yorkshire pit village (many of them ex-pickets) helped to restage one of the bloodiest battles of the 1984-5 miners' strike. Both pieces explore hidden histories: the political activism that ties brass bands to Acid House and the reality behind the media's mephistophelean representation of the miners. This, though, is familiar territory to documentary filmmakers and jobbing journalists. What's special about Deller's approach is its performative aspect (who could watch Orgreave without wondering what memories are hurtling through the ex-miners' heads?) and the way in which his art folds back into its subject matter. The Battle of Orgreave isn't 'about' the miners' strike in the same way that, say, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) is 'about' World War II. Rather, it's a part of its history, an epilogue to an experience.
Acid Brass and The Battle of Orgreave deal with working-class culture. They're big, bold projects, a world away from Secret Hand Signs for the Middle Classes (1996), a set of gangsta-aping gestures developed by Deller. In this system an 'M' formed by the first and third fingers indicates membership of the middle class, rubbing an imaginary banknote between forefinger and thumb means the TV programme Antiques Roadshow, and four fingers laid flat across the knuckles means (wonderfully) Radio 4. Mixing up homeboy moves with Home Counties mores may seem heavy-handed, but, as with Advance Warning Sign, the work is more than a mediocre gag. It gets us thinking about people - public school boys, mostly - who, when they move to the hip part of town, ruffle their hair and ruffle their accents. It also gets us thinking about middle-class status symbols: sleek Swedish cars, bowls of organic fruit, bookshelves full of Booker Prize-winning fiction. Such things (tasteful, quiet, accompanied by qualifying adjectives) confirm somebody's bourgeois credentials. Gang signs, though, are just flesh and bone, a semiotic system with little snob value. No wonder Deller had to make up his Secret Hand Signs for the Middle Classes.
A collection of graffiti cribbed from the British Library's toilets, Deller's Pensées (1994) deals with a subset of the middle class: the middle-aged male academic. One example - a lavatory-wall chain letter in which each line is written by a different contributor - reads:
Would you rather:
Have a grope with Wendy Cope?
Why not especially with Fiona
Get a grip on Angela Ripon?
Fellate the rear of Germaine Greer? ...
Given its context, its sexual tang seems apt - libraries, it is said, make many of us feel libidinous. But there's something competitive about this column of text, an odour of intellectual one-upmanship (the Germaine Greer guy, I imagine, was especially pleased with his contribution). It's tempting to conclude that these library-goers abandoned the sexual act a long time ago, sublimating their desires through deconstructing Walter Benjamin or Beowulf or the Mahabharata. In part, Pensées is a record of their erotic afterlife. Perhaps it's not such a bad state of being - after all, penning a few funny lines does wonders for one's ego.
There's also a hint of the hereafter in Deller's We Are the Mods (1998). The project was staged at Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff's Modernist De la Warr Pavilion (1936), a 'People's Palace' commissioned by a socialist mayor. Today it is somewhere Bexhill-on-Sea's senior citizens gather - to take tea, to take dance lessons, to enjoy the sparkling sea. To Deller it's a heavenly place. I've never been there, but in my mind it resembles Hubert von Herkomer's Old Age: A Study at the Westminster Union (1877), a painting in which a pair of widows are silhouetted against a window like stooping, laughter-lined angels. Deller set up a digital studio at the pavilion (equipped with a sampler and a sequencer) and invited Bexhill's retired residents to try out the technology. Following a week of experimentation two tracks were recorded - a cover of a Bing Crosby song and a religious poem set to music. Somehow, elderly people using equipment that's usually the preserve of the young chimes perfectly with the pavilion's original purpose. In a certain light Deller's Bexhill project looks like a historical remix, a rediscovery - in microcosm - of a lost Modernist dream.
In 1994, shortly before he went missing, Select magazine published a photo of Richey Edwards, the Manic Street Preachers' rhythm guitarist. He looks gorgeous (he always did), but it's his T-shirt that grabs your attention. Its front features the first two lines of Philip Larkin's 'This Be the Verse' (1974): 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.' Designed by Deller and sold by the London boutique Sign of the Times, the T-shirt was the artist's first, albeit accidental, brush with the band's aesthetic. Three years later Deller put together 'The Uses of Literacy', an exhibition of art, poetry and prose by Manics fans he contacted through the music press. The show took its title from a 1957 book by Richard Hoggart. Ostensibly a sociological study of the working classes, Hoggart's text is oddly moving (at times it reads almost like Larkin). Its most affecting lines are a lament for scholarship boys, bright kids who are 'uncertain, dissatisfied, gnawed by self-doubt', the kind of kids, in fact, who the Manic Street Preachers speak to. Looking at the Manics' fans' art, you're struck by its intelligence, its strange, sorrowful beauty. In one drawing a red-haired girl hovers in a tiled room, her features - which seem too delicate, too easy to erase - framed by a length of lead piping. Her crop-top bears the legend 'Little Baby Nothing', the name of a song on Generation Terrorists (1992), the band's début album. The track contains the words 'Rock 'n' Roll is our epiphany'. Considering the girl's heartbreaking stare, you hope this is enough to get her through the night.
The most sophisticated work in the show was by Donna Marshall, who displayed a shelf-full of books. These were texts that influenced the Manics' music - Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Henry Miller's Black Spring (1963) ... Marshall, of course, had read them all. Somehow, I suspect her piece helped Deller dream up 'Unconvention' (1999), an exhibition of images mentioned by the Manics in their lyrics, interviews and CD inlays. Held at Cardiff's Centre for Visual Arts, it featured works by Willem de Kooning, Martin Kippenberger, Edvard Munch and Andy Warhol - peculiar bedfellows, especially since they shared pillow space with Don McCullin's photographs of American troops in Vietnam and archive material about Welsh members of the International Brigade, the anti-fascist faction in the Spanish Civil War. In a sense 'Unconvention' challenged curatorial givens, but it did much more than that. It was about autodidacticism and access to culture, the paths that lead us to particular paintings. It was also about what goes on in our heads, the mental constellations we create (shiny with songs, novels, works of art) that seem chaotic to the outside world but make perfect sense to us.
Deller's most recent project is After the Gold Rush (2002), a travel guide to California. Taking its title from a 1970 album by Neil Young, it's a treasure hunt of sorts. Alongside 'I spy' sections on SUVs, Mormon chapels and correctional facilities, the book features interviews with five individuals, each of whom will give you a gift if you track them down (it's easy enough - their addresses are at the back). The first donor is Alan Laird, an ex-Black Panther who runs an art gallery. The second, Don Pino, is a Cuban émigré, educated in guerrilla warfare by Che Guevara. His dream, he says, is to retire to Cuba: 'it's the most beautiful country in the world.' The third is Dixie Evans, director of the Exotic World Museum of the Burlesque. The fourth and fifth, Richard Olson and Jimmy Bills, live near Melancholy Ranch, a plot of land purchased by Deller at an auction in LA. The ranch is a lonely swatch of sand and sagebrush straight out of Paris, Texas (1984), bordered by four fluorescent poles. Like the individuals interviewed in the book, it's part of a forgotten America - off the beaten track, with all the liberties and limitations that that entails. For Deller buying the land was 'an act in which the freedom you have as an artist, and the freedom you have being in [America] happily coincided'. That, I guess, is the key to what Deller does. He creates moments of context-specific freedom in which history's hold weakens and the world - for a short while at least - seems both infinitely compelling and infinitely open to change. If there's a seam of sadness running through his work, it's only an awareness that we're living, as always, after the gold rush.