BY Mark Sladen in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
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Issue 51


BY Mark Sladen in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

British artist Jeremy Deller is known not for the objects he makes but for the events he facilitates - Acid Brass (1997), for example, which involved re-scoring a set of House classics for a brass band. He brings different artists, institutions or groups together to create something unexpected, and if he succeeds it is because the event usually demonstrates illuminating links between seemingly disparate phenomena. In many ways, his practice is that of a curator, and since curators currently enjoy a curiously high profile within the art world this makes him a rather topical figure.

However, like any curated project, the core of Deller's show 'Unconvention' lay not in the diverse art works and participants which it embraced, but in the organising principle through which they came to be chosen. And in this case it was an apparently eccentric one: the show reflected the artistic, social and political concerns of the band Manic Street Preachers. This strategy is typical of Deller, who uses popular music as a kind of lightning conductor, and who has been attracted before to the network of people and ideas that surround the Welsh superstars.

The gallery was hung with work by artists from Edvard Munch to Jenny Saville, along with images by a number of photo-journalists, from a classic Robert Capa photo-essay about life in the Welsh Valleys to a horrific photograph taken by Kevin Carter during the recent famine in Somalia. Also included were collections of ephemera dedicated to the Spanish Civil War, to Welsh participation in the International Brigade, and to the rag-bag of radical activity that can be traced to the Situationist International.

'Unconvention' was also a gathering. During its first weekend, the exhibition played host to a kind of fair, with stalls manned by a number of pressure groups and co-operatives, including Amnesty International, the Artists' Collective Inventory and the satirical Internet magazine Wales Watch. Other happenings included a speech by the miners' leader Arthur Scargill and a sublime concert by the Pendyrus Male Choir - all of which found their way back into the body of the exhibition through the show's proliferating archive.

But if the Manics provided the organising principle behind the show, then they were also curiously absent from it. Some of the art works and participants had obvious links to the band's words, music or graphics - a painting by Jenny Saville, for example, is reproduced on one of their album covers, while the song 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' takes its title from a propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War. But other exhibits must have puzzled even the most ardent of fans, and, by choosing not to provide a key to the show, Deller created an environment in which personal readings and connections could proliferate.

However, even if the viewer wasn't guided through the exhibition it didn't mean that the show was without its themes. 'Unconvention' included partial histories of Wales, of war and suffering around the world, of social and political protest, of art's ability to inspire both personal introspection and group solidarity. The overarching theme was that of commitment in the broadest sense - a theme signalled by the Ché Guevara quote that Deller used to frame the show: 'A true Revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of Love.'

Few people could fail to find this theme moving, but the real distinction of 'Unconvention' lay in the interaction of such ideas with the show's framework. The exhibition wove a mass of social, political and artistic material into a single exhortation, while refusing to offer a clear point of origin for its message. The concerns and interests of the Manic Street Preachers may have inspired the show, but the image of them which was generated appeared to be an inevitably impossible construct.

The question that remains is the role of Deller. The fact that his projects return to particular territories could be used to locate him as a fan - as presumably he is not immune to the ecstatic pleasures that the individual gains from merging with pop stars. However, as he is also a candidate for author, Deller implicates himself within his own critique of celebrity. 'Unconvention' may have been his show, but he couldn't contain it. The curator is, after all, almost as much a fiction as the rockstar.