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Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane know that they tread a delicate line with the Folk Archive. Their collection and documentation of contemporary popular art in the UK at the turn of the century is situated in the rich seam between art and anthropology – and the artists knew they ran the risk of exploiting their subjects. As they conceded from the start, ‘For those interested in an anthropological approach, we must apologise for the rather too knowing misuse of the phrase “archive” and an artistic casualness with details. For all involved in the folk or vernacular cultural scenes we must similarly apologise for the cheap “folk” shot and a fly-by-night plundering of whole worlds.’ It is only through these two small betrayals, however, that we are able to see what Deller and Kane are getting at with Folk Archive, and that is: a large public heart beating out creativity under the radar of a sanctified art world.
The archive contains relics from festivals and celebrations across Britain, ancient and modern, as well as the ignored efforts of owners of cafes, burger vans and shops, and the somewhat more politicised efforts from protesters and prison inmates. Each work is made by people who have, quite simply, created things to convey their message, be it love, sadness, rage, or a nice cup of tea. The beautifully hand-embroidered male wrestling costumes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, for example, with their curling images of dainty flowers and leaves, are often picked out by commentators as vernacular and culturally specific. The decorative costumes are worn by men taking part in wrestling matches as part of the Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria, a festival established in 1387 and encompassing a bewildering array of parades and contests. As Tom Morton describes, ‘This D. H. Lawrence-like reframing of masculinity as something intertwined with the fecund stuff of stamens and petals wouldn’t play on a national stage (no TV hard man would be seen dead in rose-patterned briefs), but in this small community of wrestling enthusiasts it seems to make sense.’
As well as long-held (and often rural) traditions, however, proper pop is present too. Memorials to Princess Diana are included, as is a paint¬ing of ‘The Simpsons’ on a Sheffield wall, albeit bearing little resem¬blance to the familiar cartoon characters. Viewers might also stumble across a pincushion made in the shape of a St John’s Ambulance vehicle, a watercolour pencil drawing of a topless Page 3 stunner pulling a pint, flower arrangements, customised motorcycling helmets and birthday messages.
Not once, however, will you find an underhand sneer or snigger from the artists who collected and presented this work. Arguably, what underpins Folk Archive is an understanding that ‘it is popular culture now, not religion, that is the heart of a heartless world’. The acts of love here range from the grand to the quotidian, impossible to view with the cool eye of contemporary art. As Deller comments, ‘Warhol said that pop art was about liking things, whereas for me folk art is about loving things.’ Though there are political banners and artworks here, perhaps the most politicised thing about Folk Archive is that it reveals a basic, institutionalised mistrust of the general public, which is, in turn, revealed to be unfounded. It is possible to discern here a general public that is not a passive, shuffling and pedestrian herd, but a mobilised set of individuals who create, make, change and organise. Deller and Kane, whilst openly betraying their subjects, reveal a potentially revolutionary, yet heartfelt, force that was there all along.
. Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, Folk Archive: Contemporary Popular Art from the UK (London: Book Works, 2005), 2.
. Tom Morton, ‘Folk Archive’, Frieze, 93 (September 2005), 134.
. David Beech, ‘High on Good Shit: Towards an ethical relation to popular culture’, in Jeremy Deller, Life is to Blame for Everything: Collected work & projects 1992–99 (London: Salon 3, 2001), 94.
. Deller quoted by Tania Branigan, ‘Profile’, The Guardian (3 December 2004), 13.
Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009