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The Carte Blanche program at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo involves the selection of a contemporary artist to act as curator for an exhibition, effectively giving the artist the freedom to design the type of exhibition that they themselves would like to see. In 2007 the job was given to the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. In 2008 it was the British artist Jeremy Deller’s turn.
The role of curator is not unusual for Deller, as over the last fifteen years he has frequently incorporated curatorial strategies into the production of his work. Deller’s rationale for ‘From One Revolution to Another’ focused on how shifts in culture are influenced by broader technological innovation. He attempted to demonstrate this by showcasing his penchant for folk and outsider art.
The exhibition was split into five different sections, most of which could be separated by the theme of nationality. The largest section was the British themed Folk Archive (1999-2005), Deller’s well-known collaboration with Alan Kane. Here, a hodge-podge of artefacts loosely interpreted as British folk art were collated and represented either through photographic means or by presentation of the actual objects. Included in the display was a retrospective of the banners of Ed Hall, who has been making banners for associations engaged in social and political causes for over twenty years. In a separate gallery space, the British theme continued with Deller’s All That is Solid Melts into Air concentrating on the impact of industrialisation on post-1960s British Rock ranging from David Bowie to the Happy Mondays.
Over in a French themed display the story of the Golf Drouet club in Paris was told (an influential venue in the development of French rock and pop in the 1960s) via posters, archival footage and mise en scène recreation. This excursion into music history was repeated in Sound in Z, an exhibition of Russian sound and visual experiments from the 1920s that were contextualized as a foundation for electronic music. The exhibited objects and archival footage—organised by Matthew Price and Andrei Smirnov—were derived from the Theremin Centre in Moscow and detailed the importance of Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and Leon Theremin in modern music and general technological innovation.
Lastly, the American section featured the work of William Scott—a painter with an intellectual disability who attends the Creative Growth Art Centre in California. Scott’s work (something of a cross between Henry Darger and Daniel Johnston) vented a fantasy to demolish the San Francisco area and ‘optimistically’ rebuild it as an area named Praise Frisco. Paintings of imaginary friends who attend Scott’s local church were shown alongside representations of his architectural designs for San Francisco. Deller’s selection and placement of Scott—an outsider artist from America—brought the exhibition back to a trope that was represented in Folk Archive, but without the inimitable Britishness which pervades that project.
Due to its scale and multiple curatorial narratives, ‘From One Revolution to Another’ was a difficult exhibition to translate. From the pre-exhibition publicity, I was looking forward to seeing a topical, accessible and uncompromising exhibition. In walking through the large gallery spaces I could not help but think that each display was overwhelmed by the entire project. Exhibited on mass, Deller’s decisions appeared flippant and incongruent to his practice so far. Whilst he often operates within the grey area between artist and curator, rarely has his work seemed so lifeless. A more fluid treatment of each space and more enigmatic mode of display would have prevented the exhibition from resembling a dull lecture. Maybe it was didactic overload. What were interesting ideas in theory resembled a jumble of objects that failed to communicate beyond their restrictive curatorial frames.
In contrast to contemporaries such as Philipe Parreno or Pierre Huyghe, Deller plays his curatorial approach rather straight, avoiding the poetic-curatorial style which Marcel Broodthaers helped to spawn. In this exhibition his fascination with folk history could easily be interpreted more as a fetish for the authentic. The multiple references to pop music heightened my awareness of the role that taste plays in his work, something which he downplays in order contextualise his practice as a neutral form of socio-historical critique. In doing this Deller has become a pin-up boy for public art institutions the world over who value outcome driven art with social agendas over objects of subjective exploration. I cannot help but think that Deller’s obsession with the pre-institutionalised, grass-root beginnings of culture manifests itself as an antidote to his own institutionally-driven mindset.
The true value of such exhibitions is in the way they serve as a talking point or generator of ideas. An interesting program of lectures, screenings and performances held by the Palais de Tokyo during the course of the exhibition bounced off Deller’s concern for the way industrialism has impacted on popular music and culture. By incorporating a multi-national thematic scheme Deller obviously wanted to make a statement of global proportions. Ultimately I am still left wondering what his point was beyond the fact that technological change creates cultural change.
One reason why the Palais de Tokyo’s Carte Blanche program is so successful is that as viewers we often get more insight into an artist’s practice when they are asked to indulge. In this excursion, Deller’s practice gets rebranded more in the vein of a hip curator than an artist who is genuinely interested in restaging alternative histories. I expect that by representing folk, outsider art and the initial experiments that forged new genres of music, he wanted to demonstrate how the most interesting things happen before society’s labels are put on them. Due to his reliance on conservative modes of display Deller’s objects could not convey the same sense of vitality that he himself finds so inspiring.