I first met Jeremy Deller at his studio in London in 2000. It was my last stop in the city en route to Heathrow and had been prefaced by two recent encounters with Jeremy’s work that heightened the anticipation of our meeting. As part of the Tate Britain show Intelligence, he’d presented his collaborative “Folk Archive” project with fellow artist Alan Kane which functions as an ongoing compendium of the art and cultural production of everyday contemporary Britons. I was blown away not only by the breadth and volume of the material, but also by his redefining the notion of what “folk art” could mean and represent—as something that could truly embody the creativity of a people rather than merely signifying a particular genre of art. The other was a more subtle and subdued work presented as part of the exhibition Protest and Survive at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, titled Has the World Changed or Have I Changed? (2000). I immediately recognized the phrase from the song “The Queen is Dead” by the legendary 1980s Manchester The Smiths. Both the song and the eponymously-titled album that it opens were a staple of my musical life as a Chicago-area teenager, yet I’d never really meditated on that lyric until prompted by Deller’s intervention. The work itself—represented as part of the larger installation Beyond the White Walls (2012) in CAM’s presentation of Jeremy Deller: Joy in People (opening February 1)—features documentation of a day that Deller spent with a circus clown in and around the German town of Hanover. The droll tragicomedy of the situation fit perfectly with the sense of world-weariness of the title phrase. While its appearance in the middle of The Smiths’ song is mitigated by the momentum of Johnny Marr’s urgent guitar, placed in this new context it becomes a somewhat maudlin reflection on growing old, on the passage of time, and one’s ability to truly feel in touch with the present moment. I suspect that both Marr’s guitar and a teenaged lack of life-perspective conspired to obscure the lyric for me in 1986, but since then I cannot help but reflect on the phrase when confronted with some new cultural phenomenon, the appeal of which I cannot fathom.
The forthcoming opening of Jeremy Deller’s survey exhibition at CAM has prompted me to ask the question “has the world changed or have I changed” once again from perhaps a more affirmative and optimistic perspective. The world HAS changed since The Smiths first posed that question to me, as have I—thanks, in part, to Jeremy’s work. As the exhibition demonstrates through a range of experiences—from a re-creation of Deller’s first show in his parent’s home to an exploration of the life and times of British glam-wrestler Adrian Street—there certainly is joy to be had in the things that people do, say, make, and sing—things that in large and small ways change the world and our relationship to it.
By Dominic Molon, Chief Curator