Great art? Street art? Pop art?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
By Phil Johnson

It could be little more fan culture - naive teenage angst, portfolio- worthy A-Level earnestness and some very sophisticated writing - or it could be folk art. Pictures and poems about the pop group the Manic Street Preachers produced by their fans and have been presented (well, there's a wall of pictures, a shelf of books, a desk with copies of texts on it and a cassette recorder) as part of an exhibition.

What is the artist, Jeremy Deller, who has put it together as part of the `Voice Over' exhibition at Bristol's Arnolfini gallery, doing? The project began when Deller contacted fans via a list of readers from a fanzine and an ad he placed in Melody Maker.Needless to say, there is a particular intensity about the relationship between the group and its fans since the mysterious disappearance of Richie Edwards two years ago.

Deller was inundated. "I chose this band because they actually seem to have an ideology", he says. "I suspected that the most devoted fans would share that ideology and be creative people. The fans appropriate the band just as I appropriate things. I want you to look at the work for what it is, which is great art."

One of the problems, of course, is that most of it self-evidently isn't, and by insisting on its status as art Deller neglects what is perhaps the most interesting stuff, the sociology and iconography of fan culture. "It's not about that," he says: "That's the easiest kind of documentary to make. It's more about people's relationship to music and about how creative it can be, and I'm not really appropriating other people's work because I'm not presenting it as my own."

Does his work have a political position? "All work has a political position," comes the reply.

Look out for Jeremy Deller. He's going to be a star. But think also of the teenager in his or her bedroom, laboriously tracing a picture of their heroes. What it means might be a bit blurred around the edges. But the image, oh the image. It's as sharp as the Smash Hits picture-spread it was so lovingly traced from.

Deller's title for the work, `The Uses of Literacy', doesn't really make his intentions any clearer, and one's first fear is that by placing the painfully sincere but often naive work of the fans in a fine art context he is exposing it and them to ridicule. This, he says emphatically, is not the case: "My work is about how music can be a spiritual replacement,' Deller says. "It was really great working with these people and getting to know them. lt was a real dialogue." He has photographs of celebrities in various forms of ecstatic excess: as well as Richie Edwards with his famous bleeding arm, there is hostage Jackie Mann watching a fly-past of Spitfires to celebrate his return home and the family of a Hillsborough victim who's about to have his life-support system turned off. "This is the baroque of now," Deller says, and yep, you have to agree he has a point.

Then come scenes of the mass mourning for Diana in the Mall, which was, says Deller: "Probably the most baroque event in British history this century." We see a slide of Deller's own intervention into the Diana business, a poem he placed among a mass of flowers on the Mall as a protest against what he saw as the obscenity of the occasion. It's as naive, perhaps, as the work of the Manics fans, with a final rhyme of "paparazzi" and "nazi". The following slides show mourners looking with interest at the poem, quite unaware, he says, of the protest it represented.

This, in essence, is what Deller's art is about: quick, cheap to produce and easy to read (if not to interpret) interventions into the realm of public events. "For me as an artist you have to react to a situation, and if you can enter that system as it's going ahead you can take it off course, if only for a moment," he says. Here's a slide of Robbie Williams wearing, `My Drink Hell', and one of Richie Edwards wearing Philip Larkin's line: "They fuck you up your mum and dad". There's also his "I Love Joyriding" car bumper stickers, a ruse that required a quick getaway, especially when applied to a police car. "You put the sticker on, take a photograph, and then you run off," he says. "There's not much point in hanging around." There's also an exhibition poster which reproduces an image from the Evening Standard of someone snorting a line of cocaine. "The whole London art scene is driven by cocaine," he says. Another poster image shows a group of people in Vietnam struggling to get into a departing helicopter. "It's like the Brit-pack art scene. Everybody's struggling to get into the helicopter of success before take off."

We may not be looking at a new Marcel Duchamp but Deller could well be the next Malcolm McClaren.

`Voice Over' continues at the Arnolfini (0117-929 9191) until March 22, then is at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle (4 April-17 May) and Nottingham Castle Museum (12 September-1 November).