Folk Art? Dan Smith Queries the Status of Deller & Kane's Folk Archive

By Smith, Dan | Art Monthly, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Folk Art? Dan Smith Queries the Status of Deller & Kane's Folk Archive


Smith, Dan, Art Monthly


Within the collection of images and objects that constitutes Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane's Folk Archive is a recurring emphasis on local festivals, rituals and contests. Generally orientated around forms of performance, these annual events, often hundreds of years old, evoke the most obvious sense of 'folk' within this visual anthology: gurning, pipe-smoking, traditional wrestling, burning barrels, hobby horses, a straw bear, a green man, processions and seasonal rituals.

These strangely exotic forms are somewhat hard to dissociate from the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man--the cinematic apotheosis of an imagined fantasy of Britain's folk imagery. However, these practices are collated here as forms that predate capitalist modernity, performed by and for those that the archive casts as ordinary. This nucleus of traditional fairs and ceremonies is evocative of notions of continuity, creative practice and social engagement that might cut through the alienating and normative fabric of contemporary Britain.

Although only making up a small proportion of Folk Archive, these activities contextualise the rest of the material as contemporary updates of traditional forms of social practice. The archive manages to hold forms of small-scale (non-corporate) commercial signage together with visual props and techniques of social protest--itself a diverse category that includes handmade banners, a Tony Blair scarecrow and fake parking tickets to embarrass and criticise the drivers of 4-wheel drive cars in London. There are also varied examples of impromptu public display--such as a face scrawled on the back of a dirty van--practical jokes, garden design, Christmas decorations, personal tributes and notices in public spaces, customised cars and bikes, art by prisoners including drawings and paintings, but also tattoos and their bricolaged technical means of production. The copious diversity of the archive also includes fancy dress, graffiti, websites, the Notting Hill Carnival and a church service held for clowns in Dalston, where the clowns have their own archive of their individual face make-up recorded on eggs.

Folk Archive has spent the past year and a half touring: beginning at Barbican's Curve Gallery, it has travelled to Milton Keynes Gallery, Spacex in Exeter, Basel Kunsthalle, Aberystwyth Arts Centre and The Lowry, Salford. It has also been collated as a book--not merely a catalogue but a lasting, autonomous and intimate manifestation of the project, published in 2005 by Book Works. In their preface to the book, Deller & Kane give a brief account of their archive as a celebration of quotidian creativity in Britain and Northern Ireland. It is also framed as an attempt to consider what constitutes present-day folk art--a kind of popular form of practice that can be opposed to the corporate and banal forms of representation embodied within the Millennium Dome.

It seems odd that the activities represented in Folk Archive are described as art, albeit of a popular or folk variety. It is incongruous with even the most casual acknowledgement that art is constituted through its institutions, discourses and histories. Things are sought out for the collection that were intended for public display, but not in a gallery, by authors who do not consider themselves artists. But to insist on this homogenisation of all creativity as art masks some of the problematic aspects of Folk Archive. Deller & Kane claim that they simply transpose the works from one form of public display to another, this being what they call the more traditional presentation of art in a gallery. This act of transposition is presented without any sense of how this might be problematic or even complex as a process. It seems wilfully to ignore any sense of representation as a contested discourse, and is obtuse in its negation of anthropological and ethnographic forms of investigation and debate, reflexive or not. This is combined with a slightly disconcerting affirmation of art as something neutral and ahistorical in its constitutive definitions. …

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