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Challenging Traditional Art: British Artist Jeremy Deller's Work On View At CAM

When British conceptual artist Jeremy Deller chose to stage his first private exhibition back in 1993, he decided to go with a small, intimate setting he knew well: his bedroom.

“It wasn’t so full of people, but I didn’t want it to be full of people,” he says of Open Bedroom, which was by invitation only. “I was terrified that someone would put a cigarette end out on a table or a carpet or something.”

He staged it over a two-week period while his parents went on holiday, which they wouldn’t find out for several years. His works included t-shirts he screen printed, paintings about the life of The Who drummer Keith Moon, and a booklet of “intellectual” graffiti art – straight from the men’s bathroom of a public library.

Twenty-five years later, Deller has expanded beyond those four walls and has created art surrounding music, parades, protest – and even the London Tube.

A retrospective of his work “Jeremy Deller: Joy In People” is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum through April 28. Visitors can see re-creations of some of his most stand-out pieces, from his first bedroom exhibition to a re-creation of a working café float he made for a parade he staged in 2009 as part of the Manchester International Festival.

Fellowship producer Erin Williams talked with Deller about his successes, failures, and how a chance meeting with Andy Warhol put the gears in motion.

Here is an edited excerpt of the conversation:

On figuring out what type of artist he was trying to be

“I knew I was pretty useless, but I was good at certain things but I still couldn’t put my finger on it. My work was unsaleable in more ways than one. You couldn’t really buy it or sometimes you couldn’t even see it. It just existed as an idea. I was just stumbling around, going from one thing to the next and just seeing how it went. You’re not really thinking of a career as such. Overnight success is like a seven year process, really.”

On hanging out with Andy Warhol at The Factory in 1986

“Most of the time when people invite you to do things, especially in Britain, they actually don’t want you to do it, and they’re hoping you won’t say yes. But I thought ‘You know what, I’m going to do this, even if you don’t want me to I’m just going to show up.’ And I did. That’s an education in itself. He just liked gossip and information. He just wanted to know what I’d been up to. Who I’d seen, where I’d been what I liked, what I didn’t like, what the Royal Family would like, and he just wanted information.

On interviewing Americans for a booklet he put together about a tour of California through people in 2001

“People are history, aren’t they? And so these people I interviewed – a lot of them had incredibly interesting lives and take part in recent historical events. Americans always want to tell you their story. That’s the difference between them and British people- one of the differences - is that they’re more than happy to talk about their lives to you.”

On his next chapter

“What I don’t want to do is rest on my laurels. Not saying that Warhol did that, but…you do want to keep looking ahead. ‘Cause as soon as you start thinking ‘Well, I’ve done some really good work, I’m just  going to take it easy,’ that’s it it’s all over really. You try and push yourself to do silly things.”