It’s a sad commentary on the art world today that Turner Prize–winning artist Jeremy Deller has made a robust critique of capitalism and its corollary, social capital, and nobody seems to get it. Granted, he did not frame Iggy Pop Life Class as a subversive act, but that’s not his style. Instead, for his exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, he favors conversation over commodity and presence over provocation. The results are intriguing.
Using the traditional format of a gallery show, Deller has displayed works made in a life-drawing class where he invited 22 artists from various New York schools to sketch Iggy Pop in the nude. These drawings are accompanied by other examples of male nudes from the museum’s collection including works by Max Beckman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and several nonwhite, non-European artists. So, basically, it’s a room full of pictures of naked men.
But the exhibition is just a point of departure for a larger dialog about the objectification and commodification of the body, as well as a kind of “where are we now?” discussion of the male form (and, by extension, the female form) in art.
That is what we physically see. But many of the powerful anticapitalist critiques in this project are implicit and, as such, are easy to overlook.
One could say Deller has a sentimental approach, one that values intangible things like history and mimetic engagement with the past, which he’s demonstrated in older projects like Battle of Orgreave (2001), in which he staged a massive reenactment of a famous confrontation between striking miners and police in South Yorkshire, and Sacrilege (2014), a life-size inflatable Stonehenge modeled after the kind found in popular amusement parks, pointing to the cheapening of our collective memories and cultural histories by reducing such monuments to objects of amusement.
Deller’s approach to depicting the figure is the polar opposite of that of many of his contemporaries, who have famously embraced the free-market economics of the art-fair system by making such works as Damian Hirst’s hyper-commodified diamond-encrusted skull (For the Love of God, 2007) and Mark Quinn’s life-sized 18k-gold statue of supermodel Kate Moss (Sphinx, 2006).
Deller chose to use Pop’s body and his presence as the subject of the work. In a press release, he explained his rationale: “[Pop’s] body is central to an understanding of rock music and its place within American culture. His body has witnessed much and should be documented.”
Indeed, among musicians, Iggy Pop has long been considered an “artist’s artist” and is credited as being the “godfather of punk rock,” throwing himself into crowds, breaking bones, and baring his lithe body before audiences — all before the Sex Pistols crystalized the style into what became known as punk rock. Pop is one of the most difficult, drug- and sex-addicted, out-of-control, angry, irrational, self-destructive musicians ever — and he’s lived to tell about it.
So rather than making a gold statue of the musician, Deller orchestrated a series of role-reversal experiences, turning the artist into a curator, the rock star into a tableau vivant, and the art students into collaborators. Most importantly, the show’s culmination was a discussion between Deller and Pop, which occurred onstage after the opening reception. It not only revealed all of Deller’s motivations, feelings, and connections that went into getting the drawings made in the first place, but it gave his subject a way to participate in his own portrait — itself a gesture of respect, a reversal of the male gaze and the one-way power dynamic. It was, however, a process that took a decade.
During the discussion, Pop said that Deller had initially approached him about the project 10 years ago and he’d said no. But then he explained why: He was in a very different place in his life at that time, working on fixing past relationships and the relationship he had with himself. He felt he couldn’t do what Deller was proposing “until I finished the job on me, and that wasn’t done yet.”
Pop said that at that stage of his life, “I used my body, as a lot of people who work in the public do, as a kind of object of commerce.” Deller’s approach, by contrast, was to view Pop’s body as an object of culture, going so far as to tell Pop that he was planning to offer the completed drawings to the Smithsonian, which held highbrow appeal for the musician Rolling Stone once called “the world’s wildest punk.”
The real shock these days is when someone resists the temptation to make art only to sell, only to be maximized as a commodity. The entire art-fair infrastructure feeds on this commodification, so it’s an easy trap to fall into. Ironically, even these gestures that might have once been considered edgy are themselves now familiar tropes, so familiar that audiences no longer recognize them as subversive, but just as another part of the show.
Iggy Pop Life Class continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn) through March 26, 2017.