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Jeremy Deller: American history from a Canadian singer and British artist

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

Speaking of “Pocahontas,” a track from Neil Young’s 1979 album “Rust Never Sleeps,” Jeremy Deller slips and refers to it as a “pop song.” But he quickly amends his words, offering the opinion that categorizing it as a pop song sells it short. “Pocahontas” is hardly an epic ” five verses that unfold, mostly to the backing of Young’s acoustic guitar, in a brief three minutes and 24 seconds. It isn’t the best-known song from “Rust Never Sleeps,” or even the weightiest; “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black),” Young’s punkish statement of the continuing relevance of rock ‘n’ roll takes those honors. Even in the category of historical depiction of American violence, “Pocahontas” has a rival in the more popular “Powderfinger,” an account of mayhem on the high seas.

Still, in those 200 seconds of music, Deller hears a vast landscape of ideas. “It’s about violence. But also a love story,” said the 41-year-old artist, no doubt referring to the ear-grabbing line “I’d give a thousand pelts / To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt.” “It’s one of the most complex pop songs ever. Metaphorically, what it covers is immense.”

Big enough to build a sprawling art exhibit around. Deller’s current installation at the Aspen Art Museum, Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and Me, is inspired by the themes of “Pocahontas.” Deller takes Young’s central narrative of the slaughter of American Indians ” “They killed us in our teepee and the cut our women down” ” and runs with it. The exhibit, which Deller assembled but contributed no pieces, includes an 1874 sketchbook by Wild Horse, an American Indian held captive by white soldiers, and American painter George Catlin’s 19th-century engravings of indigenous American tribes ” “the other side of the coin of Wild Horse,” noted Deller. Pocahontas herself, the 17th-century Powhatan girl who saved the life of colonist John Smith and married the Englishman John Rolfe, makes an appearance in a photograph of three of her descendants looking at a monument to her.

Young, however, broadened the song’s historical scope in a final verse that mentions Marlon Brando, the Astrodome and Hollywood. Deller answers in kind, with contemporary pieces that address the ideas of racism and cultural genocide. The exhibition, which runs through April 13, features photographs of the American occupation of Iraq and of a black man in the post-Katrina South. Brando, too, makes an appearance in Jeff Blankfort’s black-and-white photograph of the late actor with Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale.

The core theme, of American aggression, both at home and afar, is clear enough. But what gives depth to Young’s song and Deller’s installation is the lapsing of time, in which things change and don’t change.

“It’s how history comes back to us, how history repeats itself,” said Deller of “Pocahontas.” “It’s a song that exists in two time zones: the present then, the ’70s ” and the 1840s, during the conflict of that era. I like the way it connects what happened 150 years ago and what happens today, the cause and effect. You have a rhythm to it.”

Deller considers the era when Young wrote the song, toward the end of the ’70s, and hears an indirect, but to him, clear, reference to another looming episode of aggression. “It’s probably about Vietnam ” people killed in their houses, burned. It’s definitely about Vietnam,” said Deller, who participated in a symposium, inspired by “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and Me,” last week in Aspen that featured mostly members of the American military.

Deller, a native and current resident of London, sees another side to Young’s song than bloodshed and American hegemony. The opening lines to “Pocahontas” are chilling, but not violent: “Aurora borealis / The icy sky at night.” In those words, and other descriptions of the natural world ” “fields of green,” “the night fall[ing] on the setting sun” ” Deller sees an emphasis on something more commonly of concern to visual artists.

“It’s about the beauty of the landscape,” he said. “For me, it was about beauty and the sublime landscape, and what happened on that landscape that was not so sublime.”

Deller addresses this facet of the song with such items as William Henry Jackson’s photograph of Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross.

Perhaps the most absorbing, and easily the most surprising piece in “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and Me,” is a drawing on the wall ” two contiguous walls, actually ” by Dave Muller, “An Up-and-Down Arc w/Whited Noise.” The work tracks the history of rock ‘n’ roll, by artists and styles, from the ’50s into the ’70s. It focuses on the biggest hitmakers of each year. Muller’s chart takes the form of a quasi-landscape, with earthy tones of green and brown.

“What I love about this is it directly combines music and landscape,” said Deller. “It’s rocks and trees, and also the rock business. I like that, formally, it was a landscape painting.”

Muller’s piece also connects Deller directly to music, a frequent component of his work. A fan of “male guitar music” ” but not a musician himself ” he says that roughly half of his art is based in some way on music. He has worked with folk musicians and a brass band, and also with fans of particular bands.

To no surprise, Deller’s warmth for Neil Young extends beyond the one song he has chosen to focus on.

“He’s someone who behaves like an artist, not like a musician,” said Deller, who plans on attending two shows in Young’s run next month at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. “He’s not influenced by public acclaim. He’s experimental. He’s someone who’s his own person, which is rare.”

But not unique. Deller says that another artist who shared those traits with Young is … Marlon Brando. The late actor stood up for black civil rights, participating in the 1963 March on Washington, and appearing in films with a social agenda like “Sayonara” and “The Ugly American.” More to the point, Brando was an activist for American Indian issues. At the 1973 Academy Awards, he famously sent “Sacheen Littlefeather” ” later discovered to be a Mexican actress ” to refuse his Oscar for “The Godfather.”

“The Marlon Brando thing is interesting,” observed Deller. “He and Neil, they both have reputations for being idiosyncratic and difficult. But they both stuck their necks out for social causes, and took criticism for it.”

Young has been on Deller’s mind longer than the year he has been working on the current exhibit. Several years ago, he made a poster posing the question, “What Would Neil Young Do?” The poster, now showing in a Chicago exhibit, indicates the regard that Deller has for Young as a musician, artist, activist and person.

Why look to Neil Young as a moral guide? I asked him. “Because I like to think he’d do the right thing in the circumstances,” said Deller.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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