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July 17, 2005 || 11:02 pm
Folk Archive

After the Serpentine, we went to see Jeremy Deller's Folk Archive at the Barbican. What a fantastic, life-affirming and inspiring show. At a time when we are talking so much about British culture and identity, here is a celebration of the most wonderful, most strange and sometimes unsettling parts of our culture - none of the cliches about Britishness, but all of the forgotten rituals, folk art, odd regional crafts, inventive oddities and contemporary regalia (from motorcycle customisations to embroidered wrestling knickers) that exists and flourishes in all corners of our country. This has nothing to do with imperial history, dead Victorians or Tudor castles - and everything to do with a peculiar anarchy and an irrepressible, ebullient self-expression.

Coming from Alabama, where there is a huge interest in 'folk' art although sometimes a commercialisation of this that diminishes its reputation, it was so fantastic to see items from Britain, where it sometimes seems that we don't believe that we have a folk culture any more or a living, indigenous cultural identity - that it has all been replaced with 'pop' culture, hipster media and other cultural forms with, it is assumed, no continuity to something folk, historic or regionally embedded. A show like this shows how ridiculous this assumption is and how rich our culture is. It does ask the question, though, of how we can take a bit more of America's very public celebration of American roots culture, and celebrate these things without destroying their eccentricity and authenticity.

It's also really interesting from the point of view of what makes a community. These rituals - whether the parade of the applecart in Cumbria or the tar-barrel races in Ottery - are communal events, parties and bonding mechanisms. They are a far cry from the contrived 'community' of a 'community forum', a clean-up day on the local estate or a 'multi-faith ceremony'. No-one tells you to join in, there is no intimation of do-gooding or charity or condescension. But at the same time, these rituals are exclusive. They define the community from the outsiders - whether obviously (in the burning of the Pope's effigy in the Lewes bonfire parades) or more subtlely, through the somewhat guild-like organisations behind them. In this way they do embody that key contradiction in the very concepts of 'community' that we all want to believe in, because to be a strong community maybe we do also need to know who is not included. And in response, other 'excluded ' communities make their own folk culture, whether it's Gay Pride or the Notting Hill Carnival.

The friction and the rub between all of these is what makes our 'multi-cultural' country so fantastically stimulating as a place to live, but also so inevitably edgy and difficult. But we shouldn't be dealing with the difficulties by banning these powerful and important expressions of folk identity, or by trying to transform them into some kind of omni-cultural mush. (And before someone attacks me for this, I'm not suggesting we don't ban BNP marches, which have nothing at all to do with the folk culture of Britain and only try to piggyback on it.) We should revel in the complex mythology of these rituals and their contemporary expression, see in them the cathartic release of anarchic energy that might otherwise find darker outlets, and celebrate them not as dead historical pageant but as modern and, quite honestly, pretty damn cool.

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