Photo of “Joy in People” by Jeremy Deller courtesy of ICA Philadelphia

After a long and hectic week, Saturday afternoon finally found me curled up on a couch with a book thick enough to double as a weapon of self-defense. A recent find from the Book Trader in Olde City, the only thing that jumped out from its faded blue cover was the word “BOGART” written in large print across the spine. As I traveled through the 1940s with my favorite detective and leading man, I spent the next few hours getting into bar fights, partying with Frank Sinatra, and swapping lines with Lauren Bacall.

Every so often, my adventures were interrupted by the jarring sounds of a piano or the soft tones of popular music set to repeat. That’s because the black leather couch was set smack in the middle of Jeremy Deller’s current exhibition at the ICA, Joy in People.

I was a volunteer assigned with the easiest three-hour shift of a lifetime: to sit on a couch and read (no problem for someone who’d been hooked early by Golden Books and Dr. Seuss). The only thing missing was every bookworm’s best friend – a mug of tea – but I watched as gallery visitors made their way over to the volunteers at “Valerie’s Snack Bar” (2009) to retrieve free cups of steaming liquid gold. The mockup of the Manchester cafe beckoned to me from across the room, a distant promise of homey comfort as inaccessible to me as a slice of pie from “Nighthawks” (1942).

I remained at my post, stubbornly stationary, decked in somber clothes of black to match the black lettering on the black wall that declared “I

I could only catch glimpses of the rest of the gallery from the corner perch where I sat. Nearsighted and without my glasses, they were blurry glimpses at best. Directly across from me, “Open Bedroom” (1993) invited visitors back to Deller’s boyhood space of music posters and pop culture memorabilia. Just beyond the snack bar, I could see people disappearing into the blackness beyond a gaping pair of jaws. It was from this mouth that the piano notes emerged, daring entry with thunderclaps of music that echoed through the space.

At precisely five o’clock, I was released from my couch confinement. I traveled back through the brightly colored door that bid entrants to “Bless this Acid House” and into the cool white light of the lobby.

But I knew even before I hit the October air that I’d be returning to satisfy my curiosity and visit those hidden spaces, where lucky gallery visitors got an up-close look into the experiential world of Jeremy Deller.

Joy in People is at ICA Philadelphia through December 30.

W. Paul Galiczynski

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