Friday, 21 March 2014

Jeremy Deller's English Magic

Mary-Claire Wilson pens a love letter to Jeremy Deller's newly emigrated Venice Biennale show, English Magic at William Morris Gallery. 

We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold (2014)

I’m going to come clean. I’ve had an art crush on Jeremy Deller, if not since he won the Turner Prize in 2004, then at least since I saw his retrospective at the Hayward in 2012. He’s an artist with no formal training, who neither draws, paints nor sculpts, and he makes art that can’t be sold. Take that, Messrs Emin and Hirst. And his English Magic, on now at the William Morris Gallery (and then touring the UK) was commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale 2013. A pied piper of popular culture, he creates what might be termed social interventions, part razor-sharp commentary, part wry and witty quip, part utopian fantasy.

The William Morris was the home of one of the founding fathers of the Labour Movement. Morris plays a key role in Deller’s exhibition, in Stuart Sam Hughes’ centrepiece mural We sit starving amidst our gold (2013), the title a quote from one of Morris’ socialist pamphlets, which are shown here alongside the work. 

The painting references a 2011 incident when the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich anchored his yacht in the Giardini quay in Venice, in front of the park where the Biennale is held, restricting the use of the promenade for ordinary folk. Taking revenge on corrupt capitalism everywhere, a colossal Morris tips Abramovich’s yacht into the ocean. This act is shown alongside privatisation certificates and coupons from the era following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when men like Abramovich accumulated their wealth, as deceit, pyramid and Ponzi schemes flourished.

St. Helier on Fire 2017 (2013, as installed at Venice Biennale)

Continuing the revenge theme, and echoing Deller’s famous re-enactment  of the 1984 miner’s strike, is another Hughes mural of an imagined event, St. Helier on Fire 2017 (2013), depicting a large demonstration occurring in the secretive Jersey tax haven in the near future, where enraged protesters burn down the town. Banners created by Ed Hall, a trade union and campaign banner artist, accompany the painting. In a typically Deller-esque twist, the mask-like banners are based on diagrams of tax avoidance schemes.

Bazra in my sights (2013)
Like Morris, Deller thrives on working with others. You have the watches, we have the time (2013) – the phrase was originally a Taliban slogan aimed at NATO – is a powerful collaboration between Deller and prisoners in the UK, many of whom are former soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The suicide of weapons expert David Kelly, after he was revealed as the source of a story that questioned the existence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, is highlighted (Deller has long been angered by this event, one he describes as shameful; he’s even suggested putting a statue of Kelly on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square). 

The prisoners have produced eerie portraits of individuals connected to the conflicts in the Middle East, including Kelly and Tony Blair, as well as depictions of day-to-day army life for British troops, juxtaposed with the William Morris song ‘Wake, London Lads!’ in which Morris exhorts the working men of London not to be led ‘dumb and blind’ into an ‘unjust war.’ The simplicity of the sketches only adds to their potency. Particularly striking are a view of Basra through a sniper’s sights, and a drawing of soldiers smoking crack at Wellington Barracks the night before their deployment.

Highlighting injustice, whatever its guise, is one of Deller’s fortes. Another example of the rich and powerful getting away with murder is the topic of the mural A Good Day for Cyclists (2013), which shows a massive hen harrier, a protected species, dangling a 4x4 from one of its talons. This references an incident in 2007 when Prince Harry seemingly got away with shooting one or more of the birds. As Deller says of the event, ‘If you or I shot a hen harrier in Britain, we would go to prison for six months. So someone got away with it. And that bothered me.’ The film Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah (2013), shows the harriers in flight and brings together many of the ideas behind the works of English Magic.

A Good Day for Cyclists (2013)

The Turner judges praised Deller’s 'generosity of spirit, across a succession of projects which engage with social and cultural context and celebrate the creativity of individuals'. As well as generosity of spirit, Deller has plenty of bite. His brand of social surrealism exposes many uncomfortable truths about modern Britain, with a lightness of touch that veils the sharp thinking behind it. I challenge you to visit the WMG and not leave just a little bit in love with Deller too.

Mary-Claire Wilson

Jeremy Deller: English Magic is at William Morris Gallery until 30 March 2014.

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