Jeremy Deller harnesses English Magic

We sit starving amidst our gold, painted by Sam Stuart Hughes

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When Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller was selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, he did so by attempting to harness that old English magic.

If you’re a frequent reader of this magazine’s art section (hey guys), you might remember that we were lucky enough to attend last year’s Venice Biennale. However, what we didn’t mention in our original review was the fact it rained solidly for our entire stay, meaning that, though we had visions of leisurely sipping Aperol Spritzes in the sunshine with the glam international art set, this ended up being far from the case.

In reality we squelched around the city, drenched yet eager, whilst trying to cram in as much work as possible. In the midst of all this particularly English weather, Jeremy Deller’s show English Magic at the British Pavilion was a haven filled with Vaughan Williams, David Bowie and a tea stand. So after thanking the London-born, Turner Prize winning artist for – unbeknownst to himself – providing us with shelter in a time of need, the first question we asked was whether that soothing nature was part of the exhibition’s aim. “It was a way of keeping people in the pavilion!” he answers. “But it was also meant to be a moment when people could sit down. Venice is quite a stressful environment, lots of running around and not enough sitting down.” We agreed
on that.

Away from the bustle of the world’s foremost contemporary art exhibition, there’s now plenty of time to enjoy the show, with English Magic being toured around three UK public arts spaces. Starting at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, it opens at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery from 12 April through to September, before moving to the Turner Contemporary in Margate for four months from October. “The Art Fund wanted to tour it”, Deller tells us about his motivation for a national, almost year-long tour of his work. “And I jumped at this, because Venice, however popular as an exhibition, is still in Venice so most people will not see it. It was offered to a number of institutions unseen, as it were. They didn’t really know what it was they were getting, and then they chose me.”

It’s fitting that the show began its UK tour at the William Morris Gallery, as one of the most imposing images of the show is a mural depicting the British arts and crafts designer from which the gallery takes its name throwing Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the Venetian waters. This work was produced in reference to the last Biennale, in 2011, where Abramovich’s obnoxiously large yacht blocked the view out to the lagoon as you walked along to the main area of the festival. It was a statement: when it comes to art, some people are allowed in and others’ views are restricted; Abramovich’s buying power on the international art market allows him to do whatever he wants. Morris, though far from a formidable figure, passionately believed that art, along with education and freedom, belonged to all, and turning him into this giant, powerful force was Deller’s attempt to redress the balance.

One way in which Deller works to open his art up to a wider audience is by engaging with a plurality of voices when putting his exhibitions together. One of the rooms in the pavilion contained pictures drawn by inmates from UK prisons who used to be soldiers. The drawings ranged in both subject matter and skill level, depicting everything from Rupert Murdoch to an image of distant Basra seen close in the cross-hairs. We ask how the idea came about. “I knew I wanted to have prison art in the pavilion as I have been involved in art made in prisons for a few years now, and eventually I narrowed down the idea to be specifically about soldiers who find themselves in prison.” The drawings themselves are incredibly affecting, yet they resist being overly sentimental. He tells us, “I was there when the work was made, I knew exactly what I wanted and
I wanted it displayed in a very specific, neutral way”. The fact that these works do not become something trite or tokenistic is testament to the way in which the artist works closely with his collaborators.

Perhaps Deller’s best known work is 1997’s Acid Brass. Thought up in a
pub, the work is based around live performances of a traditional British Brass Band playing covers of acid house tracks alongside a large-scale, sprawling spider diagram showing the ways in which these two musical genres interconnect. It’s been nearly 20 years since the first Acid Brass performance and the William Fairey Band are still touring, playing at the TATE as recently as last December. We ask what his connection is with it now. “It still happens, and it hasn’t changed much. I turn up when I can, but it’s like a child that has left home.” It’s the way in which Deller sees through his ideas which gives them such potency. He maintains an important connection with the process whilst at the same time empowering those involved and allowing it the space to develop and grow.

Deller’s devolvement of power and trust drips down right the way down through English Magic, to the gallery attendants. In part of the show, a steward stands behind a table with a neolithic axe head. They hand it to you and explain that it dates to around 6,000 years ago. They then open a drawer in the table and pull out another axe head, which to the untrained eye appears identical, before revealing that this second weapon was actually made and used over 300,000 years ago. The idea that, in touching this axe, you are touching something that
was made by a lesser evolved version of ourselves was particularly striking for the artist. “It was about an interaction with prehistoric culture, you hold a hand axe made hundreds of thousands of years ago and that’s as close as you will ever get to the people of that time. They are also objects of great beauty.” And there
is something magical about the whole process, not least because the ‘reveal’ of the second axe head feels like it deserves an ‘Abracadabra’.

With English Magic, Deller offers his audience a number of ways to get involved with the show, and to subsequently take something home with them. As well as the storytelling element of the axe heads, for example, there was also a stand where visitors could make their own prints of a hen harrier clutching a Land Rover in its talons, another important visual from the show. Though Deller dismisses this as
just “a souvenir thing”, it feels like more. The participative process, being able to leave with something physical, allows for
a different kind of connection to the show, in the same way that the prehistoric axe head leaves something with you when you actually get to hold it in your hand. Deller tells us he thinks that “all exhibitions are
in a sense sharing of information, and art is an opportunity to do something that might not happen otherwise”. For the duration of English Magic you always
have the sense that you are being shown something special, sharing in a secret, and ever becoming closer to the stories and histories that are unfolded around you.

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