Jeremy Deller (1966)
Venice Biennale participation
- Group show
On walking through the door of the British Pavilion in 2013, the first thing visitors saw was a mural of an enormous bird of prey with a Range Rover in its talons. The bird was a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus); a natural predator of grouse which has been given protected species status in the UK after being hunted to near-extinction by gamekeepers. Two were shot over the Sandringham Estate, Norfolk in 2007, when only Prince Harry and his friend William van Cutsem were known to have been on site. Neither criminal charges, nor the bodies of the birds ever materialised.
The mural, titled ‘A Good Day for Cyclists’, presented a kind of wishful thinking: Deller is a cyclist in London, fed up of being barged off roads by so called 'Chelsea Tractors'. Indeed, when he won the Turner Prize in 2004, he dedicated it to ‘everyone who cycles, everyone who cycles in London, everyone who looks after wildlife, and the Quaker movement.’
In the prize citation, the judges commended a ‘generosity of spirit, across a succession of projects which engage with social and cultural context and celebrate the creativity of individuals’. More succinctly, Deller has referred to his work as ‘social surrealism’, perhaps in reference to his dreamlike perspective on reality which owes as much to Monty Python as it does to René Magritte; the comically outsized bird crushing a car in 'A Good Day for Cyclists' being particularly reminiscent of the giant foot which descends to crush the titles in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Though surrealism was already closely involved with the politics of the first half of the Twentieth Century, the term ‘social surrealism’ emphasises ties to ‘social realism.’ An artistic tendency often associated with the political left, social realism attempts to engage with the realities which shape society for most of the people in it, in ways that most of those people could understand.
As the influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued,
Traditional artistic categories do not quite capture [Deller]. He is, amongst other things, a sort of ethnographer, an assembler of things, a ‘stager’ of events, people and artefacts, a re-maker of already constituted materials, an animator of living environments, a metteur-en-scène – as much film or theatre director as fine artist.
In 2005’s Acid Brass, Deller commissioned the Williams Fairey Brass Band to play Detroit Techno classics, combining musical forms from both genres. ‘Liberated’ by the process, Deller realised he ‘didn't have to make objects anymore’, and increasingly began to work through collaboration and commissions. ‘A Good Day for Cyclists’, for example,was painted by the artist Sarah Tynan, with assistance from Venetian art students Veronica Piccolo and Riccardo Giacomini.
A further example of the ‘surreal’ rising out of the ‘social’ is the Folk Archive (2005), made with Deller’s long-term collaborator Alan Kane and subsequently purchased by the British Council. In form, it gathers together examples of British popular culture at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, from records of competitive gurning – in which participants make themselves as ugly as possible – to banners made by Ed Hall, whose works are ubiquitous at Trade Union marches and demonstrations across the UK. It is, Jeremy Millar points out,
a concept instead of a material fact, an actively organising (and disorganising) idea instead of a passive accumulation of objects, that it is able to represent […] the cultural productions of contemporary communities […]
Curated by Emma Gifford-Mead, Deller’s 2013 exhibition took its structure from the pavilion’s six rooms; the concept which united them – English Magic – was essentially a variant of social surrealism.
Another means of thinking about this ‘magic’ might be fiction, a quality that might be present both in a company’s creative attitude towards tax accounting and an artist’s freeness of response to historical fact. Both are essentially acts of deceit, potentially creating value as if from nowhere.
Take, for example, the mural, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, which faced ‘A Good Day for Cyclists’ in the main gallery of the pavilion. Set in the Jersey capital of St Helier, it showed the aftermath of a riot instigated by UK tax payers, angered by the island’s status as a tax haven. Around the room, banners made by Ed Hall depicted two tax-avoidance schemes regularly used by large corporations, as blocks of colour; their resemblance to masks further emphasising the sense of magical deceit.
While smoke pouring from the smashed windows of firebombed buildings in the mural called to mind the events sparked across England by the shooting of Mark Duggan in August 2011, this was in fact an imagined scenario, set in 2017. How, we might ask, is Deller’s ‘magical’ deceitfulness different, say, to that of the tax lawyers? His signing of an open letter to protest against the cutting of arts spending in order to pay for the systematic irresponsibility of the financial sector is one answer. But his work tends not to close off the ‘conversations’ it sets up.
The adjacent room, ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’, continued this conversation; on one wall, a second Stuart Sam Hughes mural depicted the Victorian social reformer William Morris as a giant against the Venetian skyline, picking up an ostentatiously huge yacht – which the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had parked outside the 2011 edition of the Biennale – and flinging it into the lagoon.
Around it, Deller displayed coupons and share certificates issued during the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Twentieth Century. The documents, representing shares in previously nationalised industries, were issued in an attempt to distribute the new private wealth evenly among citizens. In practice, a select few vastly profited by deceitfully impoverishing the many. ‘Many of today’s Russian oligarchs’, wrote Justinian Jampol in the exhibition catalogue,
assembled their wealth as a result of gaming the voucher system, leveraging individual shares from factory workers and amassing controlling shares of the formerly state-run conglomerates.
In 1891, a century before the end of the Cold War, William Morris had written a piece titled ‘The Socialist Ideal’, arguing that:
the “peace” of Commercialism is not peace, but bitter war, and the ghastly waste of Lancashire and the ever-spreading squalor of London are at least object-lessons to teach us that this is so […] the artificial famine of inequality, felt in so many other ways, impoverish [es] us despite of our riches; and we sit starving amidst our gold, the Midas of the ages.
Elsewhere in the essay, Morris insists that ‘private property is public robbery’, and that:
the society which does not give a due opportunity to all its members to exercise their energies pleasurably has forgotten the end of life, is not fulfilling its functions, and therefore is a mere tyranny to be resisted at all points.
Room three of the exhibition, ‘You have the watches, we have the time’, tried to give such an opportunity to some of the most intentionally marginalised members of society: prisoners, many of whom had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It contained drawings, made by inmates from three UK prisons, both of daily life for the foot-soldiers – Basra seen through a gun sight, or hiding under a bed during a nightly mortar attack – and of political figureheads, spin-doctors and media targets associated with the conflict, including Tony Blair and Dr David Kelly. As Deller explained in reference to his failed 2008 proposal to put a life-sized statue of the weapons expert on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, Kelly was;
the scientist who killed himself after being accused of sharing his doubts regarding the famous WMD dossier with journalists […] he was humiliated during a televised parliamentary inquiry and was made to feel the full weight of governmental scrutiny. It was a shameful event in British public life.
There has surely been no more uniform, levelling aspect of British life – public or private – than tea drinking, which makes the fact that the British pavilion started life as the Giardini tea rooms particularly apt. In 2013, visitors were offered a free mug of PG Tips beneath a formation of Neolithic-looking arrowheads spelling out ‘TEA’ on the wall; a link both to the flint tools on display in room one, and Sacrilege, the life-sized inflatable version of Stonehenge that Deller had toured round the world in 2012. In the film on loop in room five, people could be seen bouncing on Sacrilege accompanied by the Melodians Steel Orchestra’s version of A Guy Called Gerald’s 1988 acid house single ‘Voodoo Ray’, complete with the vocal hook – ‘Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah’ – which Deller chose to title the room.
The film was designed to bring the themes of the exhibition together, and the fact that its half-jolly, half-melancholy soundtrack was audible throughout the rooms served to advance this aim. Screened in front of a bench fashioned from a crushed Range Rover, it began with the Melodians’ gentle rendition of the third movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no. 5 in D., accompanying slow-motion footage of birds of prey in flight in green parkland. With a cut to a scrapyard crane plucking up and crushing Range Rovers (one of which formed the aforementioned seat), accompanied by ‘Voodoo Ray’, the reprise of room one was complete.
Before returning to shots of the majestic birds, the penultimate sequence featured the Lord Mayor’s parade making its way through London to a steel-drummed version of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. This particular track provided source text for two banners which hung either side of the doorway on the pavilion’s exterior (‘I searched for form and land’/‘for years and years I roamed’), although they were rather deceptively described in the exhibition leaflet as ‘a lyric from an ancient song that was originally written and recorded in 1970’. This bending of time is consistent both with the psychedelic, science-fiction atmosphere of the song, and the futuristic projections, say, of the St Helier mural.
Room six, ‘Bevan tried to change the nation’ took its title from a different Bowie song, ‘Star’, the seventh track on the concept album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972):
Tony went to fight in Belfast
Rudi stayed at home to starve
I could make it all worthwhile
As a rock & roll star
Bevan tried to change the nation
Sonny wants to turn the world, well he can tell you that
I could make a transformation as a rock & roll star.
Deller’s title focuses us on the mention of Aneurin Bevan, the Labour Health Minister who oversaw the establishment of the National Health Service. Subsequently described by the Conservative politician Nigel Lawson as ‘the closest thing the English have to a religion’, Danny Boyle saw the NHS as sufficiently central to the British character to feature it in his 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, and it continues to be a battleground between the kind of public and private interests explored in ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’.
Bowie himself was looking at the relationship between flamboyant creativity and social change through the idea of ‘character’; for eighteen months between January 1972 and July 1973, he toured the UK as Ziggy Stardust. On the wall of room six, a map by Scott King traced the tour's progress in red lines across a thin black outline of the British Isles. Elsewhere in the room, fans’ images of the gigs were hung in sequence with press photographs depicting contemporary moments of political and social upheaval; massive lay-offs in industry announced the day Bowie played Brighton, an IRA bomb in Aldershot the night he played Chichester, an attempt to assassinate the Ulster minister the night he played Sutton Coldfield.
Appropriately, Deller’s show received Art Fund and Arts Council England backing to go on its own tour of England (rather than the entire UK: in 2013, Scotland had been represented at Venice by Duncan Campbell, Corin Sworn and Hayley Tompkins, and Wales by Bedwyr Williams). Even more appropriately the tour started at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow; on the opening night Deller called it ‘the best place in the solar system’ for the Morris-related elements.
The leaflet for Deller's 2013 exhibition suggested that Ziggy Stardust ‘created an alternative reality for many young people’ and ‘an escape from the social, political and economic issues that their parents had to deal with throughout the period’. Forty years later, Deller’s own tour sociably and surreally blurred the boundaries between the reality of the issues, and the magic of the escape.
Tom Overton, 2014
Jeremy Deller and others, Jeremy Deller: Joy in People (London: Hayward Publishing, 2012).
Stuart Hall, ‘Jeremy Deller’s Political Imaginary’, in Jeremy Deller: Joy in People, pp. 81–9.
Justinian Jampol, ‘Privatising Russia: Scams, Schemes and Greed in the Early 1990s’, in Jeremy Deller: English Magic (Manchester: British Council, 2013), pp. 42-47.
Nigel Lawson, The View from No. 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical (London: Bantam Press, 1992).
Jeremy Millar, ‘Poets of Their Own Affairs: A Brief Introduction to Folk Archive’, in Folk Archive: Contemporary Popular Art from the UK (London: Book Works, 2005), pp. 149–54.
William Morris, ‘The Socialist Ideal: I.--Art.’, The New Review, ed. by Archibald Grove, 4 (1891), 1–8. Available at .
Monty Python consultant – Charles Cornish-Dale
‘UK Tea Council – A Social History of the Nation’s Favourite Drink’ [accessed 2 February 2014].