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Sarah Tynan, A Good Day for Cyclists, 2013. Photo: Evelyn Saleh.

Jeremy Deller: English Magic

The British Pavilion at the
55th International Art Exhibition 
la Biennale di Venezia

By Floriana Piqué

A Man of Many Talents

Jeremy Deller, an educated art historian and an installation and video artist, created across the rooms of the British Pavilion English Magic

a personal, unique history of England that shifts constantly between reality and magical fiction. 

He combines, this time on a larger scale, his usual ways of expression like video, music, installation, staged events, collections of memorabilia, art works and contributions from other artists with his political and social passionate involvement. 

Jeremy Deller’s realization of the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is an example of his complexity as a personality and of his numerous interests as human being.

A young man of his time, he looks to the Past to take inspiration for interpreting the Present and imagining the Future.

The Past is for Deller not just the recent one, the one which affects his span of life but, quite unusually, the Prehistoric Age.

Deller assembles and combines works, actions, thoughts of different people, artists, and thinkers to conjure his own project. What results is a unique staged event that in a certain way blurs the boundaries and explores the limits of the various disciplines implied.

For this artist, the viewer’s participation is essential not just to the realization but mainly to the existence of the work itself.

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The Pavilion opens with a huge mural painted by Sarah Tynan: a giant Hen Harrier, a rare bird of prey, spreads out its wings while crunching its talons through the windscreen of an expensive four-wheel-drive SUV.

The spectator is mesmerized by the revenge of Nature over Mankind. At the same time the irony in the title, A Good Day for Cyclists, relieves the strong aggression.

This is Deller’s way of showing his works and approaching life: balancing the impact of natural forces with the lightness of irony. 

From the present day’s image the artist moves us to our Paleolithic past. The Small Faces is a group of hand axes dated 250,000-400,000 B.C., a hint to how far we can retrace the origins of English civilization.

The viewer is offered the opportunity to hold in his hands some of these tools to create a tactile bound with our Ancestors.

A jump to a hypothetical future is on the third wall. In June 2017, after a demonstration of UK citizens angry over the Jersey Islands’ status as a tax haven and the secretive culture of the banking system there, the capital St. Helier is set on fire. A large mural, St. Helier on fire 2017, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes is a manifesto of Jeremy Deller’s social-political ideas.

This political intention is even more evident inside this year’s Biennale where the main exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace is connoted by a rich, sophisticated research stretched to the limits of eccentricity.

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Stuart Sam Hughes We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold, 2013. Photo: The British Council.

In Room 2 Deller presents the work and the figure of William Morris, a Victorian artist, textile designer, writer and libertarian socialist, deliberately in contrast with the way Russian capitalism unfolded after the crash of the communist regime.

A mural covering an entire wall, We sit starving amidst our gold, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, sees Morris as the God of the Sea, a giant Poseidon throwing the huge yacht of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich into the Venetian lagoon.

Russian share certificates, coupons, and privatization cheques are displayed on the adjacent wall, an immediate depiction of the way in which few built up an immense fortune at the expense of many.

In a Venice where, during the Biennale, there are exhibitions in foundations linked to big corporations and extremely wealthy collectors, this statement of Deller’s sounds like a very strong statement.

Deller’s peculiar way of producing art, of acting as artist, curator, filmmaker, organizer, stage director reflects back to his career.

Born in 1966 in London, in 1993 he organized his first exhibition, Open Bedroom,in his family home while his parents were on holiday.

In 2001 Deller staged The Battle of Orgreave, a re-enactment of the violent clash between miners and police during the 1984 strike at Orgreave, Yorkshire.

This project, resulting in a filmed performance, engaged 1000 people, amongst them veteran miners and members of historical societies.

The recipient of the Turner Prize in 2004, in 2012 Jeremy Deller saw his mid-career retrospective, Joy in People, at the Hayward Gallery, London and in the same year realized Sacrilege, a life-size inflatable replica of Stonehenge, with the polemical intention of rendering the historic site more accessible.

In the US the artist created Memory Bucket (2003), a documentary about Crawford, Texas, the hometown of George W. Bush, and the siege in Waco; in 2009 his project It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, was commissioned by the New Museum, New York; the Hammer Museum, LA; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

After the Venice Biennale, Deller will curate a new Hayward Touring exhibition launching this autumn at Manchester Art Gallery. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is described on Artlyst.com as “a personal look at the impact of the Industrial revolution on British popular culture and its persisting influence on our lives today.”

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Scott King, Bevan Tried to Change the Nation, 2013. Photo Evelyn Saleh.

Across two rooms in Venice Deller explores in his original way the recent history of Britain with its tragic moments.

The artist collected and now shows a series of drawings made by untrained amateurs, some of whom are prisoners or ex-soldiers.

The subjects of these drawings refer to the war in Iraq, with shocking scenes of life in the Army and portraits of political figures of that period, amongst them Tony Blair.

David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour of the UK, which started on 29 January 1972 and lasted 18 months, marked a pivotal point in British Pop music and had an impact on the culture and the social life of the young generation.

In Room 6 Deller counterpoints images of the tour with pictures of tragic events that happened on the same day, such as the Bloody Sunday of Londonderry, Northern Ireland – 30 January 1972--other industrial actions, or the bombing campaign by IRA.

Bevan tried to change the nation is a map drawn by Scott King that retraces the path of Bowie’s tour across the UK, creating a hypothetical space. The character of Ziggy Stardust as alter-ego and double-self created a virtual reality, a refuge from a troubled, difficult real world in which an entire young audience could find an alternative existential space.

Deller chooses to dedicate an entire room of the Pavilion to create a tea-room offering the opportunity to enjoy a real experience of an English tea. A perfect English way to cope with problems, adversities, bad moments in life: sit down and have a good cup of tea.

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Stuart Sam Hughes, St. Helier on fire 2017, 2013. Photo: The British Council.

The film English Magic that gives title to the Pavilion can be seen like a summa of Deller’s ideas.

Birds of prey fly across the screen as a prologue and epilogue, a reminder of the strength of Nature.

The Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London performs the sound track, recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios in London. The three tracks – Excerpts from Symphony No.5 in D, 3rd movement, Ralph Waughan Williams; Woodoo Ray, A Guy Called Gerald; The Man Who Sold The World, David Bowie – produce an independent, quite hypnotic sound, a continuum opposing the fast cut of the images and the succession of different subjects.

Heavy machines in a scrap yard ideally conclude the demolition work started by the Hen Harrier painted on the wall in Room 1.

The magic of Stonehenge, the most famous Neolithic site, comes back to life as a gigantic inflatable playground where a joyful crowd of children and adults jump and run. As Deller says: “In this case I wanted to make a massive, absurd, surrealistic artwork that the public could go on and could engage with and think about in many different ways. It was sending up the heritage and history of Britain, but only in a Monty Python way, from a position of fondness. At the end of the day it was meant to be a tactile, enjoyable artwork” (interview between the artist, Chris Dercon and John Paul Lynch, British Pavilion publication).

Staged parades put together by real and fictional guilds, societies, groups of people: scientific instruments makers, lightmongers, London Freemasons, chartered secretaries, soldiers, tax advisers.

“Sometimes the public is the work. I work with people as another artist might use paint – to work with them to express ideas is the most exciting and fulfilling thing, I love that” ( interview with Ben Luke, Royal Academy Magazine, summer 2013).

While in the other Rooms political and social issues prevail, here in this film we can perceive a quite nostalgic sense of community and we feel that this is the real English Magic.



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Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London. 

Jeremy Deller : English Magic, British Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia,Venice, 1 June - 24 November 2013.