I'm republishing today a longer version of a feature I originally did for another magazine.
If you have seen a guy in a hot pink hat à la Timmy Turner out of The Fairly OddParents while rambling around the Giardini at the 55th International Venice Art Biennale, then you have seen Jeremy Deller. Funnily enough, that's not the only thing that Deller shares with the cartoon character: like Timmy, Deller is blessed with a bit of fairy dust that he has sprinkled over the British Pavilion, currently hosting his new exhibition "English Magic".
"There's two levels to the title," curator Emma Gifford-Mead explains, "on one hand it's about the experience of being English and living in England, in itself quite a complex, confusing and at times contradicting idea and something that Jeremy has been consistently interested in. On the other, there is this magic element that strings the whole show together: staff in the pavilion operate these show-and-tell stations where they invite visitors to look at something and then take it away like a magician would do, but there is also a degree of deception and of visual, dark and financial trickery involved.”
According to Gifford-Mead, Deller's work has also got a sort of magic effect on people, “He could be described quite well as a magician because he sorts of convinces people to do things they would never do and has a very engaging way of working with them.”
The pavilion reflects Deller's wide-ranging interests, and it would be perfectly summarised with the record notes on the 2K's "***k The Millennium" single: "Jeremy Deller had an idea. The idea evolved. This is the result of that evolution".
Visitors stepping into the main room are greeted by the mural of a giant hen carrier revengefully crushing a Land Rover, a reference to the curious incident of two rare hen carriers being shot dead in 2007 on the Sandringham Estate, in Norfolk, UK, where Prince Harry and a friend were shooting.
On the opposite wall a mural shows St Helier, the capital of the island of Jersey, being set on fire during imaginary demonstrations organised in June 2017. Angered by Jersey's status as a tax haven, protesters carrying pink (based on a diagram that depicts the structure of transfer pricing arrangements) and white (based on a diagram for the financial instrument known as the 'Jersey cashbox') banners will burn the town to the ground.
In the same space, visitors can handle Neolithic hand axes dating around 4,000 BC, or follow the lower Paleolithic hand axes decorating the doorways and access to the other rooms. Here they will discover a mural of a gigantic William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich's yacht Luna (a view-blocking nightmare for many Biennale visitors and Venice tourists in 2011) into the lagoon. Morris is very aptly surrounded by privatisation vouchers and coupons that contributed to the rise of present-day oligarchs.
The exhibition continues with drawings by inmates, some of them former soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, portraying the late Dr David Kelly, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and British troops.
Photographs of Ziggy Stardust touring the UK during years of depression, industrial action and an IRA bombing campaign are instead used to portray an alternative reality for many young people in the '70s, while a film with a soundtrack performed by the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London - a direct reference to Deller's "Acid Brass" past - is an assemblage of Deller's personal "visual magic", showing cars being sent to the crusher, the inflatable Stonehenge that offered many fun moments at Glasgow Green and the Lord Mayor's Show. Suspended between the serious and the absurd, the film perfectly proves that it is extremely difficult to constrict Deller's work in the context of a pretentious art gallery.
Visitors can also make their own artwork with a rubber stamp of the two large murals (this activity has been so far really popular with all generations of visitors, according to the curator) or they can have a mental break from the chaos of the Biennale in the tea room that completes the pavilion. In a way, they should have maybe subtitled the British Pavilion like one of the chapters out The KLF's Manual, "Causality Plus a Pinch of Mysticism".
“Jeremy visited the pavilion when there were always large scale installations inside, he saw it in 2003 when there was Chris Ofili and the building was carpeted and full of stuff, and then in 2011, Mike Nelson's year, where you couldn't recognise it at all. When we visited it lasy year he finally got the chance of properly looking at it and was impressed by its scale,” recounts Gifford-Mead.
“He had quite strong ideas about how he wanted it to be, he felt it was a bit like a secular chapel with a central space and smaller spaces surrounding it, and that's how he developed the work, starting with something big that set the tone and displaying in the other galleries works that feed off it, connecting to it, but also functioning as private spaces.”
The curator and Deller had a lot of conversations about developing the pavilion, bouncing ideas off each other. Deller's work is all about collaborations (the murals were painted by Stuart Sam Hughes and Sarah Tynan, while the banners were made by Ed Hall) so the artist also had a sort of curatorial role, while Gifford-Mead acted a bit like an editor.
“In a way Jeremy is a curator and in every project you work with him you act as a facilitator or an organiser. I don't think Jeremy could work with anybody who had an ego as a curator. He is a really fantastic person, he doesn't have an ego himself and he is very very generous,” she states.
Though while developing the show Deller didn't know about the main theme of the Biennale - The Encyclopedic Palace - his interest in people, icons, folklore, history and politics went pretty well with it (after all, Deller worked a bit like an encylopaedic archivist in his "Acid Brass" project when he collided British music history, social history and folk music).
“Jeremy is very good at picking up on current affairs, he reads a lot, he's addicted to the radio, and he's also a real news junky, always reading the newspapers and looking for unusual and strange stories as well,” Gifford-Mead concludes.
"Acid Brass" fans may disagree with The KLF's “What Time Is Love” not being included in the selection performed by the steel drum band in the film (featuring Ralph Vaughan Williams' “Symphony No. 5”, A Guy Called Gerald's “Voodoo Ray” and David Bowie's “The Man Who Sold The World”) as that would have been the ultimate prank, the final twist to the arm of an established art event like the Biennale. For this time, though, most visitors will forgive Deller, after all, their dreams of revenge against Abramovich's monster yacht have finally become true.
Jeremy Deller's British Council commission is at the 55th International Venice Art Biennale until 24th November 2013.
With many thanks to Nicola Battista for digging out of the Kutmusic archives a copy of The KLF's Manual and copies of 2K's single “Fuck the Millennium” for further research in this piece.Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos