The spirit of Albion, as conjured in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, makes for some surprising and dramatic connections. The Turner-winning artist explains his thinking
‘Things obsess me,” Jeremy Deller says, “but I don’t think of myself as obsessive.” At 9.30 on the morning before his show opens in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale the artist is sitting in the sunshine in a cafe across the water from the domes and towers of San Marco, having a go at explaining himself. Deller likes, in his own way, to look the part, so he has adopted something of the Englishman abroad. Khaki shorts, pale legs, socks with sandals, the kind of safari shirt favoured by David Attenborough, a broad-brimmed straw hat which could have done service for John Ruskin, and, around his shoulders, a hot pink sweater. Give him a butterfly net and he could pass for a louche Victorian botanist. He is a precise student of English manners – of dressing up in costumes and playing silly games – so none of these associations will have escaped him.
Like his work, which most famously ranges from his restaging in 2001 of the miners’ strike battle of Orgreave to his road trip across America with a car mangled by a bomb in Iraq in 2009 to his touring bouncy castle Stonehenge of last year, Deller is a quick and compelling presence. He is a great persuader, and is straightaway telling me in his generous, conspiratorial manner about how he felt when the British Council called a year ago to invite him to represent Britain in the closest the art world comes to the Olympics. “It’s like a lot of things, like when I was asked to do the Turner prize show in 2004,” he says. “The first thing is that your mind goes blank. Complete emptiness. You are on the phone and thinking: why on earth are you asking me? I’ve had all my good ideas already! I have none left. Then just as quickly it dawns on you that if you don’t do it someone else will. So you say yes, and then you have to have ideas. But it takes a bit of time.”
Deller’s show is called English Magic, and though he’s reluctant to think of himself as such, he is its conjuror-in-chief. He doesn’t paint, draw or sculpt so people tend to call him a curator but what he does seems both more spirited and more human than that dusty word suggests (in the watery fantasy of Venice it is tempting to think of him as an inspired am-dram Prospero).
His skill is juxtaposition, he is a master of putting things and people next to each other, altering contexts, lighting touchpapers and standing well back. Like any illusionist worth his salt he is wary of explaining this too closely: “My work is really either things that bother me or things that I like,” he says at one point. “Sometimes they are the same thing, sometimes separate things.” In his first widely noted piece, Acid Brass of 1997, in which he had the Stockport-based Fairey brass band play rave anthems, he made his thinking explicit by using a jokey associative mind map on a blackboard – showing the maze of connections between the two music genres, and bringing both to fresh life: “Summers of love, melancholy, the north, open air, the miners’ strike…” and so on. Subsequently he has tended to let his audiences find their own cat’s cradle of reference points in his work.
For my benefit, in the sunshine, he explains a little of how the alchemical elements of English Magic came about. Deller, who is now 47, studied art history at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in the baroque, and Venice made him think of frescoes, particularly images of power and destruction. On his mind from the beginning was a memory of the last time he came here, in 2011. “Even if you’re just a visitor, as an artist you feel quite vulnerable,” he recalls. “It is like an aspiring film-maker going to Cannes, I suppose, and seeing that whole world set out for you, how big it is, how much money there is, the yachts, all that. And asking: where do I fit in?”
In 2011 one particular yacht had loomed large. Roman Abramovich had parked his tall ship right next to the Giardini where we are sitting, blocking the eternal view. “A huge security detail was on the shore,” Deller recalls, “so everyone had to walk by to the show in a little corridor. It was kind of like the bed art had made for itself.” In coming here Deller felt he might mark out a bit of territory for another idea of art, his more inclusive one. So he commissioned a mural from his mate Stuart Sam Hughes, who does very precise spray painting, usually customising motorbikes, of a great colossus picking up the oligarch’s yacht and chucking it into the lagoon. The colossus is a wild, bearded William Morris. Why Morris?
He laughs. “Well Morris came to Venice, and loved aspects of it, and he was apparently a great chucker around of things. I had the sense this yacht and its connection to the art world was the kind of thing that would have pissed him off. So I kind of summoned him up.”
One thing with Deller always leads to many more, though, and he found lots of fertile territory in the gap between the Chelsea oligarch and the Kelmscott printmaking revolutionary. For a start, they bookended communism – Morris was in on its idealistic beginnings, Abramovich made his billions out of its collapse. He pursues this theme by placing together some of Morris’s hand-carved wood blocks with the intricately self-printed promissory notes and share certificates in which Russian wealth was hastily divided in 1992. In following the oligarchs’ money he then discovered how many of the further deals were done in London in the late 90s, so that rooted it more. And then there was the opposition between the homespun, handcrafted vision of art for Morris and the bloated global money-laundering business of it, which many of those oligarchs have bought into. (Deller was of the same generation as Damien Hirst and the YBAs, went to the same parties, but never made any money, so feels qualified to talk). Anyway, he says, “there was a theme, which is vaguely newsy, and about power and art. Where is the power? Is it with Morris or with Abramovich? Will we know about Abramovich in 50 years’ time? We will certainly know about Morris…”
In most of the other national pavilions that crowd the Giardini this opposition would probably have sufficed as a show. In the Russian gallery, for example, the courageous Vadim Zakharov presents a pointed version of the Danaë myth in which an insouciant dictator (of whom it is hard not to think: Putin) sits on a high beam on a saddle, shelling nuts all day while gold coins rain down from a vast shower-head only to be hoisted in buckets by faceless thuggish men in suits. Deller wants more going on than that. He wants all angles. The phrase he uses most often in our conversation is “it’s really complicated, isn’t it?” And anyway, when he came to think about the show, his shifting idea of Britain, there were other things his mind was snagging on.
One of them, presciently, eight months ago, was corporate tax avoidance. He came across a diagram on the internet which detailed the complicated offshore scheme favoured by Tesco; the diagram looked like a face so he commissioned a tapestry mask of it like a totem on one wall, and still in clairvoyant mood, another mural of destruction: “I wanted to include a picture of St Helier in 2017,” he says of the large-scale burning street scene. “I said 2017 but really I should have said 2014 the way things are going. British taxpayers have gone to Jersey to demonstrate against their tax avoidance culture and basically the city of St Helier gets burned to the ground. It is like a medieval sacking…”
It is, in Deller’s national vision, payback time in other ways too. From 100 feet away, walking up the promenade to the British pavilion, the first thing you see is a mural of a hen harrier picking up a Range Rover in its talons. The third story that had lodged in Deller’s head and wouldn’t go away was that 2007 incident of two of these rare birds being shot down over the Sandringham estate. The only people shooting that day, if you remember, were apparently Prince Harry and his friend William van Cutsem. Shooting the protected birds would carry a prison sentence but after police inquiries no action was taken. “That really annoyed me,” Deller says with another smile, “so I thought I would do something with a giant hen harrier taking revenge on man, not Prince Harry necessarily, but man in general. It’s called A Good Day for Cyclists because I am a cyclist in London, and as every cyclist knows, Range Rover drivers are the worst drivers by far, along with Porsche drivers. They are beyond the pale.”
Why does he think these particular stories hold his curiosity?
“They are almost news stories but I have tried to give a mythological slant to them,” he says. Into this rich fairytale mix – princes and hawks and taxes and corruption – he adds a couple of other layers of recent legend. In one room fans’ pictures of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour (seemingly inescapable in 2013) are juxtaposed with contemporaneous photos from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The original genesis of this was Deller’s discovery of the fact that Bloody Sunday was the day after the Bowie tour opened. In another room he finds new layers for a different conflict, having invited some of the many soldiers who wound up in prison, usually for assault after coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, to document the conflict with portraits of Tony Blair, Dr David Kelly and others, and their memories of what they witnessed. Add in steel bands playing Vaughan Williams, and neolithic axe heads, and you are presented with a complex series of observations which might add up to something like the white noise of our current anxieties.
Talking to Deller you come to think of him as a sort of aerial for those concerns, constantly tuning out static. I suggest to him that he might see himself as a national conscience, and, rightly, he winces. A lightning rod then?
“I’m in a position where I can explore things in a tangential way. I’m not writing the definitive book about any of it, I just want to explore some of it visually, emotionally. It gets it out of my system so it gives me satisfaction. I think, I know, other people are concerned about these things, so maybe it helps them get it out too.”
Where does that compulsion come from? “I’m just obsessed with the news. It’s there in your head all day, and if you don’t try to make sense of it, it just drives you crazy. Or it does me anyway. Twitter and all this makes it worse.”
He has of late been rewatching The Day Today, Chris Morris’s mid-90s satire of our addiction to the packaging of television reporting. “It has all actually come true,” Deller says. “Everything now is fodder for 24-hour news. I’ve been listening to Radio 4 on my phone while I’ve been setting things up here, just to keep up with stuff, and last week was insane. You had all the weird gay marriage stuff, Norman Tebbit ranting, and then the terrible Woolwich event. Seen from here, Britain just sounded completely mad.”
If he looks back he has always had, for better and worse, a sense of that madness. In his own mind a lot of it began with school, Dulwich college. Deller grew up in south London (he has since migrated north of the river to a flat in Highbury he shares with his girlfriend.) His parents were, he says, “incredibly lovely first-generation middle-class churchgoing people. Very proud of me. They hadn’t been to university so it was really a big deal for me to go to a private school. My father worked for the council, my mother was a receptionist at the NHS. So it was a big sacrifice. I am grateful for it.” But what it also did was to place him in close proximity to an alien and very British establishment.
“I went to school with Nigel Farage. He was two years above me. I don’t remember him really but I totally know who he is. The school is quite a liberal and inclusive place now but at the time it was totally white, male, aspiring middle class. Maybe 10 black kids out of 1,500, two women teachers, and these people like Farage, totally chauvinistic. It was completely homophobic. Monocultural. We did a mock election at school in ’80 or ’81 and they had to abandon it because the National Front were winning. It was done as a jokey, bantery thing. But it was a grim environment in lots of ways.”
That 80s period has informed a lot of Deller’s work, from his Sealed Knot recreation of Orgreave on, and remains a touchstone. How, I wonder, did he spend Thatcher’s funeral day? “I was in a prison in Wales, doing drawings of the Iraq war with the ex-soldiers,” he says. “It was funny because prison officers and prisoners and soldiers were united over it. Everyone was cursing her.”
As a lover of the spontaneity of popular demonstration, did he enjoy the effigy burnings and the rest in former pit towns?
“In Orgreave they did that great surreal funeral procession, a proper piece of folk art. It was what it would have been like 200 years ago when Palmerston died, or some unpopular monarch. I thought: congratulations…”
Deller has long had a fascination with the energy and symbolism of British parades, staging his own alternative pageant of Boy Racers and Big Issue Sellers and Unrepentant Smokers at the Manchester festival in 2009. It links him to that spirit of nonconformity and of reclaiming the streets prized by the likes of Iain Sinclair and his fellow tramping psychogeographers, and also to the British habit of parochial eccentricity. What was his first experience of that?
“Growing up,” he says “my parents were involved in the church and we would get involved in fetes and carnivals and all that. I was interested in the weirdness of Britain from an early age. Trying to tap into that strange sort of WI spirit which had loads of parts to like but also a deep conservatism.”
He never went on foreign holidays as a kid, always Dorset, Scotland or wherever, and he thinks that led to total immersion in the culture. “Being in Britain all through childhood, and the comparative lack of stimulus there was then. You were bored a lot of the time so you had more time to dwell on stuff around you.”
In this sense, at its best Deller’s own autobiography becomes all our autobiographies. He has a sixth sense for the pressure points of our lives. His Bowie room, quietly juxtaposing teenage pop hysteria with the Troubles, could seem too easy a contrast but the quality of his looking saves it from that. His instinct that there was something there in the association beyond simple chronology is rewarded in the details.
“I was six or seven in 1973,” he says. “It was an awakening moment for me, seeing bands dressed strangely on Top of the Pops, a first epiphany of that kind of popular culture. And also the time I first became aware of politics. The three-day week and power cuts brought all that home. So those things happened for me at the same time. I was worried about it seeming glib, having a picture of a pop star next to pictures of riots and so on. But then if you look at the pictures of Northern Ireland you see the people involved are largely kids that look a lot like those at the Bowie gigs. The point is they could have been going to those gigs but the tour never went to Northern Ireland because it was too dangerous. It becomes about youth and identity. National and religious identity on the one hand and weird escapist made-up identity on the other.”
That fascination for the masks people wear, and with the randomness of mediated culture, links Deller with Andy Warhol, who became something of a 15-minute mentor after the pair met at a book signing in 1986 and Deller saw Warhol again in New York. He has fashioned a very British understanding of Warhol’s possibilities. Talking of that now brings him back to William Morris, who he likes to think was the “Warhol of his day, a man of his time, and finding bizarre ways to change them through, in his case, soft furnishings”.
Does Deller find a kindred spirit in Morris’s rage against industrialism, his chucking things around?
“No,” he says “I never lose my temper. Maybe once every three years or so I raise my voice. My art is my way of losing my temper, I get everything out through that.”
One thing Deller doesn’t do is take sides in his work. If his guiding principle is only connect, then it applies to people as much as things. He is a Morris-like utopian in this sense, though never forgetting the vague absurdity of that position. His new Jerusalem is as much Women’s Institute as William Blake – of children cartwheeling on his inflatable Stonehenge, the studious mixed-race steel band hammering out Vaughan Williams, the harrier taking its revenge on trigger-happy Harry. He wants to hold all these things together fleetingly, and at once.
We walk up to the pavilion where Deller hands me a 300,000-year-old axe-head dredged up from the Thames, as if to summon the spirit of Albion. Through one door I can see William Morris emerging from the waves, through another the criss-crossing route map of Ziggy Stardust’s tour of Britain which offers a template to the connective magic Deller is after. For a while those associative connections fizz between his gathered elements, and singular co-ordinates of a Britain enmeshed in memories of conflict and culture, dirty money and idealism, power and subversion obtains before tying itself in knots. Happily, Deller has also incorporated the traditional British antidote to knottedness and complication in his pavilion. They are serving Earl Grey and English Breakfast out the back. “Have a good look round,” he says, “and then get a cup of tea.”
Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at Venice Biennale until 24 Nov. The exhibition will tour national venues in 2014; britishcouncil.org/visualarts
Read Laura Cummings’s review of the Venice Biennale here