Addressing “events from the past and an imagined future” Jeremy Deller’s show, English Magic, opened last weekend as part of the Venice Biennale. Representing Great Britain at the 55th International Art Exhibition Deller occupies the British Pavilion collating many themes from his previous works into one combined show.
If you are unfamiliar with the Biennale it is often referred to as the ‘Olympics of the art world’ with countries hosting national pavilions. These then house collections which judges believe represent the best their country has to offer in terms of contemporary art. Our pavilion, Great Britain, has been running with the help of the British Council since 1938, sheltering works from artistic heavy weights such as Barbara Hepworth, Gilbert and George and in recent years Tracey Emin.
Having been selected by a panel of British arts professionals, Deller uses his six-roomed canvas to present to the world ‘English Magic’. Ambiguously titled, the space is used to challenge assumptions about ‘Englishness’, whilst celebrating the diversity as well as the traditions that can be found within our shores. Amongst the playful nature of some of the works there is an undertone of what Deller sees as the darks arts that play a part in the country’s moral decline. On the lighter side however, you will be pleased to know that half way through the show you can take a moment to have a cup of tea and relax amongst the flora hanging from the ceiling in Deller’s version of a Tea room. How more English can you get? (Or expect to get)
Deller draws in his visitors with his first mural which can be seen from outside the pavilion and has become the talking point of this year’s submission. ‘A good day for cyclists’ depicts an enormous Hen Harrier bird of prey swooping down and making off with a Blood Red Range Rover. With this work his attack is divided amongst several targets – it addresses the sublime and the sheer beauty of nature, also highlighting the destructiveness of Capitalism. With it’s deceptively jovial titling it also reminds everyone of the hazards cyclists face on British roads.
In interviews since the opening it has been revealed that the mural was inspired by the events of a mysterious Hen Harrier scandal on the Royal Sandringham Estate in 2007. A pair of the birds, which are protected as rare species, were shot down on a day that only Prince Harry and a friend were recorded as shooting. Having been questioned, no charges were brought to Harry. However, Deller argues that “if you or I shot a hen harrier in Britain, we would go to prison for six months. So someone got away with it. And that bothered me.” Controversially a banner, relating to this incident, reading “Prince Harry Kills Me” was never displayed as intended as it was felt it could agitate attacks on British troops that are still on deployment occupying countries.
Going through the works included in the show: a mural depicting the as yet fictitious 2017 ransacking of the tax haven Jersey, the (again fabricated) sinking of Roman Abramovich’s yacht (which caused a stir back during the 2011 biennale) by a larger than life William Morris, a room of photographs taken during David Bowie’s eighteen month Ziggy stardust tour juxtaposed with images of civic unrest from the same time, and finally drawings by British prisoners – of whom many have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am left feeling that this is a collection of things about our nation which bother Deller. Things that he, through his curatorial role, brings to attention as if to reflect a creative metaphorical mirror back onto the people of Great Britain.
One of the main criticisms of Deller, not just with this show but through all of his practice, is the removal of his own hand. The drawings by prisoners being an obvious example of this method of curation. Whilst these elements are so obviously displayed as external work, the murals, which novices may expect Deller to have hand painted himself, are the work of another artist. Myself I am unsure as to how much this leaves him the artist, but feel this is a debate which can rage on (and deserves dedicated writing of its own) in order to understand his role as that of a Ring Master. The grand puppeteer that brings together the component parts of the show and using his reputation to allow them to go ahead.
Deller’s work can be seen at the Venice Biennale which continues until the 24th November. If however, it is not likely that you will be passing by Venice in that time (much like myself) you will be pleased to know ‘English Magic’ will go on tour around the United Kingdom with the support of the Art Fund in 2014.