Interview with Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, guest editor of the special features section in our Summer issue, talks about his work in the British pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale

By Mark Rappolt

Jeremy Deller, We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold, British Pavilion, 2013, British Council commission Jeremy Deller, English Magic, Installation View, British Pavilion 2013, British Council commission Sacrilege, 2012, commissioned by Glasgow International Festival of visual Art 2012, photo: Angela Catlin, courtesy the artist, Art Concept, Paris, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One Is an Injury to All), 2001. Photo: Parisah taghizadeh. Courtesy the artist, Art Concept, Paris, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise So Many Ways to Hurt You (The Life and Times of Adrian Street), 2010, film still. Courtesy the artist, Art Concept, Paris, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise Acid Brass, 1997, performance in Regent’s Park, London, 2006. Courtesy the artist Jeremy Deller, British Pavilion, 2013, British Council commission

Jeremy Deller’s artwork spans a variety of media, from installations, processions and posters to documentary films. Among his best-known works are Acid Brass (1997), which fused traditional brass-band music with acid house, and The Battle of Orgreave (2001),a filmed re-enactment of the notorious conflict between miners and the police during the 1984–5 miners’ strike. Deller, who won the Turner Prize in 2004, also co-curated Folk Archive (2000–, with Alan Kane), a touring exhibition of contemporary British folk art. Last year Joy in People, a mid-career survey, opened at the Hayward Gallery, London, while Sacrilege, a bouncy castle modelled on Stonehenge, toured the country during the summer of 2012. To mark his representation of Britain in the British Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale, ArtReview asked the artist to guest-edit a special features section in the June issue of the magazine, and spoke to him as he prepared for his Venice exhibition English Magic. Jeremy Deller's British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November 2013 and will tour national UK venues in 2014.


What does it mean to be in the British Pavilion at Venice? Does it mean anything different from another exhibition?


It’s a lot of work! I think that’s the most immediate thing. And I think people assume it means more than it does. Once you get to a certain point, in terms of career, you’re used to having challenges and being put into quite high-profile environments. Obviously it’s... I’m going to contradict myself: I think people invest a lot in it, but people outside it probably invest a lot more into it. I’m just treating it like a big exhibition, but people around me, maybe, or yourself or within the artworld, as it were, invest a lot of attention into it, don’t they?

You don’t think of yourself as an artistic symbol of Britishness in a way you didn’t before?

JD: No, I don’t, because it’s not really meant to be about Britishness, the British Pavilion, is it? Oh dear, Ed Vaizey will be upset

Well, I guess historically, at some point, it was…

JD: I suppose in a wider sense you’re probably right. It is; it’s meant to represent British culture. This is the best you can get [laughter].

If you read some of the reviews of the Biennale from the 1950s – say – in the British press, you’d think it was all about showing how brilliant British culture is and how superior it is to other countries’ cultures…

JD: Really?


JD: Well, it won’t be happening this time round, I think we’ve learned our lesson about that, but obviously there are references to British culture. It would be strange if there weren’t. So people probably read a lot into that, and I think probably Venice has become, even in the last ten years, like the artworld itself, a bigger and bigger deal. It’s become more of a news story as opposed to an art story. So inevitably there’ll be a bit of fuss for a day or two, and then that will die down and it will be the next thing, so I’m not so worried. I mean, the thing that is – I wouldn’t say ‘bothering’ me, but I am aware of it – is that everyone will have an opinion about the pavilion. Of course, they’ll compare it to other pavilions, but they’ll have an opinion about it, even more so than the Turner Prize.

Yes. They give prizes at Venice, too...

JD: Yes, which I’d never really thought about. I didn’t even know about that until recently, that you get this... there’s potential. But it’s not like the Turner Prize, where you’ve got a one-in-four chance. You’ve got a one in 100 chance or something, so I’m not really thinking about that.

It highlights the fact that you’re being compared, though.

JD: With other pavilions? Absolutely. You’re used to that as an artist, I think. The skill is not actually reading it and not paying so much attention to it. You’re really doing your best to worry me, aren’t you?

In terms of the broad ideas of the pavilion, are you starting by looking into your own practice or thinking about your audience?

JD: Both. I haven’t tried to tailor it in any way, but of course you have a building, a very specific building, so that’s interesting. So I’ve worked with the space. I mean, it’s actually a really elegant space. I’ve quite enjoyed having it to myself for six months to wander around and check emails in. It’s a structure and it can structure a show, and that’s what it’s done, I hope.

I’m interested in Venice and the audience because partly you get the weird crush of professional art people at the beginning and towards the end a much more diverse audience, some of whom aren’t particularly there because there’s an art show but will wander into it…

JD: I like that. I like grabbing the unsuspecting passerby – not literally, of course. That’s almost my core audience, the person who wasn’t expecting to see an art show or not expecting to like something. The randomness excites me, the randomness of showing work and giving a talk. When you give a talk, there are 200 people or 10 or whatever in an audience, you don’t know who they are and what their interests are and what they’ve done with their lives, and that’s interesting – to see what reaction you get about certain things. I like the random nature of art.

Do you think you have to make an effort to get that audience?

JD: I don’t work consciously to do that, but that’s how I work. I know that it will have a broad appeal, and I like that. I’m not a snob in terms of who sees work.

There’s some part of the audience that will come to Venice knowing your work and having expectations…

JD: Yes, which may or may not be met. Maybe there’s a choice about meeting it or not meeting it.

JD: I don’t really think about that. I really don’t! I need to actually surprise myself rather than anyone else, so I’m not going to give people exactly what they’re expecting or looking for. It’s recognisable, but it’s not a definite product as such, I hope.

If you wander around an art fair or something, there are people who will talk about your work in terms of ‘a Jeremy Deller’…

JD: Would they? [laughter] The problem with art fairs is they’re so powerful, so many sales come from that, that you have to show. I’ve always done quite badly at art fairs on the whole, especially in America.

But you have made works that are well known and that people will always think about when they think of you, regardless of what you’re showing now…

JD: Exactly. That is a problem but it’s a great problem to have, like the problem of writing Stairway to Heaven. The burden of your history. I have a little bit of that with The Battle of Orgreave. Every week I get an email about it from someone, from a student writing about it or someone doing some report on the effectiveness of community art and all that. You reply to those questions and just hope that at some point – and to continue the analogy – you’ll write another classic rock song that people will want to write about as well. I think you don’t want to give people what they want really, do you? A lot of people didn’t want The Battle of Orgreave and still don’t, I’m sure.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what they do want…

JD: Well, you want to give people what they didn’t know they wanted, and they realise they want it when they see it. It’s an unfulfilled need almost sometimes. In terms of this show, I have no idea, and because I’ve made the show in relative secrecy, things haven’t been shared. I have no idea really what the public reception will be. I’ve been allowed to do exactly what I wanted, so it’s all my fault.

Do you normally do that?

JD: Well, you normally talk about things a little bit more freely than I have with this show, so that’s unusual. I quite like the secrecy, I think it’s fine. It gives it a sense of expectation, I think.

Perhaps it’s quite constructive to have certain constraints…

JD: Exactly, because we live in a world now where everybody knows everything about everything or at least thinks they do. You can find out anything. Look at how David Bowie handled his album [The Next Day, 2013] and single release. It’s unheard-of now to have a secret that big kept for years. That in itself is almost an artwork. So I’m doing OK, but not as good as he is. [laughter]

Do you see yourself as a political artist at all?

JD: Well, with a small ‘p’, not in a party-political sense. I’m not an activist, I’m not very good at joining in on things or going on demos or speaking in debates or platforms. I’m better at other things, I think. I quite like provocation and I quite like art that is provocative and can say things in a slightly different way, so I’m happy with that. I’m not the kind of person that would sit next to Ken Loach on a stage and talk about cuts to the National Health Service. I just don’t think I’m qualified for that. I’m qualified to do other things. I was asked by the BBC to take part in this debate they did about the war in Iraq. I just couldn’t do it. I think people think that you can be a spokesperson because you make work about something. If anything it’s the opposite. You make the work so you don’t have to be a spokesperson. You make your point in a different way. Having said that, Bob Smith manages to be both with panache.

Let’s talk about some of the articles you’ve commissioned for this issue of ArtReview. There’s one on the British wrestler Adrian Street...

JD: He is a character, to put it mildly. I’ve made a film about him, I’m very interested in him, and my mission is to make him better known in the world, because I think he deserves to be. I think he needs to be seen as the hero of his own life. It started with me seeing a photograph of him and his father at the pithead, which I just thought was the most incredible image about Britain after a war, about Britain trying to come to terms with the new role within the world, as an entertainment service economy, basically. Adrian embodied that – literally within his body. So I saw him as a historical character on a grand scale. I wanted to meet him and talk to him about the photograph and then talk about his life and so on. So it was really to make a little film about him. That was the best way to understand him. I did that [So Many Ways to Hurt You (The Life and Times of Adrian Street), 2010], and I’ve kept in contact with him. It’s just an unbelievable life that he’s had, and all the looks he’s had, all the things he’s done, all the time very closely related to art and performance art. He understands that instinctively. It’s just an interest/mild obsession of mine. As are some of these other things, like the bats. So that’s a more visceral, purely visual, aesthetic interest: I just like to see these photographs, and I’m just happy for other people to see them as well.

What about Ken Russell?

JD: I would say he’s a kind of film visionary. A lot of British filmmakers – like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh – are known for this ‘realist’ approach. He’s the opposite end. He’s a fantasist, a fantastical filmmaker, very romantic, a romantic filmmaker. I love the way he uses classical music and music in general, so he’s been a massive inspiration to me, massive. I saw Tommy [1975] at the age of twelve or thirteen at my school in the gymnasium, after school. They had a cinema club, which is probably the best education I got at my school. They showed the craziest films to twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys. They showed Performance [1970] and I was sitting in the front row. I really had no idea about this film, and it comes on and I was just like...

Who chose the films?

JD: This physics teacher, who was obviously doing it on purpose just to bend the brains of the boys. The way we were taught was so rigid and old-fashioned and learning by rote. It was a Michael Gove [Britain’s current secretary of state for education] view of education – just remembering facts, really structured and intensely unimaginative. Then every other week the film club would show freak-out films – Tommy being one of them – that went against everything you were being taught at school. We were being shown films we shouldn’t have actually seen legally because we were underage. They showed us Jubilee [1978, dir Derek Jarman], for example. They showed X-rated films to thirteen-year-old boys, so that was just like an education. That was like growing up on the screen.

Do you think that experience relates to how you think about showing work?

JD: Maybe. You do realise when a young person goes to an exhibition that the effect it might have on them could be huge because they will keep that with them for the rest of their lives if they like the show or have had an impression. I wouldn’t say it ‘formed’ them, but it would be a ‘formative’ experience, and I’m aware of that.

You were talking about the provocation as well…

JD: Yes. I’m aware of that. When I was a teenager, I was doing my A-level art history project on Francis Bacon, and I met him, totally by chance, in a gallery. I wasn’t expecting him to be there. You don’t expect the artist to hang around. He was there with his sister, and so I had this 15-minute conversation with him, which was just mind-blowing for a sixteen- year-old. You don’t forget those moments, and so you realise people who are that age now will have similar moments when they see work, and it really is important. You get to a certain age and you think, ‘Maybe this is why I do this – because of that film or because of this exhibition.’ So Ken Russell is the attitude, the excess, the fancy, the mixture of fantasy and reality, the mix of religion and music, all those things, the war, history, biography. I mean; he did it all, all those things that I’m interested in.

Do you think Adrian Street fits into that category?

JD: Yes. Adrian Street is like a self-made version, in a way. He should have worked with Ken Russell. He would have made a great subject of a feature film. If Adrian had been born into a more supportive environment, he probably would have been an artist. Because he was given no opportunities and no encouragement, he found fame and was creative in a different way. So Adrian is an artist effectively, a self-taught performance artist. That’s the way I see him. That’s one reason I like Adrian – because he’s not an outsider artist, that’s a totally different thing, but he is like a folk performance artist, as I’m sure a lot of wrestlers and performers are. 

Do you think you have an interest in art that comes about outside the conventional spaces of a gallery or a museum?

JD: Yes, maybe. I mean, having said that, I have nothing against galleries in art. Obviously I spent most of my teenage years in galleries, or seemed to. So I’m very much at ease in museums and galleries and with the language of them and the display of them and most importantly the people that work in them. That’s something that will be clear in the pavilion. But yes, you look elsewhere, don’t you? You look around you for influence.

Yet, for many people, a work being in a gallery is what makes it art…

JD: Yes. It validates it. That’s the problem sometimes.

And such people wouldn’t necessarily say that Ken Russell was an artist in the same way as Picasso was an artist…

JD: No. I suppose these are relatively recent definitions of artists, aren’t they? Relatively.

Do you think you’re addressing those definitions? Not consciously necessarily...

JD: Maybe I’m confusing everything. Myself included.

Or expanding it…

JD: Expanding it and confusing. I’m opening things up, maybe, which I’m happy to do, but I’m sure some people will just think it’s reductive rather than opening up. But I do like playing with objects, playing with ideas. There’s a sense of play and playfulness about the work. Mike Pitts worked on the Stonehenge project – Sacrilege. I wanted him to write about what may be the first artworks ever made in Britain, or the very, very early objects that have the look of artworks – ceremonial objects and so on. Also, talking about public art – some of these sites, are they forms of public art? So that’s what I’m really interested in him looking at, maybe the first artists in the country. Often you’re quite nervous of presenting ideas to people who are experts in their field, like that. Like with Acid Brass [in which brass band music is fused with acid house and Detroit techno], and with the miners and so on, you think, ‘Are they going to think I’m a total idiot for doing this?’ It goes to plan 99 percent of the time. I could make probably a lot of money doing some sort of management classes or something; how to convince people to do things they might not think they want to do. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure how I do it myself. I think much of it has to do with people being bored of routine and predictability.

Do you have kind of a reaction, a kind of feeling you want people to take away from the British Pavilion?

JD: I want them to have the same experience as if they went to a museum they’d never been to before – you can go to Philadelphia and you walk into the Museum of Art, which has objects and art from all over the world, for example – that for me is my height of experience. It’s not going to be quite as exciting as that, but you just want people to walk in with an open mind and feel that they’re wandering around freely. Museums should be places of freethinking and of freedom, visual and intellectual freedom almost, aesthetic freedom. I mean, a good museum is almost like being on drugs or being drunk slightly when you walk around and you’re just looking at things very randomly, almost getting high off objects and images and experiences. That’s maybe what I’d like people to have, that kind of narcotic experience.

Is that reacting to a sense that people aren’t exploring those freedoms in daily life?

JD: Yes, because they don’t have the resources to, or are not allowed to maybe. That’s the thing about artists, they are given so much money and resources and freedom – certain artists are – to do exactly what they want and just to do these ridiculous things that no one else would be allowed to do. That is the greatest thing about being an artist, especially with artists at a level I’m at. Let’s face it, I’m at a certain point where, you know, people are begging you to do things, they don’t even know what it is, but they want you to do it. That’s why I think that someone like Damien Hirst is such a failure, really, because he has the world at his feet and yet he’ll just do the same thing. That really is just sad. It’s almost your duty to do stupid things and get away with it and do things that no one else would be allowed to do. That’s why, again going back to Sacrilege, I wanted to make a work that was just absolutely out of control in terms of when people were on it. Simply the most random, out-of-control work, just chaos, effectively, as was taking a car round America [It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq (2009)], in which the artist toured a car from a bombing in Iraq through the US and held ten public conversations in which Iraqi refugees, soldiers and scholars shared their memories of the last decade in and out of Iraq]. We were out of our depths.

Is the work about putting you out of your depth?

JD: Yes, absolutely, that was. We really didn’t know what was going to happen to us, who we were going to meet, what was going to happen from minute to minute with the weather, with people, with everything. So every day it was different and we were just making it up, basically, and it was making it up for us as well. I love that. I absolutely loved the random element of it. Of course, that still happens in galleries, where people react to things and the way they look at things, but as soon as you get out of a gallery, that’s when you can’t control things. If you try to, you’re insane, basically, so of course every artist is interested in what people think about the work or how they react to it, unless you’re doing paintings that the second they leave will go onto someone’s wall somewhere. I know artists who have that kind of career and they’re successful, but they end up working in a void, and you talk to them, and you can tell they feel they’re just not part of anything. They just have these sort of crises about that.

Has that been important to you in your work, avoiding the sense of working in a void?

JD: Life’s lonely enough as it is, so it’s good to have reaction. I like people. As human beings, we want company, we like company, so it’s only an extension of that, and I like people looking at work and trying to work out what they think of it. Even if they say something totally different to what I thought, it’s fine. unless they think it’s super-racist or something weird like that. You go to an art gallery or a museum, and the first 20 or 30 minutes you’re looking at objects, and for the rest of the time you’re looking at people looking at objects – well, I am – especially at the British Museum, where people from all over the world are looking at their own cultures or other people’s cultures and interacting with it. I think that’s such an amazing thing. I love people crowding round maybe the Rosetta Stone and taking pictures of it as if it’s Jude Law. These are superstar objects. I think that’s fantastic! It makes me very optimistic about the world if people are still interested in cultures and other cultures in the past, and history, and each other and so on. So if you’re interested in objects that are made by people, that means you’re interested in people.

This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue.