Jeremy Deller: English Magic
British Pavilion, Giardini, Venice
1 June - 24 November 2013
Review by C Staunton-Price
Jeremy Deller’s contribution to the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale reassures all visitors, that the cultural identifiers and idiosyncrasies of the English remain intact, despite escalating globalisation and threats of multiculturalism. ‘English Magic’ is an exhibition of ironic comedy, charming modesty, beautiful wildlife, Stonehenge, socialist pride, folk aesthetics - and cups of tea.
On the approach to the British Pavilion we encounter two conifer trees politely shaped into Neolithic arrowheads - a recurring motif throughout the show alongside hand axes, all found in the sludge of the Thames River. In the first and largest room in the show, arrowheads are adhered to the walls like a line of ants leading to a mammoth wall painting of England’s rarest owl, holding in its clutches that symbol of British Pride, the Land Rover. Friendly volunteers add to the fun by offering to tell visitors about the ancient tools, and helping them make their own image of the owl with a rubber stamp! We learn from reading the booklet that two of these rare birds may or may not have been shot down by Prince Harry, probably while driving a Land Rover.
The cheery tone continues in the next room with another skillful wall painting, depicting the artfully radical socialist, William Morris as a King Kong like giant, except standing in the waters of Venice with the Russian Oligarch and keen art collector Roman Abramovich’s yacht between his hands. Deller’s criticism of Abramovich and his peers is illustrated further by a bank of framed Russian rubles, bonds, and ponzi scheme tokens from the early 1990s, displayed alongside footnotes as to their origins and value. The various currencies act as material evidence to the collapse of the Russian socialist state economy, and its replacement with the monopoly money of the current day oligarchy. The wall of crafted monies contrasts nicely with a framed section of original textile design by Deller’s hero William Morris. Among his many ambitions, we are informed in the generous interpretation panels, was for art and design to be accessible to all. Ironically, the famously recognisable floral print is now protected under a velvet curtain.
The next room is lined with framed illustrations drawn by prisoners and former soldiers from their memory of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as political protagonists like Tony Blair and Mike Kelly. A medium that Deller visited in his Folk Archive, this room feels like a tokenistic and incomplete element to the large exhibition, which ought to demand more attention and space of its own.
A cup of tea is welcome at this stage. We courteously queue in silence to collect our milky brew, and enjoy it under appropriately grey and rainy skies on the pavilion terrace. The sounds of steel drums call us back inside. Seated on a flattened Land Rover, the audience sits to watch a video which follows rare owls in slow motion, followed by 4x4 vehicles being flattened for scrap, and children bounding on an inflatable stone henge ‘sculpture’. It finishes with the quirky London Mayor’s parade of costumed labourers, craftsmen and their guilds marching to a soundtrack of a steel drums David Bowie, A Guy Called Gerald and Vaughan Williams, recorded at Abbey Road. This video brings together previous works by Deller, including his recent roadtrip around America dragging a car bombed in Iraq for’Conversations about Iraq’ and ‘Inflatable Stonehenge’ - the title is self-explanatory.
The final room of the exhibition is a series of journalistic photographs from 1973, with alternating scenes of David Bowie’s tour of England and the various protests around the country. But again, the sense of flippancy elsewhere in the show leaves this important series unduly muted. The British Pavilion is a series of interconnected rooms and we find ourselves in the entrance gallery again, but against the back wall and framing the exit is another wall mural. This time it is of a future protest in the streets of Saint Helier, the capital of the British Isle’s tax haven Jersey, where Deller imagines the residents to rise up against the evasion tactics of big businesses and wealthy individuals. Banners, borrowing the aesthetic of the workers’ parade and adorned with futuristic symbols of rebellion, flank the mural.
Those readers who are familiar with Deller’s works will not be surprised by the content of ‘English Magic’, but may not have expected a certain lightness rather than his usual obsessive exhausting of each idea. In fact, this reduced intensity leaves the impression that there are some important ideas which have not been given quite the time, space or gravity that they deserve: the memories of soldiers now incarcerated, rendered in delicate pencil drawings; the alternative currencies of a once socialist economy and the relation of Russian oligarchs to the Biennial; and the aesthetics of protest. They amalgamate into a kind of phantasmagorical nightmare, dressed up in the comfort and fun of steel drums, bouncy Stonehenges and cups of tea.
The discussed video work, ‘English Magic’, can be viewed on the British Council website www.britishcouncil.org/visualarts