Art & Photography

Venice Biennale: Jeremy Deller’s English Magic

The Turner prize-winning artist had an idea. It involved history, satire and magic and evolved into the British Pavilion, as curator Emma Gifford-Mead explains

Photgraphy by Cristiano Corte courtesy of the British Council

Words Anna Battista

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.”

The pavilion reflects Deller’s wide-ranging interests, and it would be perfectly summarised with the record notes on the 2K’s Fuck 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, where Prince Harry and a friend were shooting. In the same space, visitors can handle Neolithic hand axes dating around 4,000 BCE, 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.

Photgraphy by Cristiano Corte courtesy of the British Council

Morris is very aptly surrounded by privatisation vouchers 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 – 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.

“Jeremy was impressed by the scale of the pavilion, but had quite strong ideas about how he wanted it to be,” recounts Gifford-Mead. “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.”

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. In a way they should have maybe subtitled the British Pavilion like one of the chapters out of The KLF’s Manual, Casualty with a Pinch of Mysticism. “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 La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November and will tour national UK venues in 2014