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English payback at the Biennale??

It must all look so very different in Venice. The papers have been awash with praise for Jeremy Deller’s Venice Biennale show ‘English Magic‘. The Observer has a profile of Deller by Tim Adams that makes him seem the nicest, most modest of internationally renowned artist. Though both the Independent and Telegraph point out that Deller is an artist but also, perhaps more so, a curator, expertly bringing together ideas and images and actions.

According to the Observer’s Laura Cumming, Deller’s an ‘all round enlightenment artist’ with more ‘intelligence… than many of his predecessors in Venice’. Even the Scotland on Sunday, (which like all things Scottish can be a bit chippy about England, see the barbed comment to Moira Jeffery’s review) say’s it ‘wonderful’.

Sadly, for me, I still don’t really get it. Deller’s work comes out of Duchamp‘s edict that anything can be art. Duchamp’s readymades gave rise to a mode of working that strips back the physical and sensory sensations of art and privileges the idea. Deller’s Hen Harrier and William Morris murals might be expertly and attractively produced but what’s important is the idea behind them. In this, I think they share a connection with George Shaw’s paintings which can be enjoyed – if that’s the right word – quite straightforwardly. The point of them  is not just the image however but the medium Shaw uses, enamel paints, a trace from his childhood, when the small pots of it were used by all young boys to paint their plastic model planes. Its this medium which gives the resonance to paintings about memory and the places Shaw grew up in. Through their medium and subject matter, Shaw’s paintings achieve a personal significance and power akin to Buey’s use of fat and felt, the materials Tartar tribes-people used to keep him warm after he crashed in his Luftwaffe plane in the Crimea in the second world war.

Coming back to Deller, what he want’s to do in his murals it seems is to criticise wealth and privilege and the corrosive effect it has on the rest of us who live in Britain and who are not amongst the wealthiest one percent. I’m all for that but the problem is not necessarily his idea and the motivation but the execution. Laura Cumming’s review after lavishing praise on Jeremy Deller has a go at Marc Quinn and Anthony Caro, both showing in Venice, for being bombastic and (literally and metaphorically) over-inflating their ideas. But that is precisely what Deller’s murals do. Outside of a comic strip or a Ray Harryhausen epic a giant hen harrier carrying off a Range Rover isn’t a particularly profound image. To make it more so, what to do but scale them up to the size of a wall?

Perhaps Deller should have commissioned a comic strip, a little like Abdul Raheem Yasser’s spiky cartoons in the Iraqi pavilion. That might have produced a more convincing fusion between thought and execution, though a less eye catching one across the crowded room.

One final thing, if Deller’s work is so potent in its attack on privilege, if it is, as Tim Adams suggests ‘payback time’ in Deller’s vision of England, how is it no one on the wrong side of the payback is complaining yet. The Independent predicts ‘ruffled feather’s when English Magic tours the UK next year but according to Adam’s, Deller doesn’t take sides, his ‘guiding principle is only connect’. But if that all that its about then what’s the fucking point?


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gilded cages

For the May bank holiday weekend we went up to the Scottish Borders, on the way passing through Ponteland, a well set little town, sitting on the edge of Northumberland and Newcastle. All along the road leading to the centre of Ponteland, almost all the houses displayed estate agent style boards with the legend; Ponteland residents say no to building on the green belt.

Once quickly through Ponteland and into Northumberland’s sublime, empty spaces the notion of expending so much energy on protecting a ‘green belt’ seemed absurd. From the car I took a few photographs of the boards. This is one of them.


It may look like some photoshop motion blur filter has been applied but in fact I simply didn’t have the right settings on the camera. I like to the think however that, accidentally the picture offers an ironic comment on the Ponteland residents desire for stability and control over their environment, both physical and social.

These urges of the Ponteland residents aren’t unique. Much UK public policy from both the left and the right often appears to pander to it. So how might the artist critically engage with these circumstances; beyond taking bad photographs?

One way not to do it, I think, is Jeremy Deller’s example at the Venice Biennale. The BBC describe Deller as ‘controversial’. Deller’s wall sized depictions of a bird of prey carrying off a Range Rover or William Morris destroying Roman Ambramovich’s luxury yacht might be intended to be subversive within the context of Britain’s official contribution to the Biennale. After all, the UK is a country that has proved itself sentimental over the rights of the wealthy and privileged to kill wild animals for enjoyment as well as fetishising private property rights.

However, whilst I have every sympathy with the motivations driving Deller’s work, if he really wanted to be subversive why not steal a Range Rover to crush down (preferably one from Sandringham) or take pot shots at those out hunting and shooting or find and actually sink Abromivich’s yacht. After all, surely one of the reasons William Morris remains important was because he tried to realise his ideas about socialism and his response to Victorian capitalism practically, through his textile design and manufacture and his other activities as part of the Arts and Crafts movement. 

By contrast, Deller’s interventions are on the level of interrupting an exclusive dinner party by coming in and mixing up the cutlery or substituting one crisp, white napkin for a blood red one. If we really want to challenge or comment on how awful our society is becoming, it needs something more than Jeremy Deller is offering. Clearly sinking a yacht, stealing a car or shooting at people might be seen a going a little too far but what is on offer risks simply amusing those it is intended to criticise.

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