It is quite hard to write about the artwork of British artist Jeremy Deller, since it doesn’t come across as works of art but conceptual, social-political and sometimes journalistic gestures that he conceives and mostly employs others to carry out. These gestures often bemoan certain injustices that have happened in the country since the 1980’s, as well as celebrate the vernacular or folk art, as the economy changes from a predominantly industrial one to a post-industrial service and entertainment based one, and imagining ‘situations’ where ‘justice would be served’.
But it would be a mistake to consider him someone in love with the traditional or something of a neo-Victorian; for Deller its all about taking mundane or absurd notions and re-constitute them in another light, his ‘inversions’, to make a commentary about the contemporary.
In The Battle of Orgreave (2001) he had a thousand people re-enact the miners strike that happened in 1984 at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, at one of British Steel’s coking plants. This was a rowdy protest that turned violent when the police on horseback charged at protesters who then fled into the nearby town, with riot police pursuing and clubbing the miners in a bloody finale.
To make matters worse, the BBC re-arranged their video depiction to make it seem like the miners threw rocks at police, which caused them to charge. In the end when the police tried to prosecute the miners with the ‘riot law’, it was their own video footage taken on the day, showing that they were the ones who charged first before the miners started throwing rocks, that defeated their case in the courts.
But everything was not back to normal, as the economy changed from a heavy industrial to the present service based, entertainment one. Those who didn’t change with the times were left out. For Deller, this was the event that defined the change to the contemporary and laid bare the deep divisions between the working class and the establishment. To be fair, the lies were bad, but I don’t think its anybody’s fault that the world and the British economy changed.
One might think, great, but people re-enact events all the time, from civil wars to any historical event. While this was one of recent history – where’s the art in that? Would then all crime scene re-enactments be considered works of art?
Compared to other re-enactments, this one was different in that a film was made, and interlaced with historical footage, puts this more in the realm of a documentary. But when exactly does a documentary become a work of art, that line is a little bit more blurred, but a case might be made in the parallels between riot police tactics, standing off with long and short shields, tight formations, charging cavalry and ancient Roman battle formations with both sides lining up in an open field.
In 2012 Deller had an idea to do something about Stonehenge, in part because its such a mystery as to where it came from. Its just sitting there everyday like an alien culture just landed it on the ground and left. Also of interest is that it is actually roped off for most part of the year. While more aberrant members of public could just run over and touch it, the official ‘no-touch’ policy has turned it into a protected museum artifact, like one that’s behind a glass enclosure.
And so Sacrilege (2012) would be a full size inflatable replica of Stonehenge, traveling around to different parts of the country with an inflatable floor where children could jump up and down and bounce around from; a light-hearted re-interpretation of what this iconic landmark could be used for.
The Inverse Of Stonehenge
The title ‘Sacrilege’ implies that the original usage of Stonehenge was for some sort of sun worship, a very sacred, solemn place and that this present ‘theme park’ interpretation of having children bouncing up and down, would be ‘sacrilegious’ or even blasphemous.
Yet this is not an ordinary theme park, it is an inversion of everything Stonehenge stands for. However in all the cities across England and Scotland that it has been, people seem to love it, which brings to surface a deeper issue, that of identity. Preposterous you might say, but this iconic, quintessentially British place might not be as British as you think. Similar to those rock paintings in Southern France having little relation to French culture, these prehistoric works were done before the concept of a country came about.
Built by dragging huge rocks from 100 miles away to this open field in the middle of nowhere, large, solemn ceremonies were held here at the equinoxes and it is likely that people, maybe even children, were sacrificed at the altar to appease the gods, as evidence exists of an onsite burial with no towns nearby. It might as well have been built and left here by an alien culture from outer space. This is the cultural and identity dilemma that Stonehenge and by extension Sacrilege (2012) poses every time one drives by; who are these people, our ancestors who did this, and thus, who are we?
Much of Deller’s work also focuses on the history of Britain, from ancient inventions of the Stone Age, to pre-industrial revolution visionaries to the current post-industrial era, as evidenced by his 2013 Venice Biennale solo exhibition ‘English Magic’. But the magic of English Magic wouldn’t really be magic, where things appear or disappear, but more of a fantasy, an imagining.
Act 1 – Romance
The video of English Magic would be split up into 3 acts with an opening film sequence of endangered birds flying and landing in slow motion. The second act would be of Range Rovers being lifted up and crushed in a car wrecking yard and of Sacrilege (2012) being inflated and populated by kids running and jumping on it. In the final act scenes from the annual Lord Mayor’s Procession, a centuries old traditional parade through the streets of London are shown.
The meaning behind these scenes can only be found in the choice of the accompanying music; in the first act, a romantic portrayal of a hawk, a barn owl and eagle owl taking off and landing in slow motion, are played to the soft and soothing tune of ‘Romance – Symphony No.5 in D’ written by Victorian era composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Set in the idyllic English countryside, these scenes depict how majestic these big birds are, and seems to represent everything good and wholesome, an idyllic life and idyllic country.
Act 2 – Voodoo Ray
The 2nd act, played to the tune an electronic dance music in the 1980’s called Voodoo Ray, seems to recount the liberation experienced in the U.K. with the new-wave movement of music, films and literature. As Range Rovers are being lifted and crushed, children jumping for joy on Sacrilege (2012), whimsically doing somersaults the film seems to suggest a liberation from the stoic ‘established’ way of doing things.
Act 3 – The Man Who Sold The World
In the third act, as people dressed flamboyantly in what’s essentially Rococo attire walk along the procession route, some self-reflection is induced; for what’s being shown is diametrically opposed to the meaning behind the song that’s being played. For David Bowie wrote ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ when he was just 23, at the beginning of his career, unsure of himself and ultimately his sexuality. He felt like he was a fake, selling a version of himself to the world (and being married to a woman) that wasn’t quite who he really was.
And so in the song, one side of Bowie, the public one, talks to the other hidden, private side, whom he thought had ‘died a long time ago’, but is assured and to his surprise, that ‘we (are alive) and we never lost control’. Why it is a ‘we’ is uncertain, were there many private personas in Bowie’s psyche? In the end, through the years of searching and touring through distant lands with millions of fans staring a hollow, ‘gazeless stare’, it is the private, bi-sexual side(s) that won out.
Yet if we look at the people taking part in the Lord Mayors Parade, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind who they are or what they do for a living, and so why is it included here? Did he mean to say these people are selling the world to the world, or does he feel as insecure about himself as Bowie did, even for someone who’s made it to the top of the art world?
Wanting To Find Out Who You Are
That part of the lyrics “I Searched For Form And Land” and “For Years And Years I Roamed” are placed right at the entrance of the British pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale which indicates how prominently Bowie’s issue of ‘wanting to find out who you really are’ features in Deller’s psyche. In the end the film cuts back to the hawk and eagle owl in slow motion landing and spreading their wings.
Perhaps these lyrics are talking about Deller himself and the insecurities he has faced, but on the other hand, they may also be talking about the plight of these big birds who have also searched for form and land, roaming for years an years only to see their numbers dwindle, ironically as the number of Range Rovers nation-wide increases.