Jeremy Deller’s Venice exhibition links aspects of British society and culture to events of the past, present, and predicted future. Although the exhibition can be seen as both reflective and humorous, it does at times become rather anarchistic and apparent in its approach.
Jeremy Deller (b. 1966) is representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale. True to his artistic practice, Deller has used the opportunity to showcase his take on British society and its myths, folklore and history, as reflected in the exhibition title: English Magic.
The word “magic”, coupled with the image of an oversized bird of prey, immediately brings to mind “black magic”, as found in English literature such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Yet, it becomes evident that Deller is rather focused on the magic of concealment in England; the concealment of Prince Harry’s shooting down one of the rarest birds of prey in the UK, and the concealment of income in order to avoid taxes. Through the various rooms of the pavilion, Deller is engaged with social history and public events as a reflection on current politics. Yet, with its direct critique of the state, royals and wealthy individuals, the exhibition becomes rather anarchistic and apparent in its approach.
Two Murals of Revenge
Upon entering the British pavilion in Giardini, we are met by a mural of an oversized hen harrier. It hovers above us with its wings outstretched. In its grip is a red Range Rover. Since the car is miniature in size in relation to the bird and since we know the Range Rover is great in size in relation to us, we are quickly reduced to a dot compared to the bird of prey. The mural is thus not only aesthetic and spectacular in its presentation but also intimidating, where we may be the next targets of the hen harrier.
The choice of the hen harrier is connected to an event in Norfolk, UK, in 2007. On October 24th, a wildlife officer and two members of the public witnessed a pair of hen harriers being shot on the Sandringham Estate. Prince Harry and a friend were the only two people hunting that day. At the conclusion of the investigation the case was dropped since no carcasses were found. According to the exhibition text, what we are witnessing is the hen harrier taking revenge, not on Prince Harry or his friend (which would be more logical), but on a British manufactured car. This mural can thus be seen as a critique of today’s consumer society and lack of environmental consciousness, where the artist humorously titled the mural: “A good day to be a cyclist”.
While the mural of the hen harrier criticizes today’s lack of environmental consciousness, the mural on the opposite side of the room is a critique on secretive banking schemes. As we watch the smoke rising from the town of St. Helier, the capital of the self-governing island of Jersey, we are informed that this mural reflects a fictitious future event. On June 12th, 2017, UK taxpayers descend upon the town and set it on fire due to Jersey’s status as a tax haven for companies and wealthy individuals. Although it is admirable that the exhibition reflects the issue of tax havens, the mural itself is banal since it merely depicts a violent attack a specific tax haven rather than allowing for a deeper reflection on EU’s desire for transparency.
Power to a Victorian Socialist
The next room approaches society in a similar manner but this time refers to a more current event in Venice. On June 1st, 2011, Russian oligarch and art collector Roman Abramovich parked his 377-foot yacht at the Giardini quay in such a way that it blocked the view for many, and resulted in visitors to the Biennale having to walk around the security fence in order to enter Giardini.
The mural depicts an oversized Victorian socialist, William Morris, resurrected and rising from the sea in the manner of Poseidon, tossing the yacht into the Venice lagoon. Like the position of power given to the hen harrier, Deller gives colossal power to the socialist. With this mural Deller expresses his repulsion of the wealthy individuals who descend upon Venice during the Biennale, and thereby brilliantly connecting his humorous and anarchist approach to society to the host country of his exhibition. But this connection is also paradoxical; Deller accepted the commission knowing that his audience would be the ones he is critiquing. This way, it further opens up for reflection on our role as visitors to the Biennale.
The mural of William Morris is juxtaposed with a series of vouchers that were distributed during the privatization of the Soviet Union. Although this distribution was initially thought of as a good idea by the government, it led to many wealthy individuals buying the vouchers from the poor for small amounts, resulting in a high level of economic inequality in Russia. Even though Russia is a wealthy country, its people remain poor and thus, Deller has wittingly entitled this room: “We sit starving amidst our gold”.
A Crushed Car
While we sit on a crushed car in another room in the exhibition, we are shown a film with slow-motion sequences of birds in flight, followed by a Range Rover being destroyed at a scrap yard which connects this room with the mural of the hen harrier in the first room. These sequences bring to mind falconry displays at historic battle reenactments in the UK and also Deller’s interest in filming bats in flight.
The film clearly represents Deller’s artistic practice and his interest in English heritage, folk traditions and pop music. The film captures people jumping on his Stonehenge jumping castle and directly interacting with an historical landmark; it showcases a British tradition dating back to 1215, the Lord Mayor Procession; and it plays adaptations of British music performed by a steel band. However, for the audience, it would have been more powerful if these aspects of British culture were experienced live.
As We Sit Enjoying Our Tea
As at Deller’s first retrospective exhibition Joy in People at the Hayward Gallery in 2012, we can sit back and relax with a cup of tea in the British Pavilion, whether it is inside the pavilion or outside on the terrace. This plant-filled tea room can have a number of different interpretations. It can be a reflection on England’s tradition of tea drinking, or a comment on the increasing focus on organic produce. It can even as a critique of cafe society: While we are amidst world problems, we take the time to sit back and enjoy our tea.
Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November and will tour national UK venues in 2014.