Jeremy Deller’s superb, politically-engaged ‘English Magic’ show is an eclectic mix of installation, film, painting and photography, reflecting the artist’s interest in the diverse nature of British culture. Subjects range from pioneering Victorian designer and socialist William Morris to David Bowie and Bristol rioter Sir Charles Wetherall, combining social commentary with themes of magic, folk tradition and contemporary popular culture.
The show was originally commissioned for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013, where is received widespread acclaim. When offered the show sight-unseen, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery jumped at the chance to showcase one of Britain’s most influential artists for their main Summer exhibition.
The first piece that visitors see is the short film ‘English Magic’, which is backed by the Melodians Steel Orchestra performing Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on steel drums. Footage includes beautiful close-up slow-motion action of birds of prey flying and the London Lord Mayor’s Show. Sandwiched in between these is footage of a Range Rover being squeezed in a metal crusher. Pleasingly, the very same Range Rover is turned into the seat visitors perch on to watch the film. Deller devoted his 2004 Turner Prize to “everyone who cycles”, and the symbolic intent here is clear.
Other standout pieces include two huge murals, ‘A good day for cyclists’ featuring a bird of prey carrying aforementioned Range Rover in it’s talons, and ‘We sit starving amidst our gold’, depicting William Morris heaving Roman Abramovich’s luxury liner into the Venice lagoon. Both of these murals have been turned into ink stamps so that visitors can make their own reproductions.
Elsewhere there is a collection of drawings by ex-soliders who had served in Iraq and are now serving time in Britain’s prisons. Subjects such as Tony Blair, Dr David Kelly, George Bush and Alistair Campbell are drawn with various degrees of skill, but always to haunting effect. Particularly potent are drawings of Basra through a sniper’s viewfinder and of two soldiers smoking crack outside their barracks.
Deller has complemented his original show with Bristol-centric pieces to good effect. He is famous for his 12ft banners, and the ‘Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha-yeah’ red banner from the original show is added to in the Museum foyer with one proclaiming ‘Chas. Wetherall has left the city’. This slogan was disseminated by the authorities during the Bristol Riots of 1831 to calm the crowds by claiming that instigator Sir Charles Wetherall had left. It pre-dates ‘Elvis has left the building’ by over a century.
The show is utterly mesmerising and engaging. Deller is able to present politically-charged work in a way that is both accessible and yet never resorts to cliché. Bristol is incredibly lucky to have the show for the whole Summer, and to be one of only three British galleries to exhibit it.
During the Summer there will be complementary events, including the opportunity to have tea with Deller on 11th June, and a Bowie night on 19th June. ‘English Magic’ runs at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 12th April until 21st September 2014.
Find out more about the exhibition.
Check out our chat with Jeremy Deller
By Conal Dougan