There’s a section in Jeremy Deller’s new book in which his editor asks him, quite bluntly: “Why do you do this?”
“You mean make art?” Deller responds with, notably, nervous laughter. “It’s been a process of elimination, in that having studied art history, I soon realised that it was a world I wasn’t equipped to be in.”
Even now, as Art Is Magic, the first retrospective of his work is published, his answer to the question still isn’t totally straight. Sitting by the lobby at London’s Marylebone Hotel, cappuccino in hand, Deller instead ducks the query by taking a trip down memory lane. He talks about studying History of Art at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1980s. Deller’s degree was purely theoretical, and back then, he’d go to lectures in a grand townhouse owned by the Courtauld family, just around the corner from the building we’re currently in.
“I suppose if you don’t go to art college, you don’t really know what the rules are,” he says. “Maybe that’s the thing: the unwritten rules – doing whatever you can get away with. I knew I didn’t have technical talents as such, I just had to use my wits.”
Deller’s new book, then, is “a collection of his wits”, as he puts it. “It’s not exactly making it up as you go along, but almost. Just taking opportunities when they arise and just running with it. Maybe that’s my technique.”
Deller has undeniably worked on instinct throughout his career. The History of the World connected acid house with sociopolitics on a Tate Britain wall in 1998. The more direct Welcome to the Shitshow, in 2019, paired patriotic pessimism with the Union Jack. The epic The Battle of Orgreave installation, from 2001, brought together around 1,000 people to re-enact the violence from the 1984 Miners’ Strike. Through it all, his ideas have been informed by politics, past and present. He does it to stay engaged with the world, to inspire us, the people, with his political leanings.
As Art is Magic attests, Jeremy Deller’s work is full of spirit.
Right now, though, he’s pissed off.
“I’ve been angry for a long time about this [effective] voter suppression of young people [whereby they have] to show an ID card to vote. It’s absolutely scandalous,” he says, sitting back in his chair with a deceptively relaxed demeanour. These are the kinds of topics that get Deller riled up and inspire his art. “For young people, most of whom probably don’t know about it, it’ll put them off voting. Old people have time and they don’t worry. They’re maybe more patient. It’s just a way to disenfranchise young people.”
At (a very youthful looking) 57, Deller is obviously passionate about young people. He sees similarities between the present day and the Thatcher years, and is well aware that, amidst the cost-of-living crisis, teacher strikes, lack of youth funding and plenty more, it’s bloody hard being young in Britain right now. “As a middle-aged white man, the rhetoric [in the news] doesn’t affect me as much,” he acknowledges. “But it reminds me of 1985/86 – it’s the same sort of language.”
It’s not easy making political art fun or even engaging. But in Deller’s hands, political art is pop-coloured, hilarious, a bit piss-takey. The book’s subtitle is, after all, A Children’s Book for Adults.
Perhaps his most beloved works, especially from a youth perspective, are his explorations in dance music. Everybody In The Place – An Incomplete History of Britain 1984 – 1992, a brilliant documentary which aired on BBC2 in 2019, was the artist’s examination of the significance of acid house and how it wasn’t all about drugs. It was about community, a collective spirit, rebelling against economic decline, class wars and over 10 years of Tory misrule (sound familiar?). He filmed a staged lecture to a classroom of diverse teenagers, as a new school of thought, and showed them period footage of ravers.
“Just saying ‘rage’ and ‘rave’, they’re two very similar words. Rave came out of a horrible moment in history for young people, but it was a very necessary moment. As were the drugs, really – it was necessary drugs that made many people like each other.”
The documentary’s aim was to open up a conversation about Britain’s past to those who didn’t experience it first-hand, in a way that felt inclusive, away from the often biased school syllabus. As he points out, a lot of the teenagers’ parents “wouldn’t have been able to tell them about politics in the ’80s, because they weren’t living in Britain. So I was trying to tell them about Britain, the ’80s and how unusual it was, in a lot of ways.”
With so many works to consider, there’s one piece that Deller is particularly proud of. Baghdad centred on a car damaged by the Al-Mutanabbi Street bombing in 2007, looking more like a large scrap piece of metal than a four-wheeler. A sobering reminder of the 26 people who were killed by the bomb, Deller took the car on a 2009 nationwide tour of America, before bringing it to the UK, where it currently sits at the Imperial War Museum.
“It’s quite a provocative thing to do, showing a blown-up car from [what was] effectively a civil war that Americans were involved in. It was really a journey into the unknown, which is stressful, but exciting. It was a constant sort of psychological state, weighing up situations with people and just trying to treat everyone the same.
“You could be talking to a woman whose son was killed the previous month,” he continues of his research process, “and you wouldn’t know that until they told you. But it was an amazing achievement for me personally. Sometimes you have to take the risk.”
While Art is Magic might be an exercise in looking back for Deller, the artist is by no means living in the past. In fact, he calls nostalgia “a trap, especially for middle-aged men. You see them fall down into the trap. That’s a warning from me, for the future!”
Art is Magic, for sure. And when Jeremy Deller’s involved, it’s an education, irreverently British and a re-telling of the world around us. And if that’s not enough to entice you, buying the book will, as promised by the artist, “bring you good luck and help you do sex better”. Bargain.