Jeremy Deller @ The Venice Biennale

Review by Jac Mantle | 10 Jun 2013

The notion that the work presented by each country at the Venice Biennale is somehow a reflection of its national identity is these days pretty defunct. But hamming it right up, Jeremy Deller has staged a full-on fest of ‘Englishness.' One of his museum-type shows rather than an audience-participatory spectacle, it nonetheless has an air of the Jubilee, the London Olympics, or another such state-funded celebration pumped with patriotic pride. A line of bunting wouldn’t look out of place.

Entering the pavilion, you see a mural he has commissioned of a giant hen harrier seizing a Range Rover in its claws. A whiff of national heritage emits from a collection of Palaeolithic hand axes and some ceramic tiles designed by William Morris. The caption extols Morris as a Socialist revolutionary and quotes him stating, “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few” – a conviction Deller apparently shares.

The next room backs up this claim, with drawings of individuals linked with the Iraq War that have been produced by prisoners in the UK, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some are incredible likenesses, capturing the essence of characters the media has emblazoned on public minds. Deller continues his homage to icons of popular culture with photos of gigs and political demos taken at the time of David Bowie’s UK tour in the 1970s. As with the hand axes, these have been loaned; the other works commissioned.

Deller’s relationship to the artefacts on display is at once personal and distant, calling on heroes (Bowie, Morris, Aneurin Bevan) and dissing villains (Roman Abramovich, Prince Harry, government conspiracy). It’s all very right-on.

In a signature piece, one room houses his special tea urn and stewards are re-hydrating the thousands. You can just see visitors from around the world smiling sagely at how ‘quintessentially British’ it all is. It gets a bit nauseating, however, when you watch the video English Magic. A curious amalgam, it combines documentation of Deller’s previous work Sacrilege, a high-definition film of birds of prey moving in super slow-mo to classical music, and similarly seductive footage of a Range Rover being crushed in a scrap yard. This gleeful destruction plays to a steel band cover of Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, a carnival vibe permeating the whole pavilion.

Alongside the seemingly heartfelt use of wildlife documentary rhetoric, this produces a weird ambivalence, reinforced by footage of the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Set against Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, this is tongue-in-cheek, but it seems they might well be marching for Deller himself. Where some of his previous works have been a more obvious send-up, here there’s a lot he clearly holds dear to him, and it’s hard to separate this from the pomp he’s appropriating.

Occupying a prime position in the Biennale and up a grand flight of steps, the British Pavilion appears almost the natural destination as you enter – an order emphasised by its imperialistic exterior. Deller’s overwhelming celebration of ‘Englishness’ seems to reflect this attitude of dominance, which will make many grimace, not least in the context of it being a national representation at the Biennale. The best of it, the Melodians Steel Orchestra, provides some light relief.

Jeremy Deller's British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24 November and will tour national UK venues in 2014.

British Pavilion, Giardini di Castello, Venice, Italy 1 Jun-24 Nov 2013