Entitled ‘English Magic’ – a phrase at once redolent of ancient druids and Aleister Crowley, the tv conjuror Paul Daniels and the financial prestidigitation practiced in London’s Square Mile – Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the British Pavilion sees him return, once again, to the lively history of his homeland. This Albion, in the artist’s vision, is a place where folklore shades into pop culture, and where people display both a deep communitarian instinct and a bent towards brilliant eccentricity. If ‘English Magic’ recalls, at times, Danny Boyle’s rapturously received opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, an attractively rickety and vaguely leftist retelling of Our Island Story, then this might indicate just how mainstream the artist’s brand of offbeat cultural history has become. This is not a criticism (on the evidence of Venice, Deller’s ability to locate the sore spots, and the G-spots, of the body politic remains undiminished) but it does beg questions, among them just how acceptable to power does he wish his work to be?
The exhibition begins with a wall painting, A Good Day for Cyclists (2013), depicting a bird of prey carrying off a City Boy’s gas-guzzling Range Rover in its gleaming claws. The work gestures not only towards environmentalism, but also towards the illegal shooting of two Hen Harriers on the Sandringham Estate in 2007, on a day when Prince Harry and his chum William Van Cutsem were the sole huntsmen stalking its grounds. Harry, who remains at liberty following police enquires into this imprisonable offence, was also the focus of an unexhibited banner proclaiming ‘Prince Harry Kills Me’, a reference to his holy fool public persona, and military service in Afghanistan. Deller reportedly agreed to drop this work at the behest of the pavilion’s organizers, the British Council, who in a press statement argued that it could ‘be misconstrued in environments where the British Army is currently deployed and perceived to be disrespectful to those who lost their lives’. Such (understandable) sensitivity was not afforded to the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovic, who at the 2011 Biennale moored his gargantuan yacht, Luna, close by the Giardini, forcing tourists to squeeze around its security cordon and obscuring the city’s famous views. In the mural We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold (2013), the British founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, William Morris, rises Neptune-like from the Venetian lagoon, and pitches Abramovic’s boat into its depths. It is an image of early socialism’s revenge on the profiteers of the post-Communist era, and of one art world’s retribution against another. Considerably less fantastical, and less comforting, is the wall painting of the shiny office blocks of St. Helier on Fire (2013), which imagines the aftermath of a riot on the British tax haven of Jersey in 2017, in the manner of Joseph Gandy’s painting Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin (1830). Nearby, this future event finds an echo in a series of photographs of youth in revolt in 1970s Northern Ireland, which are plotted against a map of David Bowie’s contemporaneous, and British mainland-only, uk Ziggy Stardust tour. While both the Jersey and Ziggy works seem to hint at the riots that flamed up in several major British cities in the summer of 2011 – conflagrations triggered by aggressive policing and grotesque wealth disparity – this link is never made explicit. Is this a canny smuggling of critique into an exhibition that is on one level, for the Foreign Office-sponsored British Council at least, an instrument of government policy? Or is it not enough, even in the year of Bowie’s re-emergence, to clad present day social problems in glam rock nostalgia, or Ballardian images of a wrecked tomorrow?
Elsewhere, Deller reprises familiar tropes from his oeuvre. A slick and rather beautiful video features flying beasts, crushed 4x4s, and the Lord Mayor’s Parade, set to steel-drum renditions of Vaughan Williams and Bowie numbers. There is a harrowing display of drawings by imprisoned ex-servicemen, and a frieze formed from Neolithic arrowheads. At the back of the pavilion, free tea is served. Perhaps the ‘English Magic’ here is a matter of stagecraft, or even statecraft. Deller’s vision of Albion is, as ever, engagingly complex and contradictory. Sipping an incongruous brew in the Giardini, however, I was left wondering when his Pavilion would land – like his very best works – an unassimilable sucker punch.