English Magic: a film by Jeremy Deller
11 October – 23 November 2013
Presenting Jeremy Deller’s film, English Magic, in India, the jewel in the crown of the former British Empire, conjures up delicious postcolonial ironies. As the artist himself has said, “Britain is a very fertile place to make art, it’s full of contradictions: we have this colonial past that we still haven’t come to terms with, we have a class system that’s fully functioning, we have a disparity between rich and poor, we have a royal family. All these things are there to be taken and worked on.”*
English Magic, made on the occasion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, looks at both the dark and light sides of British culture, reveling in current-day contradictions with joyous abandon. During this immersive fifteen-minute work, the only sound we hear is the lush uplifting music of the Melodians steel band playing a Caribbean genre of melodic percussion. The film opens with the diverse ensemble setting up in a location legendary in the annals of rock music–inside the famed Studio Two, where The Beatles recorded at Abbey Road. As the music begins, the first long segment shows wondrous slow motion footage of birds of prey. The artist is in particular referencing an incident involving a protected species in the UK, which turns out to have special significance. Two rare hen harriers were shot down from the sky over a British royal estate on a day in 2007 when Prince Harry and a friend were the only known people out hunting. There was a police investigation, but since the birds’ carcasses were never found, the case was dropped.
In the next film section, loose but unmistakable connections continue. The harriers take revenge. The fierce steel claw of a mechanical crane toys with two Range Rovers, a frequent transport vehicle for the royal family, as well as a global symbol of wealth and privilege. For Deller, these cars represent the arrogance and materialism of British society. The music gets fun and rowdy, the cars are smashed, flattened and spun around midair, dumped in a junkyard for recycling.
In the third part of English Magic, Deller turns to the subject of one of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions, the prehistoric site of Stonehenge. In 2012, he made an interactive sculpture of it in the form of a bouncy amusement park attraction, titled Sacrilege. People young and old, agile and clumsy, play on the overblown sculpture, as Deller lightly turns his country’s revered heritage into populist spoof.
Next we see clips from the annual London pageant known as The Lord Mayor’s Show, a street parade begun almost 800 years ago by King John, who demanded that every newly-elected mayor of London travel to Westminster to swear loyalty to the crown. The camera zooms in on a few professions the artist seems to be targeting for their “magical” powers–military officials, religious leaders, costumed government representatives, tax advisors, and a big float with financial wizards, to name the most prominent. As wave after wave of people march by, washing over the viewer, there is a palpable sense of collective solidarity, fanfare and festivity, punctuated with hints of danger about the current state of affairs. It seems no accident that the song we hear in this part is David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
The final scenes of the film go back to the passionate musicians’ performances in the recording studio, lingering over the players mid-song. It closes quietly and perhaps ominously, with an owl slowly turning to meet the viewer’s gaze, followed by the band looking back at us as well.
About the artist
Jeremy Deller (b. 1966, London; lives London) studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute and at Sussex University. He began making artworks in the early 1990s, often showing them outside conventional galleries.
Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004. He has exhibited widely around the world and selected monographic exhibitions include: Unconvention (1999, Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff), After the Goldrush (2002, Wattis Institute, San Francisco), Folk Archive with Alan Kane (2004, Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Barbican Art Gallery, London), Jeremy Deller (2005, Kunstverein, Munich), From One Revolution to Another (2008, Palais de Tokyo, Paris), It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq (2009, New Museum, NY, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), Processions (2009, Cornerhouse, Manchester) and Joy in People at the Hayward Gallery which is currently touring in the US; showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania and the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis. For details visit Jeremy Deller's artist website at www.jeremydeller.org
Work in the exhibition:
English Magic, 2013
High-definition digital video (or Blu-ray film?), 14 minutes 23 seconds
Commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2013. Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow
Image © Jeremy Deller. Courtesy British Council
Acknowledgements and Credits:
Thanks are due to Emma Gifford-Mead, curator of the British Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, and to Jeremy Deller for making this presentation in Mumbai possible. Additional gratitude is owed to Tushar Jiwarajka for his generosity in lending technical equipment for the presentation, and to the staff of The Modern Institute in Glasgow.