Jeremy Deller unveils 'aggressive' exhibition in Venice

Artist Jeremy Deller speaks to Will Gompertz about his inspiration for his exhibition, English Magic

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Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller has created an "aggressive" anti-establishment exhibition to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale.

It features attacks on the Royal Family, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the artist's pet hate: Range Rovers.

"Every room has a scene of destruction in it," the artist told the BBC.

The Biennale, often called The Olympics of Contemporary Art, sees 88 countries host exhibitions.

They are located in pavilions scattered across the floating city.

Other artists taking part this year include Ai Weiwei, Anri Sala, Jesper Just and Sarah Sze.

Deller's six-room exhibition, titled English Magic, opens with a giant mural of a hen harrier clasping a blood red Range Rover in its talons.

The painting is a response to allegations, made in 2007, that Prince Harry had shot two of the rare birds over the Sandringham Estate (he was questioned by police but charges were never brought).

"It was something that bothered me," says Deller.

Jeremy Deller is a 21st Century version of The Renaissance Man. His 15th Century counterpart was the master of many crafts. Deller - by his own admission - is not that great at any. Instead he comes up with the ideas and commissions, collaborates and curates the work of others into themed (normally socio-political) exhibitions or artworks.

It's an approach that is unlikely to go down well with the purist, or for that matter, the Queen. Her Majesty is the patron of the British Council - the commissioners of the Deller installation - and might be a little taken aback by the tone of some of the pieces, one of which obliquely alludes to Prince Harry.

How many of the hordes chattering around the exhibition will understand the nuances of his English Magic show is difficult to gauge, but at least everybody appeared to be enjoying the free cuppa on offer.

"Cruelty to animals in general. I know it sounds wishy-washy but I think that was a particularly nasty thing to happen.

"He [Prince Harry] may or may not have shot it but these two beautiful birds were shot. So whoever did it, it's about them."

The politically charged exhibition also features a room of pictures painted or drawn by prisoners, many of whom are former soldiers.

They include scenes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, alongside portraits of Tony Blair, the former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove and, pointedly, Dr David Kelly - the government scientist found dead after being exposed as the source of a BBC story questioning government reports into the presence of WMD in Iraq.

"The portraits, on the whole, are of the men that sent those other men to war," said Deller.

"It is about those in power and what that means to other people - what that puts them through."

Although the exhibition is broadly anti-establishment, the artist acknowledges he is looking from the inside out.

"I grew up in a very stable, English establishment environment. I went to private school, went to university, did all those things. So I'm part of that."

He says he surprised himself by creating such "an aggressive exhibition" but the project is nonetheless shot through with characteristic warmth and humour.

The hen harrier mural is titled A Good Day For Cyclists because Deller, a keen cyclist himself, is amused by the idea of a giant bird swooping down and grabbing Range Rovers off the road.

"Range Rovers are the enemy," he laughs.

Ai Weiwei installation Ai Weiwei has recreated his detention in a secret prison for the Biennale

The installation, set in the British Pavilion - a former tea room - is also peppered with music, including a steel band rendition of rave classic Voodoo Ray, and a gallery that juxtaposes the 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour with contemporary images of social unrest.

The idea, Deller says, is to show how popular culture can provide an "alternative reality", allowing young people to "escape from the social, political and economic issues that their parents had to deal with throughout this period".

Taken as a whole, the installation is a darker alternative to the vision of England portrayed by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce at the opening of the London Olympics - equally eccentric but vastly more critical.

Audiences in the UK will get to see it later this year, as the exhibition will be taken on the road to London, Bristol and Margate.

Prison film

The Venice Biennale opens to the public on Saturday, 1 June.

JEREMY DELLER

  • Born in London in 1966
  • Specialises in conceptual, video and installation art
  • Studied art history at the Courtauld Institute and at Sussex University
  • Spent two weeks at Andy Warhol's Factory in New York in 1986
  • Secretly used his family home for 1993 exhibition titled Open Bedroom while his parents were on holiday
  • Produced Acid Brass in 1997 with the Williams-Fairey Band
  • Devises The Battle of Orgreave in 2001, a restaging of a 1980s clash between miners and the police
  • Won Turner Prize in 2004 for Memory Bucket, an installation documenting his travels through Texas
  • Toured America in 2009 with It Is What It Is, a travelling exhibition featuring an Iraqi citizen, a US soldier, and the remains of a Baghdad car bomb
  • Recent work includes Sacrilege, an inflatable model of Stonehenge

Aside from Deller, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is also bound to make a splash.

Officially part of the German Pavilion, he is also presenting a new work outside the main competition, depicting his 2011 detention in a secret prison.

S.A.C.R.E.D. was created in secret and transported (he will not say how) from China to Venice's Church of Sant'Antonin.

Situated in the nave, it features six imposing steel boxes, each weighing 2.5 tonnes.

Looking into the boxes through a small "letterbox" the viewer is confronted by filmed recreations of Ai's 81-day imprisonment in a white padded room.

In one, he is asleep while two guards stand over him. In another, he sits on a toilet - again watched by two austere, uniformed guards.

The artist said his goal was "to give people a clear understanding of the conditions."

The installation will be officially opened on Tuesday by Ai's 80-year-old mother Gao Ying, who will be seeing the work for the first time.

Jeremy Deller's British Council commission is at the Venice Biennale until 24 November and will tour national venues in 2014.

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