Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Review: Jeremy Deller 'English Magic' at Bristol Museum

I was supposed to be going camping today. However it was heaving it down and the forecast was worse, so instead of fighting my way onto an overcrowded, overpriced train and sitting in a damp campsite, drinking tea and pretending to enjoy myself (being English option 1) I decided to go and see the English Magic exhibition by Jeremy Deller at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Now, generally I like things about Englishness. It interests me. I also like folk art type things and cultural comment, both of which I was promised on the blurb.

Reader, what I got was a half-arsed video with some slo-mo footage of owls and some old Land Rovers being crushed. Land Rovers. It's like a metaphor for the destruction of British industry, innit? I don't know what the owls were there for. Some of them were stuffed.

Um. Yeah.
There was, in the next room, a bunch of newspaper photos from the 70s and a map of the 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour. Also, some of these massive hangings, which are composed without interest or skill. Upstairs, there was a massive painting of another bird of prey picking up another Landrover. Apparently this was something about Prince Harry. Also some neolithic arrow heads. If you don't know what the connection between these things are, frankly, neither do I.

Also in this room were a selection of drawings done by prisoners, many of whom were ex-servicemen who had been to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of these were very good, some were horribly, appallingly childlike. They all roused both pity and horror. But how they fitted into the rest of the display was never made clear, and it seems to me tooth-grindingly exploitative to use these vulnerable people as part of such an otherwise self-indulgent display.

In the last room (yes, three large rooms) is some tale about William Morris (of the arts and crafts wallpaper) upsetting an oligarch's yacht. There is a gigantic picture, which is neither by Jeremy Deller nor particularly good, and a lot of framed bits of financial ephemera from Russia.

All in all, it's like Deller collected a few bits of the zeitgeist as found on the Guardian's comment pages - oligarchs, traffic issues, Tony Blair, the Royal family and the death of pop music and strung them together without meaning or comment. It has all the coherence and consistency of your twitter timeline, when none of the interesting people are there.

Deller's Wikipedia page says he deals with the "devaluation of artistic ego through the involvement of other people in the creative process." I can only presume this was written by his agent, since what it means is that there is not one piece of art in the exhibition, except presumably the film, that is made by Deller himself. For 'curating' this meaningless jumble, he gets his name all over it.

Wikipedia also says that his work is 'political' but one thing that is rampantly apparent is that Deller has no personal experience of the shittiness of modern Britain. This is hardly surprising since apparently he went to Dulwich College, one of the UK's poshest schools, and if there is one thing screaming out from this random assembly of bits and bobs it's the noise of a no-longer-young public school boy desperately trying to look edgy. The thing I can't believe is that this kind of crud still gets lauded, and I can only presume its sociological purpose is to reassure privileged, comfortable people that they are still 'with it' in some way.

If I sound like I'm taking this unnecessarily personally, I am: I know people who create things with far more skill and meaning, often they don't even think of themselves as artists, but simply craftspeople, and usually have another job to survive. I've seen stuff like this (but better) in festival tents and teashops and on neighbourhood arts trails.

Recently, I went to the Folk Art exhibition at the Tate. That featured dozens of wonderful and beautifully crafted objects made by ordinary, and often nameless, artisans. It cost £14 and was worth every penny. This, on the other hand, was free, and I still want my money back.

Yes it really was that busy. On a rainy afternoon in the holidays.

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