Friday, 28 February 2014

'English Magic'. Jeremy Deller's talk at William Morris Gallery

'We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold'
painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, 2013 © Cristiano Corte

In February, I went to hear Jeremy Deller speak about his exhibit at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow,  adapted from the work he'd presented at the Venice Biennale, 2013. The show has proved a huge success, attracting over 1000 visitors each day. Not all of the installation from Venice was on view, but of course the British Pavilion is far grander in scale than the William Morris Gallery!

Deller started his talk in the gallery's cafe, appropriately enough, and told his audience how he had been chosen to represent Britain at the Biennale and how he had at first been hesitant to accept the commission. Deller told us he had constructed a tea room in the Pavilion at Venice. His reason being that everyone gets tired walking around such a vast event and a space with chairs to sit and rest one's feet, and get a free cup of tea as well, was ideal in encouraging visitors to stay. Deller drew our attention to the plants hanging from the ceiling that he told us he had shipped in from Venice where they had adorned the tea room there, and he expressed surprise that they had survived the journey.

Moving into the main exhibition space, Deller talked about the significance of the mural 'We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold' on one of the walls. This depicts William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich's yacht into the lagoon in Venice. Deller told us how he had been outraged at the sight of the yacht moored outside the Bienniale obstructing the view, and he talked about what the mural represents. We were already getting a sense of his political views which would grow stronger as we went through the show.

Deller is primarily a 'curator as artist', a supreme collaborator. He made a point of bringing his collaborators forward during the talk and crediting them for their contribution to his artwork. He did not have the fine art skills, he told us, to make the artwork himself so relied upon others to do so. Whilst many contemporary artists use assistants to make their work, I have heard very few who credit them in quite the same way. Deller introduced Stuart Sam Hughes, who had painted the mural, and they discussed how the image had taken shape (through photoshop primarily).

In the centre of the gallery was a small table with a felt top, used for handling delicate artefacts. Deller explained his interest in Neolythic artefacts originally seen at the British Museum, how he felt a connection with these tools used by pre-historic man centuries ago and how they had sparked his interest in collecting them. Likewise, Deller wanted his audience to connect with his exhibition, encouraging them to actually touch the tools, and to make prints from a Morris woodblock in the gallery. He introduced us to Caroline McDonald, senior curator from the Museum of London. Then he talked about the installation of Neolythic hand tools on one of the walls, retrieved from the mud of the river Thames, and explained how the tools were arranged according to where they were found. In the gallery, 'auras' had been painted on the wall behind them.

We made our way out to the staircase in the main hall. Around the walls were hung several banners proclaiming socialist sentiments – in accordance with William Morris' philosophy. These banners had been made for the show by Ed Hall who had designed banners for all the main political rallies and demonstrations. Deller introduced him to us. At this point, I tried to take a picture of the two of them standing together on the stairs, but my mobile phone started sending me texts and I did not get the photo I would have liked. Shame.

We moved upstairs to the education room where a range of portraits made by prisoners who formerly served in Iraq were on show. For this, Deller collaborated with the Koestler Trust who enabled him to work on the project. He ran workshops in three prisons with former members of the armed forces who currently make up an alarmingly high proportion of prisoners, asking the prisoners to draw or paint their experiences on the front line and perhaps to make portraits of people who had upset them. The prisoners produced portraits of people such as Tony Blair, and someone had drawn 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. These were extremely evocative images. Deller introduced us to Tim Robertson, chief executive of the Koestler Trust and another of his colleagues, who revealed how difficult it had been to get permission for the project to go ahead, and how the prisoners had been motivated and inspired by being involved.

Finally, there were questions from the audience, many who wanted to discuss Deller's political views which he was happy to talk about. Then, downstairs again to the cafe where I had a chance to chat to the artist. I'd been given a small Morris 'Yacht Print' as a present, so I asked him to sign it for me, which he did, and Deller wrote on it: “I didn't paint this! Morris Forever”. Ebay anyone??

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