Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Serious Laughter: Jeremy Deller & Banksy in Bristol

Curious scenes at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery the other day. As well as the usual mums with pushchairs and kids wondering out loud when they'd be getting an ice cream, the entrance hall was abuzz with young adults brandishing mobile phones. They were all waving said phones at a gloomy-looking painting of a couple embracing while they too look their phones.

We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold, Jeremy Deller, 2013 Courtesy British Council. Photograph Cristiano Corte. Painted by Stuart Sam Hughes.
So this was the new Banksy painting that had been causing all the fuss (which I'd heard about courtesy of the ever-vigilant Bristol Culture blog). The tale of the painting's semi-miraculous appearance on a boarded-up door, its removal by a crowbar-wielding latter day Robin Hood, Bristol City Council's announcement that it was their boarded-up door and therefore their painting, the Mayor's involvement... All of this came back as I looked at the painting, which didn't seem to be one of Banksy's best but is nonetheless potentially worth a few bob to the cash-strapped local authority.

Quite by chance (if anything is quite by chance) the picture and surrounding furore made rather a good introduction to the main event: Jeremy Deller's 'English Magic' exhibition, which we are lucky enough to have in Bristol until September. It's already been to Venice, where it filled the British Pavilion at the 2013 Biennale, and to the William Morris Gallery in London.

Jeremy Deller: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah (installation view, British Pavilion, 2013) Courtesy the British Council
I've no doubt the exhibition has divided opinion, given that it includes film of Range Rovers being cubed at the breaker's yard and a painting of Mr Morris dispatching an oligarch's super-yacht to the watery deep, but no one can argue with the artist's desire to share his work with as wide an audience as possible. According to him, no previous British Biennale exhibit has been shown in this country after being displayed in Venice, so this is an intriguing precedent.

On entering the exhibition a younger member of our party, who had been explaining for some time that a visit to the Museum was not his idea of fun, immediately stopped as he took in the on-screen automotive destruction and the off-screen crushed-car-sofa. Being able to sit on the latter to watch the former made the whole thing much more fun than your average museum installation, but unfortunately we got so engrossed in the film, which also features people bouncing on an inflatable Stonehenge and a parade through the City of London, that we missed the second half of the exhibition upstairs.

I got there as a caretaker was solemnly closing the doors, and just caught a glimpse of a giant painting of a hawk before it disappeared.

When I was studying at UEA in the 1990s my tutor Lorna Sage used to talk about Serious Laughter, by which she was referring to writers who approached life's most difficult subjects through humour. I've never met Jeremy Deller but his art is very much in this spirit, earnest in theme but presented simply and with a light touch.

He is particularly good at surprising juxtapositions, as in the room of photographs which feature alternately moments from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tour (1972/3) and news photos from the same days. Importantly, these are not labelled but are listed in a doorway, so that you have to work at making identifications and connections. As a measure of the artist's success, this appealed as much to the younger member mentioned above as it did to me, and he knew as little about Bowie as he did about the IRA.

Cultural references have been a staple of contemporary art for as long as contemporary art has existed, but rare is the artist who can create from those references something that transcends them.

English Magic is on display until 21 September in Bristol and then goes to Turner Contemporary, Margate. 


  1. As a big fan of Mr Dellar, I'm very much looking forward to this. We'll be up some weekend soon.

  2. Thanks for your comments - must try to get to second half of show this week...