Thursday, 15 September 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 8 Jeremy Deller

Bats - Still from Memory Bucket 2003
So far in my Top Ten Contemporary Political Artists (which should really be called 10 Contemporary Political Artists as it is non-hierarchical), I've covered a political painter in Wilhelm Sasnal and an installation artist in Thomas Hirschhorn.  Jeremy Deller is essentially a performance artist, who makes videos to document the acts.  He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, an extremely political year for the Turner Prize, which was won by Langlands and Bell who made work about Afghanistan.  I remember seeing them in the Tate and was surprised that they were documenting their work themselves!  One of their main pieces, Zardad's Dog, was withdrawn as it was considered that it might be in contempt of court - a trial involving Zardad was going on in London at the time (you can't get more relevant than that - look out for Langlands and Bell in future posts!). Yinka Shonibare was also shortlisted and his work deals explicitly with post colonialism.  The 2004 Turner Prize was seated very much in the wake of 9-11 but Deller's work looked farther back.  His main piece "Memory Bucket" is a collection of interviews of residents from Waco and Crawford Texas.  Deller was doing a residency in Texas at the time.  Waco embodies an overaggressive state.  The BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) believed that the Branch Davidians were molesting children, stock piling arms and running a drug factory.  They stormed the complex using machine guns and attack helicopters.  The Branch Davidians responded with an act of collective suicide - burning themselves to death.  The BATF then bulldozed the whole site - even though it was a crime scene.  They later, in court, produced a rifle "from the scene" which was brand new, wooded butt still intact with no sign of fire damage. Deller's work is often about history and how we remember history.  He reminds us that history is written by the winners, and when the winners are the State, they have total control over how and what we remember.  Almost total: Deller interviews a survivor of the fire who has constructed a visitor centre on the site of the massacre.  He believes that he needs to tell everybody about the event, and then the second coming will occur.  Memory Bucket ends with an apocalyptic scene of thousands of bats flying out of a cave, a dark cloud that hangs over America's pro-Bush enthusiasm. 

The exhibition Life/Live continues with the theme of historical collective memory.  Deller curated  Life/Live in 1996/7, it featured portraits of the infamous including the drug dealer associated with Leah Betts' death and a stalker of Princess Diana.  This reminds us of how (seemingly) important events are quickly forgotten or fade to the backs of our minds.  Everything's an emergency on 24-hour news channels (it has to be to grab our attention), but because it's 24-hour it needs to be constantly updated and superseded by the next emergency or catastrophe. 

Deller's work is often about civic pride (and snobbishness), parades, and re-enactments. 
In another piece shown at the Turner Prize he draws out connections between
Brass Bands and Acid House music: Colliery bands, Thatcher crushing both warehouse raves (the criminal justice bill) and miners, brass instruments looking like apparatus from the industrial revolution and Acid House being digital music (part of the next revolution - the digital revolution), both forms of music being popular in the North of England and back to Civic Pride.  The project culminated in a series of concerts where northern Brass Bands play Acid House music. 

Battle of Orgreave 2001
Perhaps Deller's most famous work is The Battle of Orgreave (Commissioned by Art Angel 2001).  In this work Deller brings together the conservative (small "c" and capital "C") English Historical Re-enactment Society and ex-miners (an interesting mix) to recreate the pivotal battle between the Miners and Thatcher.  This is genious, just by doing the re-enactment he has brought together two very different parts of society - in a non-judgmental way.  Imagine the conversations, imagine the legacy left through the conversations they will continue to have with others about "when they re-enacted the battle of Orgreave".  If the artwork never even made it to film it would live on, in memory.  This, I suspect, is the point.  These two sets of "actors" were brought together with general volunteers and former Police officers were advising on the military style tactics used.  Deller states quite clearly that this was a public event first and a video, as documentation, second.  One of the most moving parts is when a policeman emotionally recalls that he first joined the force because he "wanted to do something for the community" and "thanks to Margaret Thatcher, I did: I helped to destroy it".  The copper is nearly reduced to tears as he now believes that he was used.  I'm sure there are many policemen who are unrepentant: he was local but many officers were brought in from London and the South, this was North vs South, a class war, a sequel to the English Civil War that the Historical Re-enactment Society are more used to re-enacting.  Orgreave, just like Waco is an example of an overaggressive state.  "The first casualty of war is the truth" Tony Ben tells us (in Deller's film) as he recalls a retired policeman assaulting Arthur Scargill at a rally (it was later reported in the press that Scargill was assaulted by a disenchanted miner).  Deller clearly questions our collective memory and that of the truth.  His memorial to Brian Epstein highlights how an important Briton can be forgotten and "not memorialised".  Orgreave Memory Bucket are events in the wake of 9-11, and how we should question what we are told.  Memory Bucket shows us examples of American civic pride and this contrasts with Deller's depictions of England where pride has been lost and how we now ridicule remnants of a past age - like the Brass Band or three ducks on the chimney breast.  But Deller isn't romanticising a proud past, Memory Bucket draws our attention to the dangers of such pride - where people without passports who know nothing about, and care little for, the outside world can be incredibly proud patriots - celebrating their towns status as being number one for something meaningless - like number turnip producer in the US (not a real example of Deller's film). 

Deller's work is about people, societies and history - and that is political. 

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