The artist on how he's helped to rewrite the rules of contemporary art
In the past British artist Jeremy Deller has described himself as a “self-taught conceptual artist” and it’s led to him creating work that is provocative in tone and often reaches beyond the confines of a gallery’s walls. Much of his work has been collaborative and participatory, with many of his projects exploring vernacular culture. Inspired by broad themes such as politics and music, it’s allowed him to suggest new connections between seemingly dissimilar histories and communities. One of his best-known works is The Battle of Orgreave, in which he orchestrated a re-enactment of the violent 1984 confrontation between miners and police.
In recent years he’s been responsible for the Strong and Stable my arse posters that appeared on London’s streets in May 2017 in response to Theresa May’s repetitive tagline of the Conservative party’s manifesto during her election campaign, and in 2018 he designed a protest flag that was to be hung in 14 American art institutions.
In 2012, Deller had a mid-career survey at the Hayward Gallery, called Joy in People which provided a fresh overview of his multi-faceted work. The exhibition displayed and reconstructed his major works from the 1990s, including installations, photographs, videos, posters, banners, performance works, and sound pieces. It was a huge hit and brought his work to a new audience of people.
Here Deller reflects on the show six years later and discusses the ways in which his work has developed over the years.
What does being a “self-taught conceptual artist” encompass? And how did you get to that definition?
My work is about making art around ideas and trying to make them happen, which is essentially the definition of conceptual art. And art wasn't something that I studied, I just liked it, so that’s why I’m self taught.
How did you get into art then?
I fell into it and tripped. It was a long process of elimination of not knowing what else to do. I was interested in art but I didn't really know how I could place myself in that world but I managed to, thank god.
How has your work developed over the years? What’s shaped it?
It's just organically grown. As you get more established, you're able to do things on a bigger scale. The work is still the same but it's bigger or more ambitious. And that confidence comes completely from success.
What did you think of your work at the time you had your show at the Hayward, Joy in People in 2012?
I liked it, I liked it being in the space. I knew the curator well so I felt very much at ease with the entire show – it was something I wanted to do at that time. It felt like a good idea to do a big show at that moment. Luckily it worked out well and it was popular.
Now looking back, how helpful was it to have a ‘mid-career survey’ of your work and invite people to look at it? What did you learn?
To be honest, I don't like seeing my work. So in a way just seeing it all together, particularly with Joy I knew it would be quite helpful to give it an airing. Just so people could see what I'd been up to as well as me. It was a good stock take.
What did you take away from the airing of your work?
It feels so long ago now, but it was like a biography of yourself. But I don't feel like I learnt anything, do you ever really learn anything?! I don't anyway.
In the show, you presented old and works, but also failed works – why was that?
I thought it was quite good to show people that there's always something that you're not allowed to do, that you might want to do. So for me it was good to show people that however big an artist you might be or might think you are, there's always someone who's going to say no to you.
Everyone has ideas about art and the kind of work they want to make. So I felt it might be encouraging for the public to see things that never got made, but then might get made in the future, which actually happened. One of the failed projects I showed, actually became a real project, which was the Iggy Pop life drawing class in 2016.
Why do you think the Hayward was the right gallery to stage this exhibition?
Obviously I was asked to do that show. But I like it there because it's a modern blank environment, and there were all these different spaces that could be divided up. It's quite a harsh space, but it's an underrated space, so it really worked for me.
What sets the Hayward apart from other institutions?
It's the space and the potential within it. A lot of the museums and galleries in Britain are quite old, they're Victorian buildings that have been made into art galleries. So they have a certain feel to them, they're not made for contemporary art, they were made for art 100 years ago.
What are your thoughts on exhibiting or sharing work publicly? Is the drive behind making work ever related to knowing a large audience might see it?
It's helpful if people see it. It doesn't really exist if no one sees it. It's not in the world.
Getting a reaction is important, but I try not to know too much about what people say about my work because sometimes they don't say nice things. But when Joy was on I liked to go back to the space and see the show happening, to see people with the work.
What's your creative process?
Coming up with the idea is the easy and fun part, it's often making it happen that is the work and it can then take a year or two years.
To generate ideas I go to museums and look at old art. I try to get out of London once in a while, to free your mind a bit. Cycling also helps.
What's the benefit of looking at art from the past?
Well that just shows you that nothing is new. Everyone has had the idea, probably 5,000 years before you. And that's what I like, you're not alone but you're also not special. It's reassuring, I like that connection to the past. But when making new work, you don't want to repeat yourself. I want to surprise myself and not know where I'm going to be next year.
Social media plays a big role in providing a space for people to air their opinions – do you ever pay attention to what's being said?
I try not to, just because it's often full of misunderstandings and it can make you be a bit more careful. I don't really take part that much in social media anyway. I just find it all a bit embarrassing, I'm not really good at it. I'm lucky in that I'm promoted by other people, on my behalf almost, so I don't really need to.
Do you have an audience in mind when making work?
It's about as broad as it gets really. I think it's important not to think about who will like it or who won't – you just chuck it out there and see what happens.
I don't really worry too much about alienating people. Sometimes there's people you want to upset, but of course it depends on the work. Like my anti-Brexit work, I'm happy to piss off people who are pro-Brexit, but everyone's pissed off with each other about that so it doesn't really matter.
I've not shied away from having a broad appeal, it's something I'm good at. It's just the way I communicate and think about things I suppose. I'm not heavily into theory and philosophies on art, which might have lessened the appeal or audience. My work is pretty broad, if not a little obvious at times.
What are you working on now?
I've just made a film about politics and dance music and their intersection in Britain and that's been six months work. So now I'm just trying to work out what I do with my time. That won't be out until October, but the trailer is out now. The trailer is better than the film – it's very exciting.
What tone has your work taken more recently?
The tone of the work will always be the same, because I'm making it. I think my tone is who I am, it's my personality, and my take on things. Themes that feature a lot are contemporary politics, social history, music - they're very big things. It's usually a mix of those things, it just depends on the opportunities that arise.
How do opportunities come to you now?
It's always like starting again with a new piece of work. First you've got to find an idea again, and then sometimes you can't work out what to do when it does occur to you. I do have a lot of people coming to me, asking me to do things which is great, there's only so much you can do on your own and I realise I'm in a very enviable position.
With the world playing host to a load of polarizing extremes, has there been a shift in your work at all? Do you feel it’s more reactive?
Yeah it's probably become a bit less subtle. But I think subtlety hasn't ever really helped to change anything, so I'm quite happy to leave nuance behind.
When do you think you’ll want to do another survey of your work?
A long, long time ahead. I don't really like them on the whole. Also a lot of my work now doesn't really fit into a gallery, so it's quite weird doing a survey as there's not much to see. The work has happened and there's nothing left of it – it's a performance.
I like that it's gone but it doesn't make for very interesting retrospectives.
What feeling do you hope people leave with, when they see your work?
It's a tricky question as it's up to them really. I'm just glad they've seen it, it's the best thing you can hope for.