The book is an excellent introduction to Jeremy Deller’s projects. You get a feel for those moments where he stops to think, and rather than go to an authoritative source outside himself, he poses a question to himself and then answers his own question as best he can.
Lots of mistakes, lots of decisions, and lots of processes hidden in the final work are laid out here. I wouldn’t call it a manual for how an artist can work with ideas and projects, but it’s a touchstone, a series of masterclasses. The conversation with Jeremy and Mary Beard about public statuary is just one highlight.
This is not a painting handbook, of course, but it’s crammed with wisdom, observation and experience. I learned about the people taking part in his reconstructions, as Deller took on the Peter Watkins mantel in making cinema-scale historical events with nonprofessional actors. I found it a telling detail that he observed how the volunteers who performed in ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ (2001) came from different social and political leanings depending on which side they took in the conflict. ‘As an unscientific experiment, I brought a selection of Sunday newspapers to read in the catering tent. There was a clear divide between the papers the ex-miners chose to read and the papers the re-enactors chose to read.’
For me, Deller’s masterpiece is ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ (2016), his memorial piece for the Battle of the Somme Day. On 1 July 1916, 19,000 British soldiers were killed in what has been recorded as the worst day of losses in the history of the British army. He chose not to go for another static memorial but to go for something with living people at its core. The appearance of the First World War silent soldiers around the country was so emotional for me, with my father’s interest in the First World War and the impact it had on our family. The culmination with soldiers walking around in circles, like a vortex singing the repetitive refrain ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ was broadcast and recorded through the social media witness. And Deller shares his tips on organising something like this. ‘Apart from the stations, we didn’t ask permission to go to most of the venues. I have discovered over the years that as soon as you ask people for permission for anything, you run the risk that they will refuse.’
This is a very generous book and could easily be recast with the selected wisdom as a manual for intervention. Still, it’s better to read it, find out about the projects and identify the nuggets for yourself. It’s easy, very easy to read and there’s lots of pictures.
Art Is Magic by Jeremy Deller published by Cheerio Publishing Hardback £30
About the author
Jeremy Deller studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute and at Sussex University. He won the Turner Prize in 2004 for his work Memory Bucket and represented Britain in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
His projects over the past two decades, such as Battle of Orgreave (2001), We’re Here Because We’re Here (2016) as well as the documentary Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992 (2019) have influenced the conventional map of contemporary art.