17 July 2013
Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Chapter III: Thin cities, 3)
English Magic is the name of Jeremy Deller’s solo exhibition in the British Pavilion in the Giardini. There is little or nothing esoteric or paranormal about the magic to which the title alludes: it is, rather, a realistic, reasonable “magic,” deeply rooted in the present and the recent past of a nation, Great Britain. “Magic” is a way of indicating a set of visual suggestions, poised between truth and make-believe, reality and possibility. The pavilion houses a cheerful (at least in appearance), vivid and many-voiced portrait of a country; it offers an exhilarating synthesis of what is usually defined as Britishness – the essence of what is, or is held to be, specific to the national character.
As soon as I cross the threshold of the building, I’m greeted by an enormous hen harrier painted on a wall; the bird clutches in its talons a miniature SUV. The work is inspired by an anecdote: in 2007, Prince Harry and a friend were suspected of having shot a pair of hen harriers, one of the rarest birds of prey in the United Kingdom. The painting ironically evokes the incident: the irascible bird seems to be taking its revenge on a passing Range Rover. I move on to the next room, where I find another large mural: in it is represented the colossal figure of a man – whose features call to mind a modern Poseidon – throwing a luxury yacht into the sea. The man is William Morris, the socialist designer of the Victorian era who founded the Arts & Crafts movement; the yacht he is holding in his hands is the one owned by Roman Abramovic, moored two years ago at the wharf of the Giardini in Venice – a symbol of the slide toward capitalism opposed by Morris and his followers. I walk past a Tea Room, where you can refresh yourself with a cup of the real stuff, and come to the room which houses the artist’s new video installation, Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah. Its soundtrack consists of music performed by the Melodians Steel Orchestra of London, recorded at Abbey Road Studios – yet another British note of the exhibition. The film shows in succession a car wrecker crushing a Range Rover (a reference to the hen harrier and to César’s Compression d’automobile), a community parade through the streets of London and, finally, some children doing acrobatics on an inflatable carpet reproducing a pop version of Stonehenge.
The musical jingle of the video echoes through the rooms of the pavilion – now it takes on a grating, shrill tone. Deller’s works, in contrast to what might be thought at first glance, hint at an alarming reality, with sinister implications. In one of the rooms, the artist exhibits photographs of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour of the UK in 1972, along with a map of the different places visited by the band. It was in that year that the country found itself in a grave economic, social and political crisis – this is what the agitated pictures of the crowd of fans are alluding to. The drama – in this work as in all the others – is only hinted at, never evident. Even the banners on the outside of the pavilion seem to remind me of this sense of disorientation, bearing the lyrics of one of Bowie’s best-known songs: “I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed.”
L’esposizione di Jeremy Deller commissionata dal British Council sarà esposta alla Biennale di Venezia fino al 24 Novembre e farà un giro del Regno Unito nel 2014. / Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November and will tour national UK venues in 2014.
By the same author:
ArtSlant Special Edition – Venice Biennale
Notes on ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. A Venetian tour through the Biennale
The national pavilions. An artistic dérive from the material to the immaterial
The National Pavilions, Part II: Politics vs. Imagination
The Biennale collateral events: a few remarks around the stones of Venice