Lust for Life: In Conversation with Jeremy Deller
As one of the best known voices to come out of the UK in recent years, Jeremy Deller needs little introduction. Working across performance, video, installation, print works, objects and music, his exceptionally diverse practice draws from culture and breathes magically back into it.
Francesca Gavin: Hi Jeremy, how are you?
Jeremy Deller: Fine, thank you.
FG: I wanted to start talking about your work in a wider way. It’s a really funny thing to say, but I think that a lot of your references feel notably British; do you agree with that or is that something you struggle with… The context of your Englishness?
JD: Well, I think that they’re maybe from a British perspective. And I’m interested in what happens in this country, but obviously that has an international effect – you can’t isolate yourself as a country, even though some people would like to… I suppose it’s what I know very well, but it doesn’t mean I can’t work outside the borders of Britain.
FG: No, obviously not. Could we talk about one of your recent projects – I was reading about the Iggy Pop life drawing, which happened in 2016. How did that come together and can you tell me what the results were like?
JD: Well, I approached him about 10, 11 years ago – I had this idea for him to be a model in a life class. I wanted to make something that was very Mike Kelley, it was really a tribute. I mean he’s an artist from Detroit who has worked with music and with the avant-garde, and with all sorts of ways of mixing high and low culture. So I thought a perfect work really would be for people to draw Iggy Pop’s body – live, as it were – fully naked. Just as another way of looking at him and examining his legacy, but also what that body means, what it has done, where it has been.
FG: What was the actual experience like?
JD: Well, the experience was incredible really, because if you think about him and about how important he is, you have to be slightly in awe, you can’t not be. And when he turns out to be a really great person as well, you’re almost more in awe of him. To know that I had him for a morning – four hours of his undivided attention – it seemed like a gift. Initially it was very odd to be in a room with him; him being totally naked and telling him about poses that I was interested in. He was basically doing what I told him. That was very odd, to be directing him – someone who you just don’t think could ever really be directed, because he’s sort of this wild presence on stage. And I liked that. I liked the fact that he was very different sitting down for four hours. If you look at the drawings, it’s a different version of him, and his face looks different.
FG: Well it’s also a very different skill, the idea of being still. And he’s such a physical performer, so he’s used to using and moving his body…
JD: It’s a huge discipline. It’s quite Zen, but you’re concentrating as well. He was very keen to know about the lighting,where people would be sitting – so it was still about stagecraft. How, where would he be looking? Should he make eye contact? All these sorts of questions. And he didn’t in the end; we marked an X on the back wall for him just to stare at. I think he really enjoyed it because he went to New York in the late sixties – really at the beginning of his career, as we know him – and he did a lot of nude photography, as a subject. And then coming back to New York, almost 50 years later – I wouldn’t say it is the end of his career, but it’s towards the end of his career – and doing the same thing. He actually said that it was the other end of the rainbow – the rainbow had started in New York in ’68, ’69 and it was ending in New York in 2016; being naked again but in a very different environment.
FG: It also seems to be about a theme that you’ve had running throughout your work, this kind of interest in fan culture; the idea of working with your icons – obviously the Depeche Mode film which you made, which is one of the most exceptional films I’ve ever seen; the work you did with Manic Street Preachers…
FG: What do you like about that?
JD: The fan thing? I don’t know, it’s probably because I am one myself. We all are really, aren’t we? And I’m always interested in when people are almost more into the band than the band are into themselves; especially with Depeche – they mean so much to people around the world, especially in certain countries. They have a meaning beyond anything that the band could imagine or understand almost. And that was interesting for me. I mean I knew they were big in Eastern Europe, but when they released Violator, it just happened to coincide with the end of communism. And so it became a soundtrack for young people… A new era for them, literally. It’s those coincidences which I find very interesting. And with Depeche it became bigger – like I said, it became bigger than the band; it became this global, political phenomenon.
FG: You’ve made a lot of music as part of your collaborative practice. Does that fan thing cross over on a personal level, with the songs you’ve chosen?
JD: I have an appreciation of music, but I don’t really have any formal talent for it – to make it. So anyone that can make music, especially when groups of people come together and make music, is a lovely metaphor really for how great the world can be. It’s quite hopeful when you see a group of people playing music well. It shows humanity, I would say, at its best really. And so I’m always amazed by that. So for example a brass band, is just… On the whole it’s male, and it’s a group of 28 blokes, being blokes and whatever… Like a couple of football teams together, or rugby teams – more like rugby teams actually…
FG: With big instruments…
JD: Yeah, with all their behaviour and their kind of banter. And you might find it quite intimidating. It can be actually. The first time I met the band I just couldn’t believe this maleness of it – because at that point the band was all male, it isn’t any more. Then they sit down and they play this beautiful music. So from all the individuals, all these guys, you have beauty that comes from it. And that was something that really appealed to me.
FG: What I find really interesting is this idea of working not just with a single individual in collaboration, but working with a city or multiple sort of groups, everything from parades, to bands, to larger sections, I wanted to know what you like about that scale of collaboration…
JD: Well, I think it’s quite interesting to see what’s possible, what people can do, what you’re capable of achieving as a group of people. And sometimes to have an effect, you need to have numbers. So it’s a practical thing, but also it’s just a question of what can we do here? What can we achieve as a group? How far can we take this idea?
FG: The 1914 project was obviously a huge amount of people, a lot of work and also had an enormous global reach as a result.
JD: Well, we didn’t know what to expect really. I worked with nearly 2,000 people to do a performance, in public, on July 1st last year, which was the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the greatest military disaster in terms of loss of life that the British Army had ever had. And so we had nearly 2,000 people in full World War I uniform appearing in public places, all over the country. Then going on walks, trains and buses… Just negotiating Britain basically. And going to very contemporary places in Britain, hanging out in shopping centres. Each participant was representing someone who had died, and they had a little business card just saying who they were – like a gravestone effectively. They weren’t talking to the public. We had no idea if it was going to be a success or not because we couldn’t rehearse it, it just had to happen. And once it was happening you couldn’t really control it. You can’t control the public, that’s for sure. But luckily people seemed to react to it in a positive way.
FG: It seemed like a beautiful concept of how you reinvent the idea of memorial or monument. We’re used to seeing a classical sculpture as something that represents passing…
JD: Yes, exactly. It was definitely an attempt to go beyond either the big object that everyone makes a pilgrimage to – to venerate, to remember. Or another way of doing it was to have lots of objects in one place, which looks really impressive because you’ve got 20,000 pairs of shoes in a big pile, or whatever. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted something that was human but also moved around. So the memorial went to you, it found you out – it sought out the public. And that’s why I went to busy places, which in Britain now are usually shopping centres and places like that.
FG: It was interesting it didn’t even come out that it was your artwork until after all of the publicity had emerged. There was an amazing media blackout and you kind of collaborated with that in a wider sense, without kind of giving it away that it was you…
JD: Yes. That was very important, because as soon as it had been explained it’s by me, then it loses its mystery or purpose in a sense and just becomes, ‘Oh, it’s a thing by an artist.’
FG: Mystery is a really interesting thing, it also makes me also think of when you were representing Britain in the Venice Biennale, and the concept of English Magic – the idea of the mysterious being somehow intertwined with the process of making art, or of what artworks can be.
JD: In Venice the whole exhibition was a secret, so people didn’t know what it was going to be until they got there. I think that’s quite important nowadays because it seems like everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen before it happens. Everything is trailed and leaked.
FG: You often give away work for free, or exceptionally reasonably. I think that’s quite a wonderful thing to do.
JD: Yes, I have quite a weird economy as an artist. I don’t sell much work, but I give a lot away, or it can be inexpensive. But I don’t have that following that some artists have, in terms of the collector thing.
FG: Was that intentional? It feels like a decision…
JD: It kind of was – it was almost a reaction to what was going on in the nineties, when there was the whole phenomenon of young artists who became known as the YBAs. I was around at that time and I know – or knew – most of them, and would go to all of the exhibitions. However rock and roll we thought it was, or how anti-establishment, it was still really things that could be bought by people, then shown in museums and galleries. For me, it wasn’t that groundbreaking, or innovative. It was quite traditional – it was paintings and sculpture. And that was something I couldn’t really make myself, because I don’t have those talents and I don’t have the interest in it. I wanted to go the other way and so with a group of friends we did things rather than made things…
FG: You seem to be drawn to outsiders – for example Bruce Lacey, who you did an amazing film on. And wrestlers, I remember. What do you like about the idea of the outsider?
JD: I think we all like to think of ourselves as a bit of an outsider, don’t we? And then when you see these people who really forge their own path, against all the odds, against whatever people have told them, it’s quite inspiring really. They’re usually very interesting people because they’ve done these things and they’re incredibly single minded and can be quite difficult. What they’ve achieved personally I find very interesting. Adrian Street is a wrestler, who was wrestling for like four or five decades. He left his home at 16, in Wales, came to London in the fifties and worked in Soho and created a world for himself. And his look, which was a very effeminate look, almost transvestite… He became this sort of one man performance – a piece of performance art, effectively. He’s still like that, but lives in Florida in a house with his wife and has a very nice time there. He doesn’t wrestle any more but he’s still into body culture and works out all the time. I just felt it was interesting how someone has redefined themselves through their body and through what they’ve done. It’s like a superhero basically. He’s his own superhero.
FG: And Bruce Lacey, who made artworks, but was also an artwork in their own existence.
JD: Bruce is this amazing character and I recommend anyone to look him up. He made music as well in the seventies – almost improvised monophonic synth music – to accompany exhibitions and soundtracks of films he was making and so on. He was like a punk in the fifties – I mean it was pre-swinging London, but he was behaving like a punk, a lot of anger there. And he never stopped doing that. You know, shared a studio with Genesis P-Orridge, and… Actually was the studio manager for Genesis. I think there’s a lot of cross-fertilisation between him and maybe the early Throbbing Gristle, but definitely Genesis in all of his activities. Bruce has a career that cannot really be defined, it’s so various. I mean he died about this time last year, but he was working right up to the end. He was in his mid-eighties.
FG: He must have been so happy you pointed a big finger at his practice while he was alive…
JD: Yes, I made a film about him and I did an exhibition, and we did a book. So he got the full treatment. Because I think it’s a pity not to do that, and I was determined to make a film about a great living artist and a very unusual person when they’re alive. Because then you can just talk to them, you don’t have to talk to anyone else. Spending an hour and a half with him is basically the film; that’s what it was meant to be about.
FG: Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you started making work? Because I know that you studied art history, and you were working at Sign of the Times…
JD: It goes sort of art history, leave college ’88, unemployment, work, unemployment, part-time work, unemployment. I would say it was a mixed portfolio between full-time employment, part-time, and then unemployment for about seven or eight years. Maybe more. In fact that probably stopped in ’97 when I started working, and almost supporting myself, as an artist. In the between time I worked in a shop in Covent Garden called Sign of the Times, which was a sort of trendy clubbers’ shop. I don’t know what the equivalent is now. It was for young designers to show and sell their work, but also they had club nights and stuff. A lot of people came through the doors who I know now, or am still in contact with – it was a brilliant way to meet people. That’s where I met Nick Abrahams, who I’ve made a couple of films with; the Depeche Mode film, and also the Bruce Lacey film. It was just this constant stream of people coming to you, rather than you having to find people. And it was the first time really that I felt that I was part of a scene in London, because before then I’d sort of hung out in Bromley. Even though I lived closer to the centre of London than Bromley is – I lived in Dulwich – I’d usually gone for my social life to the suburbs. I did the opposite of everyone else in the world.
Interview by Francesca Gavin.