Jeremy Deller kicked off the Bristol Festival of Ideas with a Sermon from The New Room at the John Wesley Chapel, last Sunday, 4th May 2014.
I'd been to see 'English Magic' at the City Museum although I wasn't particularly aware of his previous work – this was the work which Deller represented the British Pavilion with in 2013 at the 55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia. I'd heard his name of course, but I'd presumed a degree of inaccessibility. What I heard on Sunday was genuine, honest, plainly spoken, refreshing and inspiring.
I walked away feeling relieved and with new vision, Deller challenged many previously held notions for me that 'public art' had to be some sort of soother, that it should bridge gaps or promote unity – reflecting some idea of a cohesive family, when often our communities can be anything but. A welcome relief from some of the historical worthiness associated with public art of merit - or as Claire Doherty from Situations phrased it, 'Turds on a Plaza'.
Through a re-structuring of historical associations - photos from David Bowie's 1970s tour inter-spliced with documentary photographs of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Deller seems to be asking us to consider the presentation/consumption of the stories, a slowing down of time perhaps, to make new associations,
'weaving a narrative that is almost psychedelic; hovering delicately between fact and fiction, real and imagined'
The realisation that there is space for both artist as object maker and artist as storyteller was liberating in this context. I admired his confidence to question, provoke and open the wound rather than stick a plaster over it, as shown in the re-staging of (Battle of Orgreave (2001).
When questioned Deller was unapologetic regarding the distress some elements of his work might cause, (It Is What It Is, 2009) - war is upsetting, destroying communities and losing your livelihood is upsetting (Battle of Orgreave, 2001), many things are upsetting, the act of creating an artwork that gives an opportunity to start conversation around the issues can be cathartic, having your voice heard again, being listened to and not forgotten, an act of recognition, remembrance perhaps.
Putting artwork in a gallery can stop the conversation or certainly limit it to a certain audience, taking it to the street as it were, opens the work for debate, re-ignites passions, allows us to speak plainly, to see things again afresh and possibly with greater clarity.
I've posted the image which upon viewing during the lecture helped made me 'get it' - a photo of Adrian Street, a Welsh born wrestler with his father and fellow miners down the pit, a narrative from which Adrian escaped to reinvent himself as a wrestler, finally settling in Florida. He returns in this photo to display himself in shiny lycra glamorous glory, the prodigal son returned, a messenger from the future showing the way forward, an act of sweet revenge – look what is possible! It is this possibility and contrast, the ability to re-write a story, to change tack, to re-invent and challenge, to return and to be defiant that made me reconsider my position – for me that's what it's all about.