Jeremy Deller’s English Magic has come to the United States this summer. The artist’s video and installation work, created specifically for the British Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, addresses British society and politics through a complexly intertwined mythology and cultural iconography. It’s the latest participant in the Hirschhorn’s Directions series, an on-going program which has been running since 1979, and which has seen the likes of Tacita Dean, Juan Munoz and Pipilotti Rist bringing works to the Hirshhorn, aiming to engage with emerging and established artists showcasing both new and old works.
The video opens with a group of musicians setting up for a rehearsal at the Abbey Road recording studio, a plain-faced nod to British culture conflated by the steel drums which permeate the rest of the subtle, ethereal score. Steel drums originate in Trinidad, which was a Spanish colony until 1797, when the island was invaded by the British navy. The music floats out from the space of the studio, and into the British nation itself, moving from scene to scene in a guided tour of sorts for British iconography. There are parades, carriages, the British army, Livery guilds, large pieces of Cottage pie and minced roast beef.
In other scenes, the viewer cannot escape the splendor of eagles, owls and hawks flying in slow-motion over the bucolic landscapes, nor can they escape the tagging and leg-flags attached to the endangered, closely monitored birds. Neither fowl nor fauna, this deliberate comment on naturalism is accentuated as the animals fly through dust and pollen particles, before the camera cuts dramatically to various shots of machinery demolishing cars. Old red brick Victorian terraced townhouses loom above as the vehicles are unceremoniously entombed. Through these ritualized movements, Deller achieves something of a critical nostalgia for the bygone days of British Empire in exchange with the current global economy.
Midway through the piece, an inflatable Stonehenge rises from the chroma-key colored surface of a moon-bounce. Children and adults jump and play amongst this artificial monument. As people attempt to do kick-stands and somersaults off the malleable “stones,” no trace of the erosion or vandalism it has endured over the last few decades can be seen. Indeed, this is perhaps the closest these British citizens have been to the UNESCO Heritage site in years, and just as quickly, the monument de-flates as the large sheets of nylon collapse onto itself.
Despite being installed in an art context, which begs a more pragmatic, intellectual reaction, the piece still elicits something like a heartfelt propaganda film. The music crescendos, everyone is smiling, the soldiers keep marching, the birds are soaring – it’s hard not to buy into this magic – for British nationalists and non-British viewers, and whatever Tories still reside in Washington D.C. But little is made of the work’s original context in Venice, joined together with a series of imaginative installations and murals that added a more cutting tinge to the overtly staid treatment of British history. Removed from Deller’s images of a giant William Morris hurling Roman Abramovic’s monstrous Yacht into the ocean, or the fictitious torching of St. Helier, the film returns some of the banal propagandist undertones that Deller so skillfully satires in the original installation.
— M.S. Lax