David Shrigley’s smartly satirical banner, revolting against the dreary London sky, is a fitting prologue to Jeremy Deller’s sincere and political mid-career survey, Joy in People. Shrigley’s work, which is also on view at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre, is humorous and mildly disturbing –watch this video to see what I mean– and was well worth the visit. But it was Deller’s work that I have found myself discussing, questioning and digesting over the last two weeks.
The show Joy in People documents Deller’s “social surrealism” projects from 1993 through the present. A definitive relational artist, Deller’s role in his works shifts between collaborator, facilitator, patron and documentarian. He interweaves the quirks and questions of daily life (bathroom stall graffiti, struggling with an unruly deck chair, “whatever happened to Bez from the Happy Mondays?”) with the larger arcs of social history and politics that we all play a part in. Unlike relational artists who have used interaction as a metaphysical tool (think Felix Gonzales-Torres or Rikrit Tirivanija), Deller’s work is useful: empathy and dialogue are direct results of his historical reenactment, the greasy pole monument allows a town to continue one of their folk traditions, and his London Bat house project provides protected species with a replacement for habitats destroyed by development.
One of the last sections of the exhibit documented Deller’s failures, including his rejected proposals for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and the London Tube map. In one of the plinth proposals, scientist David Kelly -who killed himself after being accused of telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction to journalists- sits with his legs hanging over the edge of the plinth, trying to edge out of the spotlight that history has given him. His story echoes that of the Yorkshire policeman in The Battle of Orgreave (2001), who joined the force to serve his community and ended up “helping to destroy it”. In that same film, MP Tony Benn quotes the adage “In war, truth is the first casualty.” But the stories of these two men suggest something darker and more complex about the ways truth and morality can be manipulated by those in power, and the casualties that result.
In an interview recorded when Deller was a nominee for the 2004 Turner Prize (which he subsequently won), he confidently declared that he does not care whether what he does is art or not, and I agree that this debate is not interesting. However, it is interesting to look at how Deller has navigated through his projects, both using and expanding the position of “artist.” This position gives Deller access to various cultural and political institutions, and allows him to come into charged situations as a somewhat unbiased outsider. The fact that he is an artist, and not a scholar or journalist, also gives him the latitude to explore ideas backwards and inside out, focusing on the details and characters that peak his interest. He is not the first artist to use the role this way, but his playful disregard for the boundaries of art making, and the ranging scope of his interests, felt fresh. And as an artist, it felt like a call to action.