Issue Number: 119
The artist who represents Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale meets Ben Luke at his favourite café to tell him about his inflatable Stonehenge, accidentally burning a Hockney print, and why he uses the public in his art.
Any clues about what you’re doing at the Venice Biennale?
It isn’t a big object or construction in the middle of a room. I don’t want to do a Biennale spectacular. Having said that, I made a life-size inflatable Stonehenge (Sacrilege) last year.
Why did you get people jumping all over Stonehenge?
I wanted to make something that was ridiculous, fun and interactive, a visceral take on British history, to give access to a place you can’t get access to anymore, and to point to the absurdity of the way we look at our heritage.
Marmite Magritte: Jeremy Deller at the Trevi Cafe in Highbury, London. Photograph by Bill Burlington.
Why do you avoid making grand artistic statements?
Probably because I didn’t go to art college, so I don’t feel that I’m in a position to do that. I don’t have traditional art-making skills, so I often rely on people who do to help – collaboration is a big part of what I do.
How did you get from studying art history at the Courtauld to being an artist?
It’s a five-year story of unemployment, chance and accidentally burning a David Hockney print on my first day of work at a Cork Street gallery.
You have been called a social sculptor because your work, like the re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave about the 1984 miners’ strike, often involves the public.
Sometimes the public is the work. I work with people as another artist might use paint – to work with them to express ideas is the most exciting and fulfilling thing, I love that.
Does art uplift you?
It can. Museums, actually, more than art – like the Ashmolean, and the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, or the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. But it can depress you as well, when you see bad work.
Your art epiphany?
At the RA, when I was around 11 or 12, at an exhibition called ‘Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: The George Costakis Collection’. It had some amazing Malevich and Suprematist paintings – very extreme abstract art. It was mind-blowing.
Do you have any role models?
Andy Warhol. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be like him, but visiting his studio, the Factory, in New York in 1986 showed me what was possible as an artist – that you could do whatever you wanted, more or less – and I was very excited by that.
Who would you choose to do your portrait?
Frans Hals. The Hals exhibition at the RA was great. Even though he’s known as a portraitist, he is still underrated considering what he achieved.
Which figure in a famous painting would you be?
Any male figure surrounded by loads of naked women. Actaeon in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, perhaps, but then he gets turned into a stag and eaten alive by his dogs. So let’s say Actaeon before he gets turned into a stag.
You’ve made works about the Manic Street Preachers and David Bowie, among others. Why is pop so important?
Literature and film often sum up a moment in history and change social attitudes and culture. Music does the same – look at the Bowie show at the V&A.
Pink. It’s good for men to wear it – claim it back.
What do you do to relax?
I don’t really relax. I don’t go on holidays, or whenever I do I find them quite stressful. In my work, I’m surrounded by things I like anyway.