The outsider’s outsider: Interview with Jeremy Deller

Is Deller the best artist whom collectors rarely buy? And why is he showing in London, a city he tries to avoid?


Jeremy Deller’s work is very varied and sometimes doesn’t seem to be art at all. He has organised city parades in San Sebastián and Manchester, staged an epic re-enactment of one of the most vicious confrontations of the 1980s coal miners’ strike, staged a competition to design a bath house and toured America with a wrecked car taken from the site of a Baghdad bomb attack. His art is largely collaborative and generally involves participants and audiences beyond the art world. Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004, was appointed a Tate Trustee in 2008 and over the past decade has participated in many of the international art world’s most prestigious exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, Münster Sculpture Project and the Sydney Biennial, yet in spite of all these accolades his profile remains low and his art constantly unpredictable. His mid-career survey, which opens at the Hayward Gallery on 22 February (until 13 May), promises to be as non-conformist as everything else he has produced.

The Art Newspaper: You didn’t go to art school, but studied art history at the Courtauld Institute. I see your work as being as much about anthropology as art.

Jeremy Deller: It’s definitely based around people as opposed to objects in the broadest sense, and an interaction with people is of great interest to me—that’s reflected in the title of the Hayward show, which is “Joy in People”. After attending the Courtauld, I went to Sussex University, which has the Mass Observation (MO) archive, and even though I didn’t study it in detail I liked the idea of what MO was trying to do. Its mixture of art and anthropology, however flawed, certainly intrigued me.

Your first show, “Open Bedroom”, which is partially recreated at the Hayward, took place in 1993 in your parent’s house while they were on holiday and from that point onwards, you avoided conventional exhibition and art world formats.

Because I didn’t go to art college, I didn’t have the support system of friends getting studios and sharing studios and so I had to fall back on what I did have, which was this nice suburban house in Dulwich and the fact that I could do something there. So, it was my own version of an open studio where I put up my work on the walls and as an experience it was great because it was so easy. It was the first time I’d done something that I felt proud of. In a way, it was my coming out as an artist!

How do you now feel about having a mid-career survey show in a major public gallery?

It’s the first time I have shown in London since the Turner Prize in 2004—I don’t really do anything in London, I try to avoid it if I can. I’m not used to showing in this sort of environment, but it’s pushing me a bit and I don’t mind being challenged. The show will be animated—there will be people doing things in the exhibition who you can go and talk to—for example, for the Manchester Parade, we made a facsimile of Valerie’s snack bar in Bury Market and people will be in the cafe all the time serving tea and coffee. Then there’s the wrecked car from Iraq we took around America and there will be people in this installation talking about that.

My particular favourite is the section devoted to “My Failures”.

I wanted to show that even if you don’t complete a work or it doesn’t get as far as you want, it’s still a work and there are other options for it as well. It’s good to include things that haven’t happened, it’s a way of giving them another life, even though it may not be the perfect one. I also think it’s important to show people that, even if you win loads of prizes and become a successful artist, you are still going to get knocked back for a variety of reasons.

Your work can be very spectacular: a city parade, a traditional brass band playing acid house tunes, the re-enactment of a clash between the police and the striking miners of Orgreave, or a film of bats pouring out of a cave, but one consistent factor is your absence.

That’s on purpose—it’s not about me, it’s about other people. I’m not interested in forwarding myself, I’m forwarding myself through the work, but not physically.

You instigate, you set things up and then at a certain point, you let go…

Yes. With Orgreave, for example, there was only so much I could have done during that event and in the run up to it, and then you have to let nature take its course and see what happens. I like losing control of things—it’s always very exciting when the public or groups of individuals bring something extra to what you’ve set up, I love that. It’s very important to see what people bring to things, how they improve on my work. It’s almost like doing an experiment: having this plus this equals, what? So, you’re standing back and seeing what happens when you light the touch paper, for example, taking a destroyed car from Baghdad around America. I like setting up situations and then observing and sometimes standing well back. But having said that, there’s never really been any trouble. At Orgreave, the former miners were absolutely brilliant at what they were doing, they knew there was a point where they couldn’t overstep the mark, but they could go right up to the edge—and that was enough to make it a very effective piece of work. To be alongside people who were actually there and who had been fighting to stop their whole lives being destroyed had an amazing effect on the re-enactors as well, they were totally blown away by it and that was exactly what I wanted.

Your work can venture into politically charged territory, the miners’ strike, the war in Iraq, and it can also edge into the absurd, showing drawings made by obsessive Manic Street Preachers fans, mixing cocktails with Peter Stringfellow or staging a face-pulling contest with gurners from Cumbria in Miami Beach, but you always seem to avoid taking sides or offering a personal opinion.

I try to be as neutral as I can. When we took the car around America [in the work It Is What It Is] we didn’t present any political standpoint, we tried to be neutral—if not boring—in the way we presented the car because we knew it was enough and we didn’t have to add anything to it. We tried to be even-handed and fair-minded with the people that we were talking to, we took an American soldier and an Iraqi citizen with us and they could cover every base, whatever was thrown at us they could answer a question or handle a conversation. Intellectually, you could say we went in armed.

Did you encounter any extreme reactions?

On the whole, people were really interested and were incredibly polite and even if they didn’t agree with us, they were happy to talk to us and discuss things. The anti-war people were the ones most annoyed with us [because] we were not coming with bells and whistles and megaphones all condemning the war, but we just weren’t willing to do that.

You have gallery representation but your work is not easily marketable and you seem to deliberately thwart sales with free or cheap handouts at art fairs such as posters, carrier bags and stickers.

I’m not against the market but I’m not actively part of it. I’m quite good at self-sabotaging things. For example, It Is What It Is was a massive production that took a long time to organise and there’s nothing from that which I’ve sold or could sell. It happened and that was it, I haven’t “monetised” it, as they say in the business world. I have made money at art fairs but I’m just not on the radar of most collectors—maybe because my career is not so clear cut, as it tends to change form and lacks a certain coherence. It doesn’t really bother me that much: it might bother me if I start not being able to pay bills, but at the moment I’m fine with it.

Your next project, an exhibition at London’s Camden Arts Centre in July, is devoted not to you but to Bruce Lacey, another figure who has avoided the trappings of mainstream art world success.

Bruce is a captivating personality, he’s a complete one-off and it was now or never to do this as he’ll be 85 next year. I’d describe him as a British visionary artist who is interested in technology but also in nature. He’s a kind of techno-visionary who lives in his own world and actually has been incredibly influential but hasn’t necessarily been acknowledged. He is more bohemian than most artists could ever dream of, but has had a very chequered career because he too, even more than me, has never embraced the market and is quite suspicious of it. He doesn’t make work to sell, he just makes work. He’s not afraid of changing from year to year and just doing whatever he feels he has to do. Recently, he’s been making interventions about the government cuts in his local village, so he’s still at it and for no other reason than because he wants to do it. He doesn’t have to dress up to be unusual or interesting, he just is.


Born: London, 1966

Education: History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art and University of Sussex

Represented by: Modern Institute, Glasgow; Gavin Brown New York; Art Concept, Paris

Selected solo shows: 2009 “Procession”, Cornerhouse, Manchester; “It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq”, New Museum, New York, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2008 “From One Revolution to Another”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Kunstverein, Munich 2004 “Folk Archive” with Alan Kane, Pompidou Center, Paris and Barbican Art Gallery, London 2002 “After the Goldrush”, Wattis Institute, San Francisco 1999 “Unconvention”, Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff

Selected group shows: 2008 Sydney Biennial; Folkestone Triennial 2007 Munster Sculpture Project 2004 Turner Prize (winner) 2003 Venice Biennale