Jeremy Deller on Sacrilege - interview
The Turner Prize-winning artists discusses his latest exhibitions, including one for the Glasgow International
Having tackled the miners’ strike, the war in Iraq and bat colonies in his work Jeremy Deller’s latest project is an interactive artwork destined for Glasgow Green. Hannah McGill finds the Turner Prize winner eager to keep his plans under wraps – a major challenge in this digital age
This is what Jeremy Deller will say, pre-embargo, about Sacrilege, the large public artwork that he’s unveiling on Glasgow Green as part of Glasgow International: ‘It’s a large public art work.’ This is what he will say if you try the Cunning Journalistic Trick of staying silent in the hope that your subject will babble revealingly to fill the gap: ‘There’ll be some level of interaction. It’s not something you just look at.’ Then he will conclude, with an air of genuine apology: ‘And that’s all I can tell you. I’m sorry.’ No problem, Jeremy: secrecy is actually a pretty seductive quantity in this age of constant information. But it must be hard, in the era of the hashtag and the status update, for a famous artist to keep a substantial project under wraps? ‘It is. The bigger this thing gets, and the fact that … it’s being made … means that more people are finding out about it just because they’re working on it. But so far it’s a top-secret thing, and we’re hoping we can keep it that way.’
Deller, a Turner Prize winner in 2004, is known for work that explores and celebrates social rituals, communities and collective memory. He’s worked on brass bands and acid house, the miners’ strike, the war in Iraq and the siege at Waco. He’s compiled a touring exhibition of folk art, and examined communities of bats and Depeche Mode fans. The art within his shows is often contributed by multiple hands and minds, so that he’s been called a curator as much as a maker. He can also be introspective – he reconstructed his teenage bedroom for his current solo show at London’s Hayward Gallery – but his work tends to be characterised by an unusual level of both collaboration and positivity (the touching title of the Hayward show is Joy in People.) Yet a lot of Deller’s work has glanced backwards, with or without a measure of nostalgia: what’s his take on those new, virtual communities established and developed online? He sounds wearied by the thought. ‘Well, this project has nothing to do with it, because it’s a real thing – it’s not virtual. But I’ve been doing this show in London, and audience figures have remained high partly, I think, because people have been going online and talking about it. So, it’s interesting, because it’s grassroots. But it’s sort of ick at the same time.’ Does the ick factor also apply to the Occupy movement, with its spontaneous encampments and witty banners? ‘A lot of activists went to art college,’ Deller notes, ‘so they take on performance art strategies. There’s definitely a connection. But I haven’t been camping out.’
The Occupiers would doubtless approve of the fact that a Deller is unlikely to end up on a banker’s mantelpiece. Does he ever want to make more things that people can buy? ‘I do do that as well … just not as much, or maybe not as successfully as other people. I’m not against it. I’m just trying to find a balance. The work in Glasgow is definitely not a saleable or a commercial proposition.’ What about the role of art in education and community building? ‘It can add a lot of value, but it’s not part of a lot of people’s lives because they don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to it. We should spread it about. But governments are most interested in art for its heritage and its tourist potential.’ Sacrilege, a co-commission of Glasgow International and the Mayor of London, will head to London to be displayed – performed? Interacted with? – during the Olympics. In a time of swingeing cuts, does Deller think the coming Games have delivered the promised opportunities for artists? ‘To be honest … it’s not all great, from what I hear,’ he murmurs. ‘I suspect the interesting part will be the free events and festivals around the country – not so much the production of one-off art works.’ Sacrilege indeed. But where better to construct inclusive and interactive work than in a city that’s arguably outstripped London in its recent contribution to the art world? Has Deller an explanation for the Glasgow phenomenon? ‘It’s got a strong support system, a great art college – you can’t underestimate that. And people can hang around and make work there without having much money. Unlike London.’
Sacrilege, Glasgow Green, Fri 20 Apr–Mon 7 May. Joy in People runs at the Hayward Gallery, London, until Sun 13 May.