Review: Jeremy Deller's English Magic

Published 30 May 2013

Art Quarterly editor Charlotte Mullins takes in Jeremy Deller's eclectic British Pavilion exhibition English Magic at the Venice Biennale before it heads to the UK.

A bird of prey soars across the wall, wings outstretched, dwarfing visitors as they enter the British Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. The bird, a hen harrier, has been meticulously painted on the wall of the pavilion under the watchful eye of artist Jeremy Deller. It clutches a small red Range Rover in its talons, which pierce the windshield.

The mural at once celebrates the beauty of nature, the destructive force of capitalism and the complexity of English symbolism – the bird a protected species; the Range Rover a status signifier. It is a fitting way to open Deller's show, English Magic, that both challenges our consumerism and assumptions about our nationality while celebrating our diversity and great British traditions – there's even a chance to stop for a cup of tea halfway round.

Against a soundtrack of Acid House and David Bowie, performed by a steel band, a short film by Deller explores the recurring motifs of the show – the birds, filmed in high-definition; JCBs in the wrecker's yard with Range Rovers swinging from their mechanical arms before being crushed. (At this point you realise the solid metal bench you are sitting on to watch the film is made up of a crushed car, its badge prominent on one side.)

Deller repeatedly attacks capitalism in the show – in another mural a colossal William Morris pitches a super-yacht into the lagoon – and questions what Englishness, what nationality, really is. There's a room full of portraits and drawings by prisoners who formerly served in Iraq, with a short description of Iraqis allegedly killed for accepting leaflets from British troops.

But despite some thought-provoking content, Deller doesn't neglect British humour and celebrates our diversity with footage of the Lord Mayor hanging out with actuaries, Angry Birds and army troops. He also pays homage to historical icon Morris, pop legend Bowie and even prehistoric man...

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