Sylvielin's Blog

‘It Is What It Is’. Interview with Jeremy Deller

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Artists by sylvielin on May 7, 2010
“Personally, folk culture, pop culture or pop music are the things that I like and what I’m interested in. It’s a genuine interest, not fake. I grow up with it and know it. Also I’m interested in working with it as a material.”                           
        — Jeremy Deller, extracts from the interview
(Questions by Sylvie Lin & Amy Cheng. Interview realized by Sylvie Lin. October 16, 2009, London. Chinese version included in Art and Society: Introducing Seven Contemporary Artists, published by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2009.

Film still extract from Jeremy Deller's 'Memory Bucket'(2003)(video with sound, 21'44).Courtesy Art: Concept, Paris.

Early Years

Q Your earliest project ‘Home Alone’(1993) was held in your parents’ house in Dulwich. Was there an intention to share your life experience with the audience ?

A Showing in my parents’ house was done for practical reasons because I had nowhere else to show work. So I invited people into my house – I lived in my parents’ – to share the house’s space. But it was just by chance. I don’t really make works about myself that much in an autobiographical sense. That was through need rather than through a necessity or any conscious thing.

Q What are the influences of your art-making?

A People, musicians, other artists… I’m influenced by things I’ve seen in the street, by folk art, by everything, it’s not just art. I’d say I’m interested in everything around me or try to be. I also like art from the past. I studied art history ; I’m interested in the Baroque and I like Russian art from the 1920s. I don’t have a specific knowledge of certain things, but I have wide interests and know about lots of things, maybe in a superficial way.

Q In your teens, you got to meet Andy Warhol whose work inspired you a lot. How did his practice influence your concept of art-making ?

A He just showed what was possible.

Q Could you talk about the idea of making connections and maps, like what you did inAcid Brass’, ‘The History of the World’ ?

A It’s a very convenient and simple way of showing something, how something works in my mind. I use the form of wall painting because it’s very direct, graphic, easy to read and fairly easy to understand. That’s meant to show my thought crosses, and how I connect things. It’s probably one of my most effective art works cause it’s so simple. In this way I draw together things that look disparate, by drawing lines between them. There’s been a number of use of that kind of drawing. I like to think in that term. Drawing is a very important part to a project.

The ‘Folk Archive’

Q What’s the motivation for the project the ‘Folk Archive’ ? Why the idea of organizing an archive of folk culture ? We know that the UK has a very good archive system. In the ‘Folk Archive’, did you attempt to propose an alternative version of history and art which belongs more to the people ?

A Yes. We (me and Alan Kane) were looking at art and creativity in Britain which we like and which we thought might not have got the attention they deserved, and things that we felt to be influences to artists. So in a way it needed to be shown in a different environment, in an art gallery environment. It’s about performance, installation, painting, sculpture, action, all different things. All things that occur in the art world occur in the wild world as well. We also grew up with those things : things that we remember from our childhood, things we like to do and see. It was a shared love of something.

Part of the 'Folk Archive' by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane was featured in Deller's exhibition 'From a Revolution to Another' in Palais de Tokyo in 2008. Courtesy : Palais de Tokyo.

Q Do you attempt to make an alternative to the official version of British culture ?

A It’s actually a parallel world of art, which we all know about and we see on the street. We documented it and show it in an art gallery. Personally, folk culture, pop culture or pop music are the things that I like and what I’m interested in. It’s a genuine interest, not fake. I grow up with it and know it. Also I’m interested in working with it as a material. It’s very simple in that aspect. There’s no theory.

I studied art history and know very well about high art. But I think it’s important to appreciate some parts of the pop culture. In the art fair here, there are artists who are inspired by a part of pop culture. I also don’t like to make a show of my own work either. Work for commercial gallery shows are very painful for me. I don’t really do it very often.

The Rave Culture

Q Do you think the rave culture changes anything in the UK, like the mentality of the generation of the time ? Was it later commercialized to the extent that it loses its meaning ?

A I think initially it was quite a sort of social movement. But as soon as there’s punk rock, everything got commercialized very quickly, within about five or six years. There were many other things going on at the time which have to do with that, which may be just as great. But it was absolutely a moment of some sort of rebellion for young people, some maybe losing theirs jobs. Also it was very popular in the poor parts of Britain. So I think it’s a very important moment. That probably hasn’t been properly appreciated by the wide public as being a kind of revolutionary time for the young people. But everything gets commercialized eventually.

All about the Wreck : ‘It Is What It Is’

'Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq' took a car wreck from Baghdad as its centrepiece. The project has been shown in New Museum in New York. Here's the installion view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009. Photography © MCA, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay.

Q About the projectIt is what it is’, how did you find the car wreck ?

A We were looking for a car and someone had one. Actually it’s from a previous project, an anti-Iraq war exhibition. The curator, Robert Klüijver put a car from Iraq in our exhibition. He heard we were looking for a car and he said to us ‘Take this car, because it’s gonna be a nightmare for you to get a car. It’s very difficult.’ So we got it in a very easy way. It was pre-existing.

Q Could you talk about the experience of this road trip : meeting people, making them to talk about the war ?

A During a month, we took the car and towed it across the America, and showed it to people. It’s on display over time. We met people on our way. We went to towns, parks, colleges. People could see it and we discussed it with them. We had a soldier with us and an Iraq surveillant. They just discussed their experiences. It was really a big show-and-tell. It was also a fantastic experience to travel through America, for all of us. We’re six guys doing that together across the America. It was incredible.

Q You’ve stopped in different places such as Virginia, Louisiana and metropolises like Washington D.C. and New York. How did people respond ? What impressed you the most from the whole experience ?

A People were interested and willing to talk to us which was great , we were most impressed that we did not get attacked by anyone.

Installion view of Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009. Photography © MCA, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay

Q Why is this title ‘It is what it is’?

A It is a military phrase. When something gets wrong, you just say that. When your friend gets his head blown off, you say : ‘It is what it is’. It’s a fatalist phrase. So I use it. For me personally, it’s kind of meaningless and meaningful at the same time. So I think it’s perfect for the project we do. It doesn’t really have overt political spin. Former soldiers would understand as well.

Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with titles. I’ve got very bad ones, like Procession. I should’ve called it something else. Good ones like Memory Bucket because it’s strange to fuse the two words together. One term is abstract and the other is concrete. It also shows how the Americans twist, destroy the language then use it. 

Q So why the titleThe Uses of Literacy’, borrowed from Richard Hoggart’s book? What connotation is intended in naming this project in relation to that book ? 
 A I like the phrase, and the book was concerned with the mass consumerist age destroying individuality and vernacular culture as the band are too.  

Deller's book 'The Uses of Literacy' is about fans and their worship to the rock group 'Maniac Street Preachers'. (Photo:Sylvie Lin)

America, Marlon Brando, Neil Young

Q Apart from your interest in the UK folk culture and pop culture, you also did few projects about the US, likeMemory Bucket’ and ‘Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, And Me’. What’s your point of view about America ?

A It’s different for an English person to go to America or for a German person to go to America. Because our Anglo-Saxon culture is much more similar to the American culture than the Germany culture is. Also, for British people, there’s not really the language barrier. So it’s quite straightforward. America is a version of Britain and vice versa. Apart from the linguistic aspect, Britain is very Americanized as a country, more so than the France or the Switzerland. For us it’s readable. It’s a version of the UK.

Q Also, in your projects about America, there seems to be an attempt to treat the theme of America as a kind of myth.

A Definitely. There are the clichés which you can do with them. Having said that, regarding the Iraq project, our trip across the America wasn’t like that. It was very different. It was actually against what you expect. That was very interesting. But I was very happy with the trip. It was amazing. It was nearly a month. Very enjoyable and quite stressful at the same time. Very strange.

Q For the projectMarlon Brando, Pocahontas, And Me’ you borrowed its title from one of Neil Young’s songs. We know that Neil Young has a strong image as a protestant singer.

 A The title comes from a line of Neil Young’s song. The song is the starting point for the exhibition. In a way Young is a maverick, a great musician and he’s curious about things. I like him a lot. In that show, I put all sorts of art together : photojournalism, paintings, wall paintings. For me mixing works is a very interesting way. I just looked for things that interest me and !saw which pieces are available for the exhibition. And I tried to get a mixture of things from different eras, historical periods. The show is meant to be cross-generational.

Q With its juxtaposition of elements like Young’s song, images of war, etc., the show offers a very particular vision about the US, and a mythic aspect about it.

A Young’s song is definitely not a positive take on America. Talking about myth, it’s not a positive one. It’s not positive either as a song or as an exhibition. It’s actually about the violent history of the country.

‘A Procession’, The Battle of the Orgreave’


'A Procession' by Jeremy Deller, 5th July, Deansgate, Manchester 2009, Manchester International Festival, 2009. Photo Tim Sinclair. Courtesy : Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Q When you arrive in a place, be it Manchester, St. Sebastian or Texas, how do you choose which communities to work with ?

A You do some research and maybe travel around the place a little bit. It also comes from your own experience and what you’re interested in. It’s a quite natural experience. People tell you about things, and you think that is good or that is not interesting. I’d say it’s a very organic process. It’s not so much pre-determined. You’ll have to be open and be willing for the things to change. People will change things. And you let it happen.

Q Indeed, like your projectProcession’ in Manchester is a very particular mixture of very particular local communities, which you calls ‘social surrealism’. Could you talk more about this idea ?

A Its refers to the strangeness of everyday life , and a Northern UK strain of that.

Film still extract from 'The Battle of Orgreave'(2001). Courtesy Jeremy Deller, Palais de Tokyo.

QThe Battle of the Orgreave’ is the only re-enactment of historical events that you’ve done. Why did you want to make the re-enactment and the film ?

A The budget for the film made the re-enactment possible. But I also wanted the re-enactment to be documented properly, to be a proper documentation of a performance. The film would enable that. So that’s very important. Without the film there’d have no performance. It was the way of funding.

The re-enactment is also a way to jog people’s memories about the event. It was very effective in that respect. Obviously when you see the re-enactment of a war that happened four hundred years ago, you have no memory of this. But with ‘The Battle of the Orgreave’ it’s about seventeen years ago*. So its role is exactly to remind people, almost like a ghost of the event, of so many things that have happened. (*The strike happened in 1984. The film was made in 2001.)

Art as a Social Practice

Q Your projects are often collective, made through collaborations.

A I’m interested in collaborating. I’m happy to be a collaborator. Because I know where my limitations are. It’s good to pick up the others’ talents that I don’t have. That’s also more fun. So I work a lot with Alan, because we like each other. It’s great to spend time and do things creatively with each other. Art can be quiet and solitary. Yet it’s much more interesting and fun to be with other people and to share those experiences. You often make better off as well, because you get more done.


'From a Revolution to Another', exhibition by Deller held in Palais de Tokyo in 2008 took the image of Adrian Street(right) as main image (with his father to the left). Street's figure is one between glam rock, wrestling and working class. The photo was taken in 1973 in a coal mine in Southern Wales. Photo : Dennis Hutchinson. Courtesy : Palais de Tokyo.

Q Your work or your practice is characterized by a kind of ‘creative sociological cultural practice’ : you employ archive, objects and actions to conceive a cultural map about social relations. There’re examples likeAcid Brass’, ‘It is what it is’, and the recent project ‘A Procession’. In the midst of these projects, you don’t make anything, but you activate and mobilize people or certain communities to participate in certain actions, activities or movements. How do you define your role as an artist and your relation to culture and society?


A That’s a very, very big question. I just do what I’m allowed to get away with on my own. I don’t think about it in those terms. I’m not answering your question either. As an artist, you’re lucky to have a strange space within the society and culture where you can do things that other people can’t, whereas I, as an artist, live in a space where I can approach people and do things that other people are not able or are not allowed to do. 

Q If we approach the question from another angle : your generation overlaps with that of the YBA. But your practice or approach is quite different from theirs.


Q Many of your projects are either themselves events or long-term, like the project in Munster which lasts ten years. Does it mean a kind of position you take in relation to the so-called system, art world, like institutions, galleries ?

A I still make work for art galleries. I did work for fairs and sold works. I still do that. But my first love is not that. Whereas doing these projects is more engaging and interesting to me.

‘A Procession’ by Jeremy Deller, 5th July, Deansgate, Manchester 2009. Manchester International Festival, 2009. Photo Tim Sinclair. Courtesy : Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Q What changes for you after you won the Turner Prize in 2004?

A It became easier to make work with the public and more people wanted to work with me, it was and remains a good thing.

Q Can we say that your practice is very close to social movement ? How do you distinguish the two ?

A Yes, my practice is social. It’s based on interaction. What I do is pretty instinctive. I just do and I don’t think about it too much. Maybe I should think about it more times. And I trust my own instinct. I don’t question myself too much. That’s how it works really.

Q Then how would you define your own practice ?

A I won’t. I’m an artist. You can’t and shouldn’t try to make me think like that. I think that is bad. I don’t want to think about things too closely. Art can be many things and artist can do many things. It’s fine to call yourself an artist. On the other hand, the public don’t question about art. It’s usually the critics questioning things more than the public. If you do something interesting, the public will be interested and engage in it. They don’t worry about whether it’s art or not. I think there’s a very straightforward relation between the public and the artwork, the artists. It’s also what I felt when I did ‘A Procession’.

Q Can we say that the concept of ‘self-organization’ plays a part in your practice ?

A I think I’m pretty independent as an artist in that respect. I have galleries but I don’t rely on them much. I try to do things myself and find things. In that respect, the work is about people organizing themselves or doing things in a public realm. That’s interesting to me.

Q In this sense, you are more like a producer, a mediator.

A Yes, that’s definitely one of the roles. Even though, I do straightforward artwork as well.

Q How did the atmosphere of the post-Thatcher era affect your art-making ?

A Absolutely. I think it also affects lots of people who have lived through that era. I feel that it made them angry to see what was happening in the country, and that they had to live under almost a dictatorship. Maybe it also made them realize the power of the state. I think people of that generation or about my age won’t forget those times. Everyone. They don’t forgive that time and that government. Whereas younger artists probably don’t understand how bad things were for the country. ‘The Battle of the Orgreave has an obviously link to that era because it’s about that time. Maybe it also affects how I think as a person.

Q Today, the new liberalism undergoes an even more crucial examination along with the current financial crisis. In your perspective, how does the UK reacts to this culturally and artistically ?

A It’s too early to say. Probably the young artists think it’s the end of the world because it has been so good for so long. But who knows. There might be less art made, but it might be better. It might also be a nightmare. We might have a new government like Thatcher’s as well that might change and affect things in Britain. But from a historical perspective, if there had been less art made, less galleries, less collectors… Art world would always exist, It won’t go away. But money will go away.

Q Does there exist a political dynamic to your practice or artistic practice in general ?

A There were but maybe it’s just that the younger artists don’t realize it since in a way they don’t really know the recession and they might be quite shocked in face of the crisis. Because they might feel entitled to being successful and to making money. It looks like it’s been so easy for a long time. It looks like it’s going to happen for so long, forever. But it didn’t. But things will change obviously, in a different way.

Q What’s your current project and next project ?

A There isn’t one project at the moment because I’m trying to do a book about ‘A Procession’ and a book about’ It Is What It Is’. That’s my top priority.


A That whole movement of the YBA is actually only about 20 people. They went to the same college and most of them knew each other. It’s a very tight little group and I was never part of that group. But I was around at the time when they were around and hanging out with some of them. I never became falling in love with the object of making the art work. I was much more interested in making experiences and making something more engaged with culture. I wasn’t really interested in traditional art-making, whereas the YBAs are. Mostly it’s very traditional. At the end of the day, you see the painting, the sculpture. I’m not good at that. I can’t do that. Also I don’t have the training for it.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: