Images of stone monoliths on lush green grass in southern England, simultaneously crumbling and quite majestic, are some of the most British pictures I can think of. The same for the Union Jack and the arch-imperialist/ready-for-downfall royal family, just as variations of snarky sarcasm and bone-dry wit feel distinctly English. Stonehenge, the flag, the royals, and understated jocularity all abound in Jeremy Deller’s work, and as such his extensive solo show at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg can give off a rather ironic “Visit Britain” vibe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A room full of gaudily coloured posters sets the ball rolling, offering up enough British heritage, history, and politics to feed everyone. Decades of easily accessible and slogan-saturated street art – that is, paper works in formats and editions fit for pasting up as posters in all sorts of places in London – fill four large walls. It’s overwhelming because it’s too much – and because it’s incisive, down-to-earth, and for-those-in-the-know. It’s probably also a thorn in the side of all sorts of conservative English sensibilities. Neil Young and Marmite and Prince Harry and Queen Elizabeth and London Underground aesthetics and Brian Epstein and Leeds and plenty of Stonehenges hang from floor to ceiling: national treasures in the form of punchlines and photos presented for our giggling amusement, over and over again. Giggles can be absolutely great, especially in settings as stolidly chuckle-free as art spaces generally tend to be, but this makes for a somewhat monotonous introduction. There is a feeling that punchlines are privileged over system critique (although it seems that the latter is probably most important to Deller).
Following this colourfully compact intro of fun, the video work English Magic (2013) is allowed to be itself, coming across as little more heartfelt in its empty, quiet setting. Again, we find an accumulation of utter Englishness: the Abbey Road studio, Stonehenge (this time as a bouncy castle), a costume parade in London’s financial district, seductive slow-motion footage of what looks like falconry. There is more at stake here than in the posters, and a greater sense of tenderness perhaps. The artist also sees the touching aspects of children and adults happily tumbling around on an inflatable world heritage monument. Deller’s artistic gaze zooms in on the almost perverse beauty of large birds, their hypnotic plumage and the snowy weather in which they soar – despite its self-conscious slow motion, the footage looks like an almost un-ironic reminder that nature is just always spectacular.
The exhibition’s next chapter, a commendably sober 45-minute portrait of more or less unhinged Brexiteers is also very much worth our time. Putin’s Happy (2019) is the title of this video work, but even without such unequivocal clarity there is, of course, no doubt about Deller’s own attitude to the matter on which he is reporting. Offering the nuttiest representatives of the patriotic right-wing a welcoming microphone to spew and foam at, letting them ramble themselves into a hole all on their own, truly is an effective way of framing the utter delusion that nationalism has always been. Some subtlety also finds its way in and out of the material when Great Britain’s recent farcical collapse is not translated into one-liner posters, but simply oozes out of the mouths of various wistful fantasists nostalgic for a lost empire.
After this, a frieze-like hang of a black and white photo series reflecting the temporal coincidence between David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust Tour’ (1972-1973) and escalating political conflicts in Britain becomes a subdued intermezzo – a short break from all the riotous colours and semi-loud atmosphere. The images of angry strikers and fans looking almost orgasmic in their Bowie euphoria, possess the distinct objectivity of journalism. They hint at the observational love of fan culture that is subsequently unleashed with particular force in the exhibition’s finale, the documentary Our Hobby is Depeche Mode (2006) made in collaboration with filmmaker Nick Abrahams. As the title suggests, the film offers thorough and attentive insight into the lives and hobby-worship of die-hard Depeche Mode fans around the globe; it feels like a love letter to the music as well as the enthusiasts it spawns. I highly recommend spending an hour here being infected with other people’s intense fandom. Simply put, there is just something very charming about witnessing people love and adore someone or something as hard as they can.
Welcome To The Shitshow! is Jeremy Deller’s first major solo show in Scandinavia (strangely enough, art institutions always like to boast about this kind of neutral information), so it makes good sense to give everything an extra boost: the English flags found here and there are works of art, yes, but also come across a little like set dressing – like all the posters and a few ironic paintings. In a way, the galleries come together to form a totality that sneers at all things British, yet probably still cherishes them a little bit. A parody or critique of the patriotic impulse that quite willingly becomes its own kind of patriotism because everything – the entire exhibition, without exception – begins and ends in Britain.
At the same time, the approach has a slightly restless quality. It suggests a certain anxiety as to whether the video works are enough, whether the teasing aspects will be understood if they are not explicitly paraded, whether an exhibition can be a major one unless filled to the breaking point with gear and gewgaws on the walls. There is no way of telling whether these concerns arise from the artist or the institution, and perhaps that is not really important anyway. Taking the time to watch all of Jeremy Deller’s videos from start to finish is tremendous fun and a genuinely great art experience. And, if it tickles your fancy, you can get giggles and colours and silly paintings and plenty of tip-top post-it notes into the bargain.