Balancing Act: Jeremy Deller

British artist Jeremy Deller thrives in the nexus of culture and provocation.


n 1993, when Jeremy Deller first wanted to show his work, he wasn’t sure how to go about it. Since Deller, then 27, was still living with his parents, he staged Open Bedroom in their house in London while they were away on holiday. A riff on the idea of an open-studio visit, his debut included T-shirts, paintings about the life of the Who drummer Keith Moon, and ribald graffiti that came straight from the walls of the men’s bathroom of the British Library. “It was almost like his mission statement about what’s overlooked and where to look,” says the artist and curator Matthew Higgs, who later published Deller’s Pensées, a booklet of that graffiti.

On a recent wintry afternoon in St. Louis, Deller, 47, was curled up reading a book in a full-scale replica of that teenage bedroom. He was wearing jeans and a red hoodie, and his feet, clad in pink socks, were tucked under him. He jumped up to greet me. “This is fantastic!” he said, holding out The Dirt, Mötley Crüe’s no-holds-barred memoir. “I’ve recommended it for the book club here.” By “here” he meant the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, where most of the stuff under Deller’s old bed was displayed as part of his first mid-career survey, “Joy in People.” Organized by London’s Hayward Gallery, the exhibition was on its final leg.

A “maverick’s maverick,” as he’s been called, Deller became a star in his native Britain after winning the Turner Prize in 2004. Unlike the major artists of his generation, Deller mines British life and history, putting people at the center of his work. He’s staged parades, for which he invited artist David Hockney to design a banner, and has made gloriously quirky films–about Depeche Mode fans around the world and a miner’s son turned glam-rock wrestler. For the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, he created Sacrilege, a life-size inflatable replica of Stonehenge on which visitors could bounce, an absurdist commentary on the reverence accorded to historic sites and how the public is prohibited from getting up close to them.

“I’ve always been fascinated by British life, the culture around music, and how our history in Britain coexists with the present, whether that history is 10 or 3,000 years old,” Deller told me over the din of drills as museum workers prepared for the opening in St. Louis. Surrounded by his output of the past 20 years, he confessed to being preoccupied with his latest assignment: representing Britain in the 55th Venice Biennale, which opens in June. With this honor, Deller will join some of the biggest names in British art, among them Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Bridget Riley, and Chris Ofili. “It’s supercompetitive, and so elitist,” he acknowledged. “But I’m quite happy to play with that and to represent the nation in a way that might annoy people.” When pressed about what he’s planning, Deller made a sweep of the museum with his arm. “If you don’t like what you’ve seen already, then don’t come.”

Though the word “normal” crops up frequently in Deller’s conversation (he had a “normal childhood”; his apartment in North London is “normal”), he’s colorful, delightfully impish, and droll. He recounted how, following his Turner Prize win, he was invited to Buckingham Palace for a Christmas reception with the queen. He took his mom. Deller laughed as he recalled how mortified he was to see his mother jump the line–and protocol–to chat up HRH. “The queen’s face was powdered white, like Elizabeth I’s, and my mother was all red in the face,” flush from the wine she’d drunk to get up her nerve, he said. “I thought, This is incredible but appalling. But I’m glad I gave my mother that moment.”

It was a long time coming. Deller lived with his parents until he was 31. “For me, it was normal,” he said. “I know it’s not normal. I was unemployed.” At 20, he was on a path to becoming an art historian when he met Andy Warhol at the artist’s 1986 show at Anthony d’Offay’s London gallery. Warhol signed Deller’s bag (which had the Wham! singer George Michael’s face printed on it) and invited Deller to see him at the Ritz Hotel and then to visit the Factory. He hung out with Warhol in New York for a few weeks in 1986, the year before Warhol died, and that experience proved to be life changing. “I saw that you can create your own world,” Deller said. “Warhol was making a magazine, videos, art, and there were people coming and going–it was a very contemporary way of working, and it made me realize you could do things, whatever that meant.”

Thus began what Deller calls “his gradual crawl” toward art-making: He took on assorted jobs as a driver and an art handler, all the while devising small-scale interventions–road signs on the streets commemorating Beatles manager Brian Epstein and bumper stickers reading i love joyriding, which he attached to police cars. As a shop assistant in Covent Garden’s Sign of the Times, a locus of London’s demimonde in the early ’90s, he sold club wear and, for the first time in his life, found himself in with the in crowd. Björk, Alexander McQueen, and many of the so-called YBAs–Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin–were regulars. Courtney Love bought one of Deller’s my drug shame slogan T-shirts. “All these major figures were just beginning, and there didn’t seem to be much in terms of prospects for anyone,” he recalled. “But it was a very fertile time.”

Deller’s breakthrough came in 1997, when he persuaded a traditional brass band to perform arrangements of acid-house music. The piece, Acid Brass, attracted numerous admirers, “and I realized from then on, I can do this the way I want to–I can just work with people,” he said. “My friends and I went out of our way to make work that was time-based, or an experience, or something other than an object. Unlike the YBAs, we didn’t make anything that could be bought or sold. But then that wasn’t really what I was interested in–and I’m still not.”

Indeed, Deller’s work is not easily commodified. For 2001’s The Battle of Orgreave, his best-known piece, which was filmed by director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Deller restaged a violent incident during a 1984 coal miner’s strike in Northern England. He drew together 900 people–some of them actors from historical reenactment societies, others participants in the original strike–and even talked miners and policemen into switching roles. Deller intended to “jolt them, make them think about history.” Apart from Deller, only the Tate owns a copy of The Battle of Orgreave. More recently, he took a road trip across the United States with an Iraqi citizen and an American soldier, towing a car that had been hit by a bomb in Baghdad. It Is What It Is (2009) might have ended badly (“We initially thought we’d be shot,” Deller said), but it ultimately sparked thoughtful debates everywhere along the route. “It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Deller said. “Art or otherwise.”

What drives him is “the reality of making his work happen,” said Higgs. “He’s less interested in what finds its way into a gallery.” Because his work constantly explores new territory and forms, some critics have questioned whether it can be called art. “Of course it’s art; what else would it be?” Deller bristled, dismissing the argument as old-fashioned. “What matters is that it exists and people see it, and that it has a life.”

The night before his show opened in St. Louis, Deller and I went out for Thai food. I asked him what kind of celebration was planned for the following evening. Was he the guest of honor at a special dinner for museum VIPs? Deller made a face. “I’m taking everyone bowling,” he said.