The British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, English Magic, by artist Jeremy Deller is about as quintessentially English as they come. The building, evocative of a scaled-down version of the British Museum, cuts an imposing edifice within the Giardini. Deller uses the surfaces of the pavilion to present British society, reaching back as far as 4,000 BCE with his selection of Neolithic hand axes found along the Thames Valley, as well as creating imagined events that seek to reiterate his themes of Britain’s “broad cultural, socio-political and economic history”. The building is very much set up as a gallery space in which visitors are encouraged to interact with the work by means of observing rather than directly partaking.
The works, whilst aesthetically pleasing, often hide a deeper meaning disguised beneath the surface. The colossal painting of the Hen Harrier, The Sandringham Estate (2007), addresses the genre of hunting painting that has had a rich history within English art but inverts the theme by depicting the bird as hunter and the upper classes as the faceless prey. The interaction of the Neolithic flint hand axes and arrowheads with copper discs resembling LPs bring to mind the glory days of British popular music during the 1960s and 1970s. The link between the arrowheads a copper disks ties together the expansive history of our nation. As you reach the half-way point of the exhibition, the unmistakable chinking sound of teaspoon on china transports the visitor back to England, as Deller offers the opportunity to indulge in our favourite tradition of tea-drinking, before continuing the tour.
Although it would be difficult to say that the exhibition contains anything particularly ground-breaking, it certainly provides a full reflection on British culture, managing to capture the character of the small island.
Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at the Venice Biennale until 24 November and will tour national venues in 2014. www.britishcouncil.org/visualarts.
1. We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold, Installation View, British Pavilion 2013.