We caught up with the Turner Prize winning artist before his talk at Metal last month to chat jumble sales, Marmite and his latest artwork ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’
Of all the places we anticipated interviewing Jeremy Deller, platform one of Edge Hill train station was not on the list. A surreal but cool location nonetheless, a good story to tell down the pub, interviewing one of our favourite artists on the platform of the country’s oldest working passenger train station. For the uninitiated, Jeremy Deller is an English visual and installation artist, famed for his work which among other things, frequently touches upon the theme of collaboration.
In 2004 he won The Turner Prize for Memory Bucket a video travelogue around George W. Bush’s home state of Texas which documented supporters and opponents of the former president. Deller’s other work includes The Battle of Orgreave (2001) a staged re-enactment of the infamous protest and Acid Brass (1997), a project which saw him combine a brass band with acid house and detroit techno.
We meet Jeremy ahead of a talk organised by Metal, an arts organisation whose Liverpool hub is a building they have renovated at this very station. The talk coincides with the end of Deller’s most recent work, With a Little Help From My Friends, a visual piece commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
EJ: Jeremy you’re listed by Wikipedia as being an English conceptual, video and installation artist. Though your friends describe you as a funny little guy on a bike who likes jumble sales. How would you describe yourself and your work?
DELLER: Ah…never trust Wikipedia, I don’t know who writes those things. The work is whatever it needs to be in a way. It can be many things and takes many forms, a small thing or a performance with 2000 people. There’s no way I’d attempt to describe myself, I just wouldn’t know what to say. Really I’d rather not think about the type of person I am.
Do you still like jumble sales?
They don’t really exist any more. They used to be so frequent in the eighties. There were amazing ones in south London.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever found at one?
A Moog synthesiser. Actually the best thing weirdly to do with this project was “A Cellar Full Of Noise” a signed hardback copy of Brian Epstein’s autobiography, dedicated to someone called George, “To George with great respect, Brian”.
Your art training has been, like your work, unconventional. Do you think not going to art school was a positive thing?
Well it certainly didn’t do me any harm, I don’t know what would have happened if I would have gone, though it’s not a traditional route and not necessarily one you’d want to take.
As part of the 50th anniversary celebration for Sgt Pepper you’ve been commissioned to interpret “With A Little Help From My Friends” from the album with a project in Liverpool, can you tell us about this?
I was given that song and thought I’d do something in the public realm. I’d used the phrase before “Brian Epstein died for you” on a few smaller things. So I thought I’d make it really big and put it over the town and amongst posters for popular culture, events and gigs just to make a point. We did it in Hebrew as well and we did portraits of him, with a very big one on Erskine Street, with the phrase on the back, so we just made him really visible.
So that was the first thing and the second was on June 2nd as a little performance almost. Penny Lane builders were doing lots of jobs that day, so we paid for all the work. So they were free for the people having them done but they didn’t know till the end. When they went to pay they were given a little credit card that said “Your call out today has been paid for by The Beatles”.
Its not the first time you’ve looked at Brian Epstein in your work, why the fascination?
I’m just interested in him as a character and his contribution to popular music. He’s probably still not really given the credit that is due to him. He wasn’t particularly happy in his life and yet was at the centre of one of the most exciting things to have happened in the 20th Century almost, but still quite lonely. That’s something interesting to think about.
You tend to not revisit work unless perhaps it’s a subject you love. Other than bats and Brian Epstein, what do you love?
Marmite..err what do I like that’s not too rude..all sorts of things really but Marmite is probably up there as a food stuff.
And besides Range Rovers what do you hate?
Too much, too many things. Low level anti-social behaviour or driving as I’m a cyclist.
Do you remember the first time?
Yes for a number of things I do, but I don’t even have to tell you what that even means do I? I remember the first drug experiences as often they were the last as well. The first time I thought I was an artist maybe, that I could make it as an artist. I remember that, it was in 1997 after the brass band had done a concert, it seemed like a real thing was happening.
Did you used to go raving?
A little bit, not the first wave of 88-89 I was a bit of a late adopter. I liked the music a lot but didn’t go to the big early raves, I joined in a bit later when the music got more Techno.
Politics in the UK is anything but strong and stable lately, does art still have a role to play within politics?
I don’t think it has a role to play in politics as such but I think art can always push things along and make things more clear or more unclear.
Some of your work looks back to the pre digital age, one of acid house, bedroom posters and mix tapes. Do you think these were more exciting times in relation to popular culture?
Not necessarily no. I try not to be one of those people who says everything was better when I was 20 or whatever age, so no. There’s so much going on now. It’s different though, the music industry has changed but technology has made so many things possible, so I’m confident.
Do you watch television?
Yes lots, not recently but I do watch it. I’m more a documentary and news type of person I don’t watch reality TV. I do watch programmes at 1am in the morning about police stopping drunk drivers, stuff like that. I love those. I’ve watched so many now they’re repeated and I recognise the people they are picking up.
I like Border Control..
Yes I watch that, the Australian one. Yeah they’re real hard arses aren’t they, I love all that. I love to see people getting into trouble (laughs), I mean it is stressful but I do watch it.
How did you persuade 69-year-old Iggy Pop to strip naked in front of twenty one people?
He didn’t need that much persuasion, he was quite up for it. I approached him ten years ago and he said no, then he said yes. He was very charming. I can’t quite believe he did it but I’m very glad he did.
If you tell people “It’s art” can you get them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do?
Possibly….I think it gives you more freedom, more leeway and more space, which is good, so art does help. It makes people more intrigued, though it could put people off as well so it depends.
Does art have the power to make positive change in the world?
You’d like to think so wouldn’t you, you’d hope so. EJ