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Ahead of his show at the William Morris gallery, former Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller talks to Amie Mulderrig about what gets him painting
When I speak with Jeremy Deller, he is busy. Very busy.
Busy with a new show in Manchester and busy thinking about ideas for a new monument in Oslo.
Right now though, he's busy recreating his infamous image of William Morris hurling a certain Russian oligarch's yacht into the Venice Lagoon.
"In 2011, Roman Abramovich parked up his yacht outside the Venice Biennale and it was really quite obnoxious in the way that it blocked the view.
"It's whole presence..." he pauses, the disgust palpable in his voice, "it was not welcome by a lot of people.
"Then there was this security fencing propped up by it and everyone had to walk around. In a way it was a very apt metaphor for what's going on in the art world, the way serious money is attracted to art and how they're buying it all up. Practically speaking, it was just rather annoying.
"I kept thinking, what would William Morris say if he was alive to see this, given his thoughts on politics and art. And wouldn't it be great if he came back from the dead as a giant and destroyed it.
"That's how We sit starving amidst our gold was conceived."
Fittingly, the piece is one of several set to be shown at the William Morris Gallery this week, as part of exhibition English Magic.
But it's not just multi billionaires who are grinding the former Turner Prize winner's gears.
Indeed, take one look at the exhibition, which gained nationwide press after it was initially shown in the British Pavilion as part of Venice Biennale last year, and you'll see plenty of other fodder in the firing line.
"Range Rovers. I hate them. Well of course I do, I'm a cyclist. The piece depicting a Range Rover being attacked by a giant bird won't be shown, sadly, in Walthamstow because of space, but there is a film, with two Range Rovers being destroyed.
"Why my dislike? Because they're so dangerous and they tend to be driven dangerously too. It's one thing to drive badly in a small car, but in a Range Rover..well, they're bullying vehicles. Potentially obnoxious drivers, not all of them, some."
Jeremy has come a long way since his early projects, which mainly consisted of public art: T-shirts with various inscriptions of his own name, bumper stickers or posters: many ways to show his work in a quick and efficient fashion.
But he wasn’t always going to be an artist. After studying art history at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in Baroque, he left the establishment with few job prospects.
In fact, he spent five years living at home in Dulwich, on the dole. But his faith that he could become an artist was fuelled by an encounter with Andy Warhol in 1986, when he met him at an opening at Anthony D'Offay and later when he went to see him in New York:
"I didn’t know him well, but he was very nice, cool guy". It’s evident Jeremy doesn’t like to capitalise on his meeting with Warhol, as he isn’t easily drawn on the subject. In fact, this level of modesty is also evident when discussing his Turner prize win with him: "I find it all a bit embarrassing" and even the recent honour of showing at the Venice Biennale: "for a long time I was hoping they wouldn’t ask me to do it, what with the pressure involved."
His significance as an artist stems from the fact he has a sharp and meticulous sense of observation, opinions on practically everything, and a tendency to be provocative with his work.
But he doesn't really paint, draw or sculpt – rather, like an illusionist, his skill is in juxtaposition, he is a master of putting things and people next to each other, of altering contexts.
"Although, I would say I’m not massively political. I’m a little more political than most, but more in the middle though to be fair. I try not to ram my opinions down other people’s throats, whether I pull that off or not...I’m not sure.
"My work tends to be inspired by everything around me, even if it annoys.
"For me, art doesn’t have to carry a message, my work doesn't always. It can just be about the aesthetics, the beauty of it.
"Although I suppose English Magic does...it’s a rather contentious title in a way, what with the use of English over British. And Magic which can be both delightful and full of trickery..."
Even though the Turner prize win thrust Jeremy into the media spotlight, he believes his show at the Biennale will be what marks a change in fortunes for him.
"It’s an absolute honour to have shown there. I don’t really sell much of my work to be honest...particularly not to Russian billionaires."
Jeremy Deller is at the William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, from January 18 to March 30.
Details: wmgallery.org.uk, 020 8496 4390
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