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Jeremy Deller on University Challenge
Jeremy Deller on University ChallengeCourtesy of Jeremy Deller

50 Questions With Jeremy Deller

As his new book Art Is Magic comes out, Jeremy Deller sits down with AnOther to talk about art, politics, and the state of the UK

Lead ImageJeremy Deller on University ChallengeCourtesy of Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller’s work is intrinsically linked with the general public. “They make things better,” he tells AnOther. The relationship between Deller and the public is collaborative, fairly constant and mostly reciprocal, existing between mediums. In 2001, the artist enlisted 1,000 men for The Battle of Orgreave, a reenactment of confrontations between striking miners and police in the mid-1980s, while his rainbow-hued Thank God for Immigrants poster was exhibited in windows across the country during the first lockdown of 2020. He has screened archive rave footage to a class of sixth formers, 2018’s Everybody in the Place (An Incomplete History of Britain, 1984-92), and more recently a poster he made in the 90s has spawned an exhibition: The World of Gazza!! – currently on display at Oof Gallery – was one of nine would-be shows Deller made posters for when enrolled on a printing course at the London College of Communication.

Growing up in south London, the Turner Prize-winner first became immersed in learning about the world around him via regular trips to the Horniman Museum. Later, Top of the Pops initiated him into the spectacle of pop culture, an arena that’s dominated several projects – fandom is a popular theme – and to which he remains loyal. Aged 20 and then a History of Art student at the Courtauld Institute, Deller met Andy Warhol and subsequently spent a summer at The Factory: three decades on, he curated an exhibition juxtaposing the work of Warhol and his other hero, the Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, at Modern Art in Oxford. “I think they’ve influenced me just by example,” he told AnOther at the time.

All of this receives airtime in Deller’s new book, the Cheerio-published Art Is Magic, which promises to “bring you good luck & help you do sex better”, according to the hand-scribbled blurb. Intended as a sort of retrospective, the book is split into 17 chapters such as Music Is Prophecy and How to Make a Critic Cry. In addition to Deller’s archive, it brings together the cultural facets that have informed what and how he makes work, as well as new interviews with Mary Beard and Jonny Banger, a shoutout to his beloved Ed Hall, the celebrated banner maker, and a retelling of the eight-year challenge that culminated with an Iggy Pop life drawing class at the Brooklyn Museum. “For most of the session, I sat biting my nails in the corner, not quite believing what was happening,” Deller writes.

Below, Jeremy Deller answers AnOther’s 50 Questions.

1. What’s the first thing you do in the morning? Turn on the radio.

2. What’s your favourite Roxy Music song? Out Of The Blue.

3. Why is Art Is Magic the ‘best book by Jeremy Deller’, as per the tagline on the cover? Because I haven’t done a book like this before, it’s almost comprehensive. It’s also more or less in my own words, so it’s as I want it to be.

4. And what makes Art is Magic ‘a children’s book for adults’ (as per the subtitle inside)? It’s basically a book that explains things I’ve been up to. It’s quite playful and it’s full of pictures.

5. Do you watch reality TV? Not really.

6. What was your initial response when Oof Gallery approached you about turning The World of Gazza!! into a real exhibition? It’s funny, I did a whole series of posters about speculative exhibitions in the mid-90s, around culture and pop music and so on. I did about nine, and of those nine now maybe five have actually become exhibitions. I’m surprised and happy.

7. What’s the last photo on your camera roll? It’s a painting by a friend, she had an exhibition opening. [One of Lorena Lohr’s Desert Nudes.]

8. What’s the greatest compliment you’ve ever received? I try to not think about compliments, I find them difficult to receive.

9. What makes a good music documentary? One that lives in the moment, that speaks to the protagonist rather than about the protagonist. So ones that are made at the time about things going on at the time, rather than things that are retrospective.

10. How do you define community? It’s interesting, community has become a word that’s used online where people never meet each other, but they’re a community. I think for me, community is a group of people who have similar values and interests, experiences.

“Writing is awful, you’re just dragging something out of your body to put on the page and you know it’s going to be there forever” – Jeremy Deller

11. What was the last film you watched at the cinema? This Iranian cop movie, Law of Tehran.

12. What was the last physical album you bought? I bought a lot in a charity shop recently, and one was a Sigur Rós album that I’d never heard of before. It’s good for driving.

13. Where is your favourite green space in the UK? In Wales.

14. Which living artist do you most admire? That’s really difficult. Rod Stewart.

15. Which living politician do you most despise? There’s too many, it depends on the day and what time it is. It’s constantly changing.

16. What did you take away from studying Art History at the Courtauld Institute? How to look at things.

17. Do you dance? Occasionally, increasingly less.

18. When was the last time you visited the walrus at the Horniman Museum? About three weeks ago.

19. What are you currently working on? Well, apart from this book and all the promotion, something at the National Gallery.

20. Should they bring back Top of the Pops? No, but maybe there should be another music programme, but just not Top of the Pops.

21. What is your most treasured possession? I have a print by Erich Heckel, a German constructivist painter and printmaker. It’s kind of boring to say that, but it’s a beautiful artwork.

22. When were you last moved by a piece of art? Watching the film Aftersun.

23. What’s the best thing about collaborating with the public? You don’t really know what to expect and what's going to happen, and also they make things better.

24. What’s your favourite chapter in Art is Magic? I should say all of them, but I think probably the one about the public [Chapter 4].

25. Is all art magic? It should be, but not necessarily. But when it’s good, yes.

26. In the book’s introduction you say that you find writing mortifying. How relieved were you when the writing for the book was over? Very. Writing is awful, you’re just dragging something out of your body to put on the page and you know it’s going to be there forever, that’s the worst thing about it. The way a sentence can be constructed in about 50 different ways … I found a voice finally, but it took about a year to find a way to do it.

27. What’s the worst word or phrase in your art vocabulary? ‘Practice’ is maybe a bit overused.

28. What do people get wrong about the 90s? That Cool Britannia wasn’t only based in London. It actually didn’t extend to the rest of the country, as maybe everyone thinks it did.

29. Which historical era should people pay more attention to? The one that’s just passed; the previous five years.

30. What’s your favourite thing about making art in 2023? That I’m still allowed to do it.

Can you separate the art from the artist? “Yes, you can and you probably should do sometimes” – Jeremy Deller

31. What’s your least favourite thing about making art in 2023? Not having enough ideas, you always want to have more ideas. And not having the time. Actually, the distractions of the phone – that’s the worst thing.

32. Do you believe in star signs? No.

33. To whom would you like to send a copy of Art is Magic? Probably Rod Stewart.

34. What is your favourite piece of public art in England? I think the most successful pieces of public art are children’s playgrounds. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is a really great artwork. It’s this boat, which I think is based on Peter Pan. It’s a shame it’s there [in Kensington Gardens], as only the most privileged, wealthy children in Britain can use it. It’d be better if it was in a different kind of park, maybe Peckham Rye.

35. Do you enjoy having your photograph taken? No.

36. What was the most surprising thing about winning the Turner Prize in 2004? The most immediate thing is you get invited to things you wouldn’t have been invited to before, it literally just happens overnight. Which of course is the exact moment that you don’t want to go to them.

37. What was the first poster you remember putting up on your bedroom wall? Slade.

38. And why is the poster so appealing as a medium for art? Because it’s immediate, people understand it; it’s real, it’s in the streets. You can’t unread the words. It’s also affordable, disposable – you can make them very quickly and distribute them very quickly.

39. What would you be doing if you weren’t making art? The classic response from people in music is ‘I’d be in prison’, and I wouldn’t be in prison – I’m too scared to be in prison. I would be around art but I’m not sure how, I wouldn’t be in it but I’d be around it.

40. Can you separate the art from the artist? Yes, you can and you probably should do sometimes.

41. Can you play a musical instrument? No I can’t, I wish I could.

42. What would you play? Well obviously guitar, maybe piano.

43. What’s your-go to lunch order? Marmite on toast.

44. What was the most significant comment you received when you represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2013? I try not to listen or read anything. I was lucky that people liked it, there’s no guarantee that people will like it.

45. What’s on your bucket list? Meet Rod Stewart, obviously. I’d like to make a feature film too, but I don’t know what it would be and I don’t think I will ever – it’s gone past the time now. I mean, I’ve done a documentary, so I sort of have made something.

46. Why do you make books? I totally believe in books. I think it’s a really great way to contain a lot of work in a small space. You can’t beat books. 

47. What do most people not realise about William Morris? That he was a radical and sort of changed the world. That without him, you might not have an iPhone in your hand, designed like that.

48. What’s the best thing about living in England? Just the terrible politics which always gives you something to kick against.

49. What’s the worst thing about living in England? Just the terrible politics which always kind of give you something to kick against.

50. What last made you smile? A conversation with my friend Gary Hume, the painter.

Art is Magic by Jeremy Deller is published by Cheerio and is out now.