Jeremy Deller serves up a slice of Great Britannia with English Magic at this year’s British Pavilion, with the vast majority of artworks and objects (banners, paintings, and neolithic hand axes) commissioned or curated by the artist. As a whole, it’s hit-or-miss, but that’s bound to happen with Deller’s method: a pick-and-choose mix of Britain’s exploits, both fantastical and famous. All this results in artistic nuggets of knowledge surrounded by an air of mystery—or as the title indicates, magic.
References to David Bowie shine throughout the exhibition, with an entire room devoted to photographs taken during David Bowie’s 1972-73 UK tour; the series juxtaposes scenes of glam rock with violent IRA activities that took place that same year. That’s not an accidental pairing, what with the desire for a new change in music coinciding with an altogether different type of revolution. That connection, though, isn’t thoroughly explored, so we don’t learn very much through the pairing.
Following that room is the show’s centerpiece, a video titled “English Magic.” The video’s easy on the eyes, and it underscores Deller’s strong suit in cinematic imagination. It opens with a scene of the Melodians Steel Orchestra, who provide a transcendent soundtrack to the entire video, and then quickly follows with hawk after hawk swooping and soaring in slow motion in full majesty. The bird is supposedly a reference to the 2007 Prince Harry hawk hunting scandal, but for those of us who don’t live in the UK that reference is lost. My main observation was that I’d never seen birds of prey look so good.
Still, these birds aren’t as raw a representation of the wild as one might think; they’re wearing handler straps. That human presence in nature shows up in the next scene, but this time, it’s a man made machine that’s given qualities of the wild. A mechanized claw drops down on a Land Rover in a junkyard, and here we see nature’s pure beauty transformed into a technological beast. The claw sways back and forth, as if it were drunk, or dancing, and ends up flattening SUVs to little metal bits. The video continues down an even more ridiculous path by cutting to images of Deller’s previous artworks, inflatable Stonehenge and Manchester Procession. By the end of the video, “English Magic” has turned into the artist’s greatest hits.
That decision is confusing in the context of a video that otherwise explores the relationship between British celebrity news, nature, and technology. It’s meaningless, almost random self-promotion, and an abrupt ending to an otherwise intelligent video.