An interview with Jeremy Deller by Dirk Snauwaert

Date

18 June 2021

Interview

DS: Let’s start with the start: you have a practice of investigating social relations – as it is called in the critical discourse, so why chose as site for investigation Knokke?

JD: …I mean, it is simple, it is a commission really. It’s actually a work that I suggested for the highline in New York, but it wasn’t selected in the final round. Beaufort asked if I wanted to do a public sculpture in the town, and I thought actually this would be a nice thing, because it’s a seaside town, which is a nice context in itself. And I just wanted something that was playful and children could go on. It looks good but it also is something that can be animated.

DS: You didn’t know that Knokke is one of the richest parts of the Belgian coastline?

JD: Oh, really?

DS: It’s a 1902-1903 concession, so It was this kind of “Normand-ish”, British cottage seaside resort, early 20th century and of course in the post-war years, in the 1960s and 70s hedonism had it that was commissioned a very big sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, among other, so I thought maybe you had some of the ludist aspirations, references to that generation in some way.

JD: Oh no, I had no idea. I didn’t realize. I looked at it but I never visited it, literally, looked in Google Maps where the position is going to be and it is a square and very near the beach. The apartment block looks very 1970s, but I had no idea that it was one of these resorts. I mean, it’s weird because in the U.K. often those towns by the sea, they can be very poor as well. And some are very rich, for some reason. But I had no idea that Knokke was like that. Because it looks nice, but it doesn’t look super rich. But maybe Belgium “super-rich” is different from south of France. And weather is different, isn’t it?

DS: The beach and the waterfront are of course completely real-estate developed since the 1970s.

JD: Yeah, it looks like it. Like Spain. Like a coastal dome. I liked the idea that is near the sea and has like of a seaside feeling to me.

I don’t know anything clearly. I am totally ignorant. I know about the sculptures going along the coast. Because when they asked me it was gonna be happening last year, it was June from last year, but, as soon as I was asked I said yes and I think there was this lockdown happening and it was not possible to visit basically. So, it’s quite unusual to make a public artwork and not being able to visit the space. It’s super remote in terms of the way of working. It’s interesting, you know during the pandemic public art is one of the few forms of art that it is still possible to see, be around. So, maybe we’ll have a renaissance in public art, who knows?

DS: Well, you know that Hans Ulrich proposed during the first lockdown that the government should come up with some post-war major sculpture commission, in order to rejuvenate or re-stimulate the cultural production and galvanise the population, what do you think about that?

JD: I’m sure every few months someone has the same idea basically. Just start some re-building, like a post-war effort. Because a lot of Henry Moore sculptures or like-Henry Moore sculptures were put up after WWII in countless states and public places. It was a form of - that’s how he became very famous I think, through those public commissions. It’s not very clear what is going to happen after this, if and when it will end, what the state of the art will be. Because of funding and …the current government obviously has very strange ideas about culture, so…you know, culture was begun in Britain like it did in the USA the last 3-4 years. So that’s definitely happening now. Public art, public sculptures, statues, all these things are really being discussed in a good way and in a bad way. It might be interesting.

DS: Well, you have also the fact that the heroes of public art  - Banksy and FTPs – are now being shuffled around the art market or by the auction houses recuperated big time.

JD: Well of course… Anyway when you look especially at some old Banksy, when he made editions even 20-15 years ago, the editions were like 500 or 1000, he was making massive editions, massive sizes. And you know he had a very smart dealer to work with, so he had always his eyes on the market, or someone did on his behalf. He was never just street artist, he was always a gold, to sell things. And he used to put work directly into auction as well, for himself. So, yes I think… you know -

DS: I associate you - and I think most people do – not so much with public sculpture but with public actions, happenings, events, the kind of collective gatherings that are de-materialized and temporary, ephemeral...

JD: Obviously the last years have been difficult to organize anything like that. I’d like to do more but, the thing about doing that work is that you need a really, really good idea to do it. And I don’t have that many good ideas really…you really have to know what you are doing or be very clear about it. And so, I realized working in the public realm, you can never predict people’s behaviour, you can imagine how people behave but you never really know what to expect. So I like that sort of risk inherent in it, but also every kind of experimental nature of it. So, whereas for this sculpture, I am making, it will just be. We know how it will be used, basically. For other sculpture it is less clear, but this one is just going to be used as you would expect. Which is fine. But other things you don’t know what’s gonna happen, and I like that. I mean, I hate confrontation but sometimes my work is very confrontational, but I don’t like confrontation. I don’t know why. Maybe I put confrontation in my work but not in my life. I take it and put it somewhere else.

DS: But your work seem to question the nature of play. With this work you almost seem go refer back to post-war debates on public urban space – you mentioned the Henry Moore and monumental sculpture, then there are the post-war children playgrounds of Aldo van Eyck or Noguchi, which challenge public sculpture by children playgrounds and big toys in public parks.

JD: Yes. Public space, parks. I mean the last year people have used parks like never before really.  I think that yes, I like the randomness of play but also the way that if you make a sculpture and then it is climbed upon, completes the work as well. It is that element to it, that the sculpture has to have human beings on it to make it complete. Unlike most sculpture which are not meant to be touched. This is very simple in a way but my work – if I had an installation without a child on it - it would not work, it has to have a human being on it, it needs to be used to make sense as a work of art. So maybe that’s the opposite of most works of art where you are prevented from going next to, you are not allowed to. That’s why I like the atmosphere of the seaside, the reality of the seaside town. People on holiday may behave differently, they are more relaxed, everything is more vivid, the light is more clear and it becomes almost hallucinogenic, on the way public art looks and the way this popular culture is shown at the seaside. Signage for things, fairgrounds, all those elements, it’s just not realism at the seaside – the atmosphere at the seaside is – there’s something surreal about it. So, that’s why there is a surreal element to the sculpture I made. It’s bizarre, and its’s funny. But it’s a kind of nightmare as well potentially. You could argue, it’s like a dinosaur, a terrifying creature that you go into. Some children will be scared by it. They will not go on it. Others will love it. A chameleon is a beautiful creature, because it is small; if it is large, you’ll be terrified by it, because it will eat you. It is basically a dinosaur, but a small one. So there is that element to it, you are gonna fear. Also when you go into the chameleon it’s covered, so you are in a little tunnel for a little time, you are inside the creature. And some children might not like that, … But it is really meant to be a funny, almost stupid work in a way. So that for me is important, the beauty of it. Some people think that the chameleon is ugly, others that it is beautiful… I think it is very beautiful, but it has strange power, isn’t it? The way it changes its colours, and the tongue, all those things. And it’s a very old, a very ancient creature as well, that’s the other thing about it. They found fossils of chameleons almost exactly the same as the ones that we are seeing now. It’s a mysterious creature. I’ve always loved chameleons actually. It has always been the animal for me to I’ve been fascinated with. The idea of beauty as well, what is beauty? Is a chameleon beautiful?

DS: Well, the dinosaur thing – children and dinosaurs, it’s a strange and funny attraction, isn’t it?

JD: Well, interestingly there is a park near me called Chrystal Palace Park, which was where the great exhibition of 1851 was moved entirely, after it closed - I don’t know when exactly - to a park near where I grew up, called Chrystal Palace Park. They re-made a park for it there, and it burned down. What did not burn and what was kept were these giant concrete dinosaurs, which were put in a lake: and they are still there now. And they are amazing, you can look them up: “Chrystal Palace park, dinosaurs”. And, maybe that is way back in my childhood and influence, because I used to see them. And they are kind of psychedelicly painted as well, they were of different colours. And they are probably not accurate, because they were made 150 years ago, when no one really knew what these things looked like. So that is probably an influence. But they are amazing creatures, really great. But yeah, the idea of being scared but interested in something, I am sure there is a lot of psychological explanations for that for children encountering their fears. So, maybe with this piece of work you encounter your fear by actually going into the creature, and then enjoying it by going down in the slide. But for some children there might be a moment of resistance to it, because it’s gonna look very accurate. It’s gonna be painted and the design of it is super accurate. It won’t look like a cartoon character, it will look like a giant chameleon, despite the tongue, and the slide and the steps, but that’s all incorporated into the model.

DS: So, a photo-realist…

JD: Exactly! It is as if we scanned it actually, just in large...

DS: You point out the psychological or psychoanalytical dimension, because why did you chose the chameleon, because it’s a dinosaur, or as an animal that has the capacity of rejection or abjectness. Because it’s so prehistoric, so it takes us subconsciously back to the origin of times, which is probably why non-conformist people and post-hippies today are so attracted to these prehistorical, archetypical things. But then again a chameleon can blend in perfectly with their surroundings. So they can be seen as more conformist as conventionalism would request. They can hide, the mimicry aspect of their camouflage at it’s perfection.

JD: They have to, otherwise they die. So, in a way, it’s not for aesthetic reasons. Sometimes it is changing color to communicate with each other. Communication through patterns and color. But there’s something uncanny about them, if you can use “uncanny” on an animal. Just with the eyes, the way the eyes are independent on each other, and they move around. And the tongue of course…you know they have properties that humans can only imagine, which we’ll never have. At the moment there is a lot of interest in octopus out there, because there’s now greater awareness of their intelligence, with books written about octopuses. In a way, the chameleon might be the next animal to be “creatured”, to have the rehabilitation and be thought of in a different way. But I think there is an uncanniness about them. Any interesting creature is endangered basically…We have a text on the side of the plinth, that basically just says, it begins with the words “worshipping the chameleon”. And then it explains in about eighty words about why chameleon is so special: about the fact that is such an ancient creature, about the fact that it changes its colors, and also about the tongue – the ballistic tongue – such a great term. They were worried about the word “ballistic tongue”, because it seems quite strange, because the text is really for a child almost to read. And the title of the work, it’s from a biblical quotation… I’ve been using the Bible recently to do quotations…It’s a sort of ecological message in the bible, which I really like. It’s from Job. And it says “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you”[1]. I think that’s what is gonna be called. I think we are using “ask the animals, and they will teach you” then it goes on “or speak to the earth, and it will teach you”… “or let the fish in the sea inform you.”

DS: Old archetypical text. Maybe it’s a bit far-fetched but I want to make an odd association…We know how endangered the species of the artists is at this moment of the pandemic, of capitalism and for catering to high-end holiday resorts or to sculpture boulevards as part of the leisure culture, not of play but of organized pleasure, conventional holiday excursions, where capitalism can become even more efficient. Can the chameleon blend in or will it remain the melancholic, romantic creature…

JD: It can blend in, but in this context it will not blend in. It will be very visible and will look very different from everything around it. From the man-made water around it. Because it is basically in a square, with ‘70s apartments, like big blocks. I wasn’t aware of the social context. But maybe this chameleon will attract people from different classes to come to the town. People will come from far away to see the chameleon. So, even who has money -  in Britain seaside towns, there’s a huge egalitarian daytrip sort of culture around them, often poorer people like to go to places where rich people live to look at them, you know? So tourism is clusterism as well in a way. I think something about the beach is that it’s a great equalizer. Because you know, as soon as you take off your clothes, sitting in your trunks you can be anybody, really. There is a kind of equality, in this sort of harvested public spaces. Maybe it’s me being too optimistic about it, but that’s how it is in the U.K.

DS: Is there a level of “auto-portraiture” as to the misfitting, the non-adaptability of the artist in the late modern society. For The High Line New York was this romantic, melancholic twist intended? Will it work in the same way on the beach, on the seaside?

JD: Well, it’s probably better on a beach. For the High Line I wanted to make something… that commented upon the kind of “play” aspect and the ridiculousness of the High Line. You know this idea of adaptability…artists are very good at sort of camouflaging themselves, and moving in different environments. As an artist you can be in the room with some of the richest people in the world. And then, say you are going to visit a prison to talk to some people about something. That’s an exaggeration, but I’ve certainly done both within two or three days from each other. You have a social mobility and you’re welcome into places that most people wouldn’t get access to. You know what the art world is like, how strange it is like that. The artist has a sort of move around in ways that most people can’t. So… I enjoy that aspect of being an artist, but not entirely. So the artist’s ability to camouflage his or herself and move through different environments, being unnoticed or observing things – quietly observing in a corner – then they stick their tongue out and make the artwork. Just to do something. Maybe I’m taking this analogy too far, but I think you could argue there’s a comparison there.

 

DS: a kind metaphor for not being able to blend in with the environment, with this moment and time and history.

JD: Yes,  you are right about the melancholy, because they move very slowly, don’t they? on the hall, they don’t move so fast and we don’t really see them in groups but about themselves most of the time.

DS: A previous film is about your favourite animals: bats.

JD: Well, I do love bats. But they usually live together in groups. They’re mammals so they have magic powers in the way they communicate, they see and they fly. In the same way that a chameleon almost has magic powers, with his tongue and his camouflage. So both creatures do more things we cannot do as humans: and they are strange creatures, kind of mythical beast, but live amongst us. They are not domesticated in the way we would like to, in a way a dog or a cat is, but still mythical I would say. Can you imagine seeing a chameleon for the first time, being an explorer or one being pulled back? and just seeing how it moved and what it did, it must have been amazing to see that. So, I think there is this sort of magic to them.

[1] Job 12:7-10

 

Dirk Snauwaert is the founding and artistic director of WIELS in Brussels.