Language and creativity
Language and creativity

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Language and creativity

5.4 Interview with Jeremy Deller

In the next activity Jeremy Deller discusses his interest in language and its use in his work.

Activity 6

As you watch the video below, consider the following questions:

  • What does he mean when he says his work is ‘this + this = question mark’?
  • In what ways is context important, in his view, for art?
  • Why does he see art as being like a conversation?
Download this video clip.Video player: Jeremy Deller on the use of language in art
Skip transcript: Jeremy Deller on the use of language in art

Transcript: Jeremy Deller on the use of language in art

I like language. I like using language. Maybe it’s because it’s all very sloganeering, really. It’s very small.
But I think I’m the kind of person that if I see a piece of writing on someone’s t-shirt, or on a banner, or whatever, I have to read it. I just have to read it. I’m sure we’re all like that. You can’t help but read it.
But I like … I like words. And I like the English language. And I always have.
[The role of language in art]
For me, language is a medium. I don’t use it in a conceptual way, even though you could call it conceptual art. I don’t play with language. It’s all pretty straightforward, I think, my use of language.
And this has been going on for some years: it’s not a new thing. Conceptual art of the seventies had a lot of language-based work. So I’m following on from that. Maybe it’s a little bit more pop, the way I use it. You know, I use song lyrics and so on. That’s something I’ve done for years. And so my knowledge of language is often from the lyrics of pop songs and so on.
I’m playing with well-known forms of language, like the poster, or the invitation, or the business card. And then I’m maybe subverting the language within that, or changing it. These things shift reality.
So you’re expecting one thing, but you get something slightly different. What you’re expecting, or what you’re used to is changed for a moment. And I like doing that. And I do that not just with language, but with other things in my work. So it’s about disrupting the everyday, or the normal, or what’s expected, or known.
[The importance of place]
Often the work is very site-specific. It happens in a certain place because something else has happened there, or for a certain reason. But I think most of my work is … it’s mobile. But it’s definitely about the context it’s put in. So context is important, as it is with much contemporary art, or much art.
When you think of even Renaissance art and Baroque art, the context was everything, you know, in chapels and so on. It’s still art. And it still has an important context, or the context is important for it.
For me it’s important to look again, or look differently, at where I am. I think people want to do that, as well. I think people want to look differently at where they are and have a different kind of experience.
[Art as social experiment]
Well, we’d all agree that I was definitely interested in the world of re-enactment coming up against the world of trade union politics and the miners’ strike, and just seeing how they mixed or didn’t mix. So that was almost a social experiment, bringing these two groups of people together.
And that’s interesting. That’s often what I’m doing in my work. I’m putting this plus this equals, question mark. You’re never really sure what’s going to happen until it’s happening, because it’s an experiment.
Sometimes there’s no dividing line between what the audience bring and the art. Sometimes it’s almost the same thing, because of their reaction to the work, but also what they do with it, how they interpret it and so on, where they take it, literally.
I like to be surprised by the public. I should say I like to be pleasantly surprised by the public. But I think it’s important that you bear the public in mind in your interest in how they react to your work. I mean, I come back here occasionally to see the show, but not really to look at the work. I’m looking at people looking at the work.
[The role of the gallery]
Well, when work moves into a gallery, obviously it becomes more solidified. But you still have people interacting with it and looking at it. It’s just a different experience, because people are in a certain zone when they come into a gallery: they’re maybe more receptive; they want …l they’re hungry for something.
So this car was destroyed in a bomb attack in Baghdad in 2007 on a book market. So it was a cultural attack – seen as a culture attack. And then we took it across America … we towed across America with an Iraqi citizen and an American soldier, and met people at random. But also it’s existed in art galleries and museums.
But to be honest, I prefer it on the road; I prefer it out on the road, which is what we did. That’s what this film is of here, when we went, just met people randomly and had conversations with them on the street.
But in the gallery, it’s more … it’s more organised; it’s more structured. So, for example, in this show most days there’s been someone who’s been sitting there in the corner, willing and ready to talk to the public who come into this room about their experience in Iraq, whether as a soldier, or as a refugee, or as someone who worked for a charity or a journalist or whatever.
So you go from the memoirs of you Ian MacGregor, and Margaret Thatcher, and Stella Rimmington, then Sunday Times book about the strike, which of course would be sort of a right-wing interpretation. Then there’s books about the police and about police activities, and a report by the Yorkshire Police, which are I wouldn’t say neutral, as such, but sort of sociological books, academic books about the way the police behaved, and so on. And then you have books that are sympathetic to the strike. And you end up, or are meant to end up, with books that were produced, many books were produced just after the strike by villages, or individuals who wanted to tell their stories.
So you have this sort of self-published, or self-publishing, phenomenon. And I have a number of those, where people realised they had to market and they had to say what happened to them within … because it was just within living memory, very recent memory. So they had to put it to paper, really; they felt compelled to do it. So there’s a lot of that. So this is a classic one, Hatfield Main, A Year of Our Lives.
So you go from the self-published memoirs, really, of the people that were beaten in the strike, to the memoirs of Ian MacGregor and Margaret Thatcher. And you have everything in between.
[Art as a conversation]
A conversation is a good description of art in general, or a lot of art, in that it’s a two-way process. And I like that. I mean, literally, it’s a conversation. But also it’s a conversation in my mind about something, often. It’s me trying to work something out with myself about something.
So it’s about a process, about discussion, communication, negotiation. It’s all those words. So, yes, it is a conversation. And I like the idea of a human element – arts having a human element within it.
End transcript: Jeremy Deller on the use of language in art
Jeremy Deller on the use of language in art
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In this video Deller explains how he sees his work as playing with different forms as a way of subverting expectations, and thus shifting one’s sense of reality. He approaches it as a sort of experiment: if I juxtapose this thing with that thing, what new effect will this achieve? Context – where something is staged or exhibited – and the meaning drawn from that context, is always therefore an important issue for him; however, as he says, context has been key throughout the history of art. For example, the fact that Renaissance paintings were exhibited in church settings is important for the function they had in cultural life.

He considers his work as operating as a conversation: first, because it’s a two-way process between artist and viewer; second, because it’s also a conversation with himself – a means of trying to work something out in his mind via a process of internal dialogue and negotiation.


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