The ARTS section of The Australian January 06, 2014, carried a report that was cleverly titled Take a monumental leap of faith – see below. One sometimes wonders about smart titles. Is this the most important aspect of journalism these days? The subject of the article was Jeremy Deller’s inflatable Stonehenge described as ‘a life-sized, bouncy-castle version of the stones’ – hence the puns in the title.
Deller is labelled as ‘one of the most important artists of his generation.' He talks about this work in somewhat vague, patriotic terms: "It's like a canvas for the projection of ideals about self and country and the world we live in." The art is labelled as ‘social surrealism,’ whatever this might mean. No one seems to know much about it or its ambitions, not even the artist. The title of the work, Sacrilege, seems to be playing the same games as the journalists involve themselves in. There is a remote cynicism here, a careless indulgence in things seen to be personally ingenious.
The article continues with the comment: ‘Now it's Australia's turn to clamber all over this fun facsimile.’ It is this immanent closer involvement in the work, the ‘fun facsimile,’ that seems to stimulate the question: ‘So what is it that makes Sacrilege art, and not just another cheerful sideshow attraction?’ The article continues to describe the response given by the artist:
'Deller sips his cappuccino.
"I don't know," he says, preferring to let us figure it out.’
Well, there it is! At least it is stated clearly.
"No one knows why Stonehenge was built so they all bring their own version of it," says Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist.
No one knows, not even the artist. The logic seems to be that anyone can do anything and call it art, leaving it to the observer to work something out. This insulting game of Blind Man’s Bluff allows the charlatan to participate in games of power, claiming genius status out of nothing but an intimidating presentation that is labelled ‘art.’ Just what one is supposed to make of it is uncertain, but the report goes on to note:
‘The left-wing son of public sector workers, Deller did an MA in art history in his 20s and worked as a driver, postman and shop assistant before finding his way as an artist.’
There is always a certain cunning in this charade that art seems to have become. Here Deller adds the statement:
“What could be more defining of Britishness than Stonehenge, and what could be more mysterious?"
He seems to want to claim not only the ‘British’ authority of the icon, Stonehenge, as his subject, but also appears to seek to adopt its inherent mystery as a unique part of his creation: his ‘Art,’ apparently without knowing much about it. The whole circumstance rings with what feels like a dismaying heresay that pretends to hold real substance and meaning when no one acknowledges knowing anything about it, other than it is a ‘fun facsimile.’ The cheek alone seems to force the issue and intimidate others into a silent obeisance to self-proclaimed genius. Has art really come to such a confusingly pretentious muddle that threatens anyone who might query its being? Is art merely the bloated self-creation and promotion of the hero, a blind mind game of bluff seeking attention? Is art just a different business model that promotes ME and MY?
Has it all come down to heroes, with everyone expecting to be one every day and to be recognised as such by everyone else? Is it that the artist, the architect, has to become more extremely heroic than ever before in this ocean of supermen? In the same newspaper, on the same day, there was a report on the new rules on the use of social media that the Australian Olympic Committee is seeking to implement. It carried the title, I won’t be gagged by AOC: Torah. At least one Olympian was protesting, objecting to these controls. The article started with the words: ‘Olympic gold medallist Torah Bright has savaged the Australian Olympic Committee’s ban.’ It continued by noting the credentials of this protester: ‘This 27-year-old snowboarder, tipped as one of Australia’s best hopes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.’ Now this makes the position hard to ignore!
The article suggests that she has made her point very clear: “I care not for the trivial policies of an organisation that comes into my sport once every four years.
“Freedom of choice and speech are humanity’s greatest gifts. I am the master of my social media. I am captain of my voice.”
The report noted that ‘Bright also publicly voiced her concerns on social media site Twitter over the weekend, stating the ban was “bullshit.”
Some voice! Some captain!
What is going on here? Is art, is architecture, now involved in this singular claim for my scream, my voice to be heard, my work to be seen, no matter what I might have to say, ‘bullshit’ or not? Where does the sense of meaning, that link to things human, of the spirit, come into play? If art is simply entertaining fun on odd facsimiles where everyone is left to make of it whatever one might, then we live in a spinning void, a world of stimulating chaos claiming to be mysteriously meaningful, where everyone can be momentous.
The report on the AOC’s rules finished by noting that ‘those athletes that did not Tweet or upload photos to Instagram, (in the London Olympics), ultimately came out on top. . . . They won.”
There was a television programme on the Australian swimmer Murray Rose some months ago on Australian Story on ABC TV. He stated that he not only loved swimming, that he had a feel for water, but that his remarkable success was based on the concept that when he was swimming, he concentrated only on swimming. A BBC programme on religion some years ago summarised the Buddhist philosophy as being: when you are walking, know that you are walking. The idea carried a further insight: When you find the Buddha, kill him.
Olympians, artists and architects might learn from this understanding, knowing their sport and their art intimately in any participation, any doing - loving; concentrating, as the craftsman of old called it: ‘Having concentrated, he set to work.’ Without such commitment, one is left floundering in one’s own self-important indulgences. There is something more in art, architecture and sport than ME and MY voice; my thoughts. It is this ‘something more’ that needs to be contemplated in silence and with humility. It might even require a 'monumental leap of faith'; but it does not involve bouncing on a replica of Stonehenge that recent research has revealed as a burial ground with a complexity of processional ways more profound than ever expected. Sadly, the inflatable facsimile only highlights something else: smart art.
The article is reproduced here as The Australian restricts some content on line.
Take a monumental leap of faith
JANUARY 06, 2014
IT'S 7am and a couple of thousand people are standing, shivering, on Salisbury Plains in Wiltshire, England. It's as dark and possibly as cold and wet as it was just before dawn 5000 years ago, when the ancients gathered here to celebrate the winter solstice: the renewal of the light after this, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere.
Back then, of course, there were no metal barriers and neon-clad stewards, no rules restricting access to Stonehenge, Britain's most famous ancient monument, inside which we're about to romp for 90 minutes, through what will be a mizzle-shrouded sunrise.
There's a sense of expectation as we make our way towards the prehistoric stone circle, with its iconic silhouette and powerful, almost supernatural vibe. Several druids in cloaks lead the way, tapping the ground with wooden staffs topped with rams' horns; tourists with backpacks and dreadlocked neo-pagans rub elbows with a guy dressed as springtime figure the Green Man, his face hidden by a mask of leaves, and a person wearing a large rubber unicorn's head.
"No one knows why Stonehenge was built so they all bring their own version of it," says Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist whose Sacrilege project - a life-sized, bouncy-castle version of the stones - is about to grace the Sydney and Perth festivals. "It's like a canvas for the projection of ideals about self and country and the world we live in," he adds. What could be more defining of Britishness than Stonehenge, and what could be more mysterious?"
It's two weeks before the winter solstice, and I am meeting Deller, 47, for coffee near his home in north London. It has been a bumper year for the debonair Englishman, frequently described as one of the most important artists of his generation. His English Magic exhibition at the Venice Biennale summed up his "love-hate relationship" with his country by including everything from Neolithic hand axes and William Morris fabrics to drawings on the theme of the Iraq war and a mural inspired by Prince Harry's alleged shooting of an endangered bird.
"I saw Venice as an opportunity to get things off my chest," says Deller in his quiet, understated way. And to promote his heroes: "William Morris humanised the Industrial Revolution with his art, writing, politics."
Deller's touring exhibition All That is Solid Melts into Air examined the impact of the 18th century manufacturing boom - the Industrial Revolution - on British popular culture, complete with a vintage jukebox playing the sounds of a bygone factory. Then there is Sacrilege: commissioned by the Glasgow International festival of art and a hit at London's Cultural Olympiad, the inflatable Stonehenge has been bounced upon at 33 sites across Britain. Now it's Australia's turn to clamber all over this fun facsimile.
So what is it that makes Sacrilege art, and not just another cheerful sideshow attraction? Deller sips his cappuccino.
"I don't know," he says, preferring to let us figure it out.
Deller's social surrealism has broadened the definition of contemporary art. His Battle of Orgreave was a 2001 re-enactment of a violent confrontation in Yorkshire during the miners' strike in 1984. He won the 2004 Turner Prize with Memory Bucket, a documentary about Crawford, Texas, where George W. Bush owns a ranch, and the notorious siege in nearby Waco.
In 2009 he took a road trip across US, towing a car destroyed by a bomb attack in a marketplace in Baghdad: "It was intended to get people talking," he says.
The left-wing son of public sector workers, Deller did an MA in art history in his 20s and worked as a driver, postman and shop assistant before finding his way as an artist. Despite the often collaborative nature of his work he would rather not be considered an artist-producer, unlike his early mentor Andy Warhol, at whose Factory studio in New York the then undergraduate spent two formative weeks in 1986.
"I was very influenced by the idea of the artist as free spirit," says Deller, who in 1993, while his parents were on holiday, used the family home for an exhibition titled Open Bedroom. "You could run a magazine, make film, TV, prints, paintings, music ... You could use whatever you could get your hands on."
The themes Deller tackles are more easily definable: identity and class, nature and progress; music, memory, the artist as mystic. A big fan of the likes of David Bowie as well as British-style brass bands, Deller brings the same DIY aesthetic to creating art that the punk movement brought to making music. His contemporaries the Young British Artists, or YBAs, did much the same, garnering attention through controversy.
But unlike, say, Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, of whom he isn't fond ("Greedy, rapacious, self-pitying, self-obsessed"), Deller doesn't make work to sell, and eschews using anything that feels autobiographical.
Unless, that is, he's positioning himself as a fan (his English Magic exhibition included a painting of a giant William Morris standing in the Venetian lagoon, sinking a boat owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich), or linking a personal interest to public art created with the public in mind.
Sacrilege was originally conceived as one of a series of inflatables commemorating forbidden spaces in Britain: "I also wanted to do Buckingham Palace and a military installation," he says, "but I couldn't do it all."
Stonehenge felt the most resonant. The standing stones in their concentric circle have fascinated through the ages: John Constable painted them under a crepuscular sky; William Blake used their image in Jerusalem; and 18th-century archeologist William Stukeley's romantic but fictitious image of the druids, the priestly class of the Celts, worshipping at Stonehenge, has persisted to the present day.
Deller walked among the stones as a child in the 1970s, before vandalism and erosion led to the site officially being roped off from the public in 1977. Did he feel their healing energy? "Er, no," he says. "But I like archeological remains and ruins; I like the humour of Stonehenge as well."
We talk about the monument's cameo as a shrunken stage prop in the spoof rock documentary This is Spinal Tap; of the way it has inspired such art installations as Fridgehenge and Carhenge. His own work, he says, also pays homage to the anarchic freak-out culture of film director Ken Russell and the space-rock band Hawkwind, who recorded a live album at the Stonehenge Free Festival (Stoned Henge) in June 1984.
But where the summer solstice continues to attract up to 30,000 revellers to the site each year, it's the more intimate winter solstice that really lets people get up close and personal.
There is much touching of the great stones as the first rays of the sun poke weakly over the horizon. A soundtrack of live drumming and chanting gets everyone moving; the unicorn is shaking its head.
Amid a scrum in the middle of the circle, a Gandalf lookalike is reciting the Druid's Prayer. I step on to a boulder to get a better look. "Oi, get off," a steward says crossly. "Show some respect."
Sacrilege runs from January 8 to 26 at the Sydney Festival, then February 17 to March 1 at the Perth Festival.