English Magic at Bristol City Museum

Have you ever noticed how similar bird’s talons are to the claws on a crane pick-up? Have you thought how alike a crowd of protestors looks to a crowd at a gig?


A still from the opening video to ‘English Magic’ (2012. Copyright Jeremy Deller. Image courtesy Gavin Brown enterprise)

Jeremy Deller, the video installation artist who won the Turner Prize in 2004 and represented Britain at last year’s Venice Biennale, makes these comparisons in his touring exhibition (currently at the Bristol City Museum) ‘English Magic’. And there is something both disturbing and beautiful about the similarities, but what the exhibition lacks is guidance as to what we’re meant to think about them.

The first gallery of the exhibition as it has been adapted to Bristol City Museum’s space presents a banner brandishing a slogan that makes no sense on your left and a video screen surrounded by taxidermy birds of prey on your right. In the middle is a car crushed and ready for disposal. Where to look?

Our natural draw is toward the video screen (interesting in itself. Our attention span for looking – really looking – at still objects is amazingly short) which shows a very beautiful showcase of the power of bird’s wings and claws, followed an arresting contrast showing a crane picking up, crushing and dropping a relatively new Land Rover. Of these two remarkably similar movements, which do we think is more beautiful? (birds) Which has more power in our society? (cranes)

The answers are obvious because that is what Deller wants us to think. He draws us to think how we are expected to think, and makes us notice it. In the next room he shows how easily drawn we are by alternating photographs of David Bowie’s 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour with images from the 1972 Londonderry Bloody Sunday riots and their aftermath. One crowd is shouting for one thing, one for another. One girl has her arm raised towards her hero, one has her arm raised in protest. How different and how alike are they really?

This, I would hazard, is the most effective part of the exhibition. The two rooms are distinct but explore similar questions.

The second half of the exhibition seems far more random. Aside from an hilarious ‘True and Impartial’ account of the “calamitous” 1831 Bristol Riots displayed alongside some beautiful watercolours of Bristol in flames following the riots, this section seems to try to score arbitrary political points through a selection of objects scouted out with an grand ‘idea’ in mind rather than inherently bringing the ‘idea’ with them.

A curator friend I went round the exhibition with also pointed out that ‘English Magic’ presumes a vast amount of knowledge. Such as, who Roman Abramovich is aside from just a rich Russian; when the Great Reform Act was; who William Morris was; where the Giardini Quay is. As a result it smacks of a cultural superiority that runs against the collective social reform, I’m-making-a-political-statement-for-everyone theme.

What sticks most, in hindsight, is the beauty of the birds of prey and the brilliant Bowie/Londonderry contrast. Other than that, I saw some arrow flints stuck around the walls, some interesting historical letters and artefacts and some odd murals (not painted by the artist).

This show presents some interesting questions but leaves you puzzling – and slightly frustrated.

Jeremy Deller ‘English Magic’ is at the Bristol City Museum until 21st September 2014 


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