William Morris takes direct action with Roman Abramovich's yacht in painting by Jeremy Deller
William Morris takes direct action with Roman Abramovich’s yacht in painting by Jeremy Deller

Celebrated conceptual artist Jeremy Deller has brought his exhibition for the British Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale to Walthamstow.

Climbing the steps of the cosy William Morris Gallery, you find yourself caught between two giant banners in the midst of heated discussion. Resembling African tribal masks, these banners are expressions of the twin evils of corporate tax avoidance and permissive tax havens. Designed by trade union artist Ed Hall, they are but one piece in Deller’s grand prophecy of the fall of capitalism in the not too distant future.

Deller’s exhibition is called ‘English Magic,’ but perhaps ‘English Anger’ would have been more appropriate. He draws upon the fantastical and mythological as a means of expressing his fury at an unjust world in which capital begets capital, which then begets power, and finally suffering.

In his ground floor exhibition, there are two murals painted on the wall, both featuring the revenge of the oppressed proletariat. In one, William Morris, champion of socialism, emerges from the Venetian waters like Poseidon to discard the mega yacht of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich that, in 2011, docked by Venice’s Biennale Gardens, blocking the view and causing consternation among residents and tourists. Jeremy Deller said: “For me William Morris is a fascinating character who wore his heart on his sleeve, mixing politics and art in a way no one has managed to since.”

The other mural is an illustration of a prophetic political demonstration in 2017 on the notorious tax haven island of Jersey. The story is as follows: the people of Britain descend on the town of St Helier, outraged by the continued secrecy and irresponsibility of the country’s wealthy, and the demonstration quickly becomes violent. The burning house in St Helier depicted in the mural is symbolic of the collapse of modern capital-centric society.

A floor above, Deller moves from the near future to the recent past: The Iraq War. Here, the dark arts of English Magic are conjured in drawings by prisoners in the UK, many of whom former soldiers, of the war’s key figures and events. And then there’s the centerpiece: a video of Britain’s birds (and many other things) scored to South London’s Melodians Steel Orchestra interpretation of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by David Bowie.

Anna Mason, curator at the gallery, reports that visitors are flocking to Walthamstow’s art hub in “record-breaking numbers”. Over 2000 came to see English Magic last weekend, with a great response following rave reviews.

The exhibition is missing the piece ‘A Good Day for Cyclists’ – an important part of Deller’s Venice showcase that couldn’t fit in the Walthamstow gallery. English Magic is nevertheless provocative, interesting and righteously angry.

English Magic is at William Morris Gallery Lloyd Park, Forest Road, E17 4PP until 30 March.


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