December 7th, 2014


Jeremy Deller's English Magic at the Turner Contemporary

I remember now why I like Margate so much.

It's the end of England. The easternmost point of it. A scrappy little English town, but then...

You're driving down a nondescript street,  terraced houses, takeaways, the sea-bathing hospital which is now apartments- and then- all at once- without glimpses or preliminaries-  you arrive at an arena of light.  You really weren't expecting it.  I don't know any seaside town (and I know a lot of them) in which the sea- with the sky above it- so suddenly and completely appears.

The sea was a bit rough yesterday and the tide was in. We parked up in the Turner Contemporary's car park (no hope of doing that during the summer season) and the waves were slapping against the sea wall and jumping ten to fifteen feet in spray.

Deller's exhibition- English Magic- is a "remix" of his show in the British pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale. You enter the first room and the far wall is dominated by a mural of William Morris- big as Godzilla- hoisting Roman Abramovich's yatch above his head with a view to dunking it prow first in the Venetian lagoon. To one side is a display of the coupons and other scraps of funny paper by which Abramovich and his fellow oligarchs siezed control of the Russian economy. On the wall facing the mural are some of the pearwood blocks Morris used to print his fabrics (and make his money through honest and committed toil.) In the corner is a small but choice arrangement of pictures of Venice by Turner and Ruskin. Turner's oil of a Venetian festival is one of the late great works- a vision of buildings lost in light and boats loaded with revellers driving out towards the viewer. You can almost hear them singing. It's said Turner anticipated the impressionists but the truth is he was way ahead of them. Monet- great as he is- only ever paints the surface of things. Turner goes underneath appearances- to the dance of the elementary particles.

Also in the room there are palaeolithic handaxes.

In the second room there's a video: a steel band, birds of prey filmed in close up and extreme slow motion (we'll come back to them later) cars being crunched in a breaker's yard, people cavorting over a bouncy castle in the shape of Stonehenge, the surreality of the floats in the Lord Mayor's parade.

The third room has photos from the 1970s. Strikes and bombings, interspersed with images from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tour.

In the corridor are pictures of the Iraq war and its leading actors- Blair, Campbell, Dr David Kelly- all of them drawn by the inmates of British prisons, many of them former soldiers. The Blair is wonderful- a blank simian mask on a neck like a tree trunk- but quite unmistakeable.

The final room has two murals- one of St Helier (capital of the tax evading Island of Jersey) burning in a future revolution (some hope!)- the other of a hen harrier clutching a Range Rover. (Two hen harriers- a protected species- went missing over Sandringham a few years back; Prince William and one of his debauchee mates were seen in the area toting guns. No charges were brought.) Also a wall of handaxes and a table at which you can print off your own copies of the William Morris and Hen Harrier murals.

Backwards and forwards in time, follow the trails, make the connections, join the dots.

Then back out again into the light that Turner said was as brilliant as any in Europe.