Venice Biennale review: Jeremy Deller's English Magic is eccentric rather than trailblazing

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The British Pavilion, 55 Venice Biennale, Venice

After he was selected to represent Britain at this year's Venice Biennale, artist Jeremy Deller said: "I don't think I'm meant to be representing the ideals of the country." What are those ideals? It must be tricky for an artist whose career is founded on a quirky anti-authoritarianism to reconcile himself to participating in the most luxurious international art exhibition in the world.

Far from working in the service of the state, however, Deller has managed to celebrate the more esoteric aspects of British cultural life while making a multifarious and sometimes mad critique of injustice of all kinds. This exhibition of new work – including installation, photographs, and film – is both fun and principled. But not daring enough.

The British Pavilion has been commissioning an artist to represent the country every two years since 1938. Situated in the beautiful Giardini area of Venice, previous artists have included Francis Bacon and Barbara Hepworth, and, more recently, Tracey Emin and Mike Nelson, whose exhibition in 2011 drew rave reviews.

Deller is a Romantic in the sense that he seems to have genuine faith in the power of art to make things (slightly) better. But his utopian goals are modest. He brings people together and creates events, which are then documented and disarranged. The breadth of references here is immense: David Bowie, workers’ strikes, owls, Land Rovers, marching bands, hand axes, and Tony Blair. Everything seems to be included – but does it all hang together?

Sort of. After looking round the exhibition a second time, the seemingly random range of things, events, news stories and ideas do coalesce into a kaleidoscopic but coherent whole.

One room of the pavilion is devoted to the Victorian Arts & Crafts pioneer William Morris. A wall is given over to a lurid, deliberately amateurish painting of a wild-haired, giant-sized Morris throwing a miniaturised luxury yacht into the Venetian lagoon. The yacht is named Luna; it belongs to the Russian super-rich art collector Roman Abramovich. Deller is making his protest against the privileged few who descend on Venice for lavish parties and big spending, but the gesture seems somewhat facile. He accepted the commission, after all.  

Born in London in 1966, Deller has said that he has no natural talent for drawing or painting. His work has been compared to the performance art “happenings” of the 1960s. Rather than going to art school, he studied History of Art at The Courtauld Institute. He won the Turner Prize in 2004.

The most powerful series of works in the exhibition are drawings by British ex-soldier prisoners. One drawing is particularly moving: it shows a soldier hiding under a bed during a mortar attack in Basra. He is wearing his helmet and uniform, but he looks like a terrified little boy. The execution is crude and child-like, but the effect is gut-wrenching.

The first Biennale, held in 1895, displayed works according to the fashions of Parisian salons at the time: paintings were hung on walls, close together. Neither a painter nor a purveyor of elitist high culture, Deller is the right choice for the Pavilion. His talent for making the viewer get involved – you can create your own Morris/Abramovich print here – is well-intentioned. He is an artist of integrity, but the overall impression is one of gentle eccentricity rather than trail-blazing vision. 

In Venice until 24 November then touring national venues in 2014; www.britishcouncil.org/visualarts

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