At the Venice Biennale last year, Jeremy Deller presented English Magic in the British Pavilion. It was an aggressive look at contemporary Britain and featured protest art based on socialist politics. It’s fitting, then, that the show has transferred to the William Morris gallery in Walthamstow; no doubt the libertarian socialist would be proud to see Deller’s work displayed in his old house. Despite thoughtful intentions, though, the transfer doesn’t quite work, and Deller’s art seems uncomfortable in its new setting.
The mural depicting Morris in the Venetian lagoon, clutching Roman Abramovich’s enormous yacht (above), makes little impact. It’s meant to be an acerbic statement about the One Per Cent, but here the syrupy colours, mythical theme and proximity to the bustling café make it feel more like a pacifying decoration for a crèche. Upstairs there are drawings by British prisoners, many of whom are former soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over a century ago, Morris’s poem ‘Wake, London Lads’ exhorted working men not to be led ‘dumb and blind’ into an ‘unjust war’. The yoke between Morris’s and Deller’s beliefs is firm, but the presentation is weak.
The gallery’s strength is its devotion to one subject. But its boxy Georgian dimensions are limiting and Deller’s work could do with the support of a more uncluttered space. The show will be in the Bristol Museum and the Turner Contemporary in Margate later this year. Go see it in Walthamstow (until 30 March) if the political narrative is of interest, but if it’s the feel of the Biennale you hanker after, best wait for Margate.