“I kept it to myself for a long time. I didn’t want to be known as the person who did that.”
Jeremy Deller is talking about why he doesn’t like talking about Andy Warhol, or rather why he doesn’t like talking about the occasion he met and spent time with the iconic artist. The story goes like this; at the end of first year as an art history student at London’s Courtauld Institute, Jeremy met Andy at a book signing and was invited to drop by and visit his suite at The Ritz. When he turned up with a friend , he found Warhol and his retinue watching The Benny Hill Show with the sound down, and Roxy Music’s Greatest Hits blaring out from the stereo.
Warhol then suggested that the young artist come out and visit him at The Factory in New York. “We were invited but in that casual way; he didn’t expect us to turn up. Out in New York there was just a lot of hanging around. They were making a TV show for MTV and I was going to be on it with a friend. We were filmed but it never aired because he died and the programme was cancelled. Somewhere there is footage of us being interviewed and mucking about.
“His star was definitely on the wane; he wasn’t at the best point in his career but that didn’t really concern me then. I wasn’t interested in his career, I was interested in who he was and what he’d done and what he symbolised, the mythology of it. It just looked like he was having a really good time and he was doing what he wanted. I was interested in how you made a career out of doing that.
“It’s quite a private thing and I didn’t want to trade on it, so I’m quite wary about talking about. It meant a lot to me, it meant nothing to him.”
There’s a couple of reasons why I’m forcing Jeremy to go through this story again. For one it’s a terrific tale and I am fascinated by this trip (a fascination only increased by his reticence to divulge more). Secondly Jeremy is about to curate an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford focused on William Morris and Andy Warhol, bringing together rarely seen works and comparing and contrasting the two men’s careers. It’s no great surprise that people want to bombard him about Warhol, particularly now the story is out in the open.
“I did an interview for easyJet Magazine – something I really wanted to do because I thought lots of people are going to see this and it’s good for the show – but by the sounds of it, it’s a really terrible interview. Weirdly all they wanted to know about was Andy Warhol, going on and on with all these stupid questions.”
I surreptitiously turn the page in my notebook away from reams of Warhol-related questions. We’re sat in a café in north London where Jeremy quite often conducts interviews. He’s wearing a red hoodie with a Spillers Records – the world’s oldest record shop – logo on the front and his hand is covered in a diagram drawn in what looks like green biro. There’s different sections and various labels but despite a series of decreasingly subtle attempts I am unable to work out what what it says.
He’s a hard person to sum up. Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery where he held his major 2011 show Joy In People calls him “the artists who more than any other has changed the way we think about art.” Elsewhere he’s been described as “a hip nerd with curatorial smarts” (frieze_), “the anti Damien Hirst” (_The New York Times) and by his friend, the film director Nick Abrahams, as dressing like “a camp tramp.” “Nicky can talk,” laughs Jeremy, “you should see what he wears.”
It’s well-documented that he can barely draw or paint, and was politely asked to drop art when he was at school in south London. His work is hard to characterise; whether he’s staging a re-enactment of a skirmish which took place in the 1984 Miners’ Strike, touring the country with an inflatable Stonehenge, commissioning a traditional brass band to play a series of acid jazz hits or taking the charred remains of a car bombed out in a Baghdad market around the USA, his work does indeed make us think about what art actually is, or can be. But it’s not just a clever exploration of cultural boundaries; Jeremy’s work can be fun and ridiculous or moving and thought-provoking.
“I think one of Jeremy’s great strengths is that he really keeps it personal; it comes from his own enthusiasms about things,” Ralph told me.
“He’s right that I work with things I am interested in,” Jeremy says. “It’s not even my enthusiasms – often the result isn’t something particularly pleasant, say The Battle of Orgreave or taking a car destroyed in a bomb attack around America. There’s nothing particularly fun about that as an object. Some of it is stupidly pleasurable, like the inflatable Stonehenge, but there are things I hope are quite awkward or tricky.”
Although he’s intelligent and articulate, Jeremy’s not prone to making the kind of bombastic pronouncements which many in his position do, though he’d have every right. In the decade since winning the Turner Prize in 2004 his star has risen and risen; the Hayward Show was wildly popular and last year he curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. But he’s a diffident interviewee, and listening back to the transcript I ’m struck by how often he corrects himself, qualifies his sentences and even asks me to qualify my questions and corroborate his answers. You get the feeling he’s really thinking about each answer rather than reciting Deller-isms he’s regurgitated for interviews time and again.
This is rare for such a prominent artist but he seems uninterested in the kind of celebrity courted so assiduously by some of his contemporaries. I wonder if he’s now at the stage where who he is and what he does are inseparable.
“I don’t know if people come to my work and see ‘a Jeremy Deller.’ I hope not; I hope people are just interested in the work. I don’t know how I am viewed really.”
Does he worry about it?
“I try not to. I really try not to become too self-conscious. I don’t read press, I don’t read interviews with myself. I try not to read anything on Twitter about me; you can become really obsessed with what people are saying about you and that’s not a good thing. I’m on Twitter but I don’t do anything with it. I get the news and I do one thing every three or four weeks. It’s stupid really but I feel too self-conscious.”
When it came to the Biennale he put this self-consciousness aside.
“With Venice I more or less agreed to everything I was asked. I did four days solid of interviews. Every 30 minutes there would be someone from some Australian art magazine, then the BBC’s Iranian language service. I just did it because I thought I’d never be in that situation again so I might as well make the most of it. You don’t quite know what’s coming next so it’s good to do that kind fo thing once in your life.
“Everyone can remember being the artist fighting for attention. You know what it’s like not to be successful and unemployed and for people not to be interested in you. So those are not great times but they get further and further away, and in a sense I am very, very lucky.
“I’m quite accessible I think which might be part of the problem. I don’t have a team of people working around me. I am quite easy to get hold of and I get asked to do things all the time; a lot of TV programmes. It’s always difficult because I know how time-consuming it is and you don’t really get to have control.
“I get asked to do panel shows all the time but it would just ruin my week. Can you imagine if you had to go on Any Questions? It would be terrifying wouldn’t it?”
Jeremy knows that with this public profile comes a simplification of what he does and who he is. I ask him if, like Tracey Emin, he feels that he’s already made the piece of work with which art historians will mainly associate him.
“I don’t think necessarily that I have made the thing I will be remembered for the rest of my life yet. It’s great just to be remembered, let’s face it. It’s the equivalent of writing Stairway To Heaven isn’t it? Most people don’t have their Stairway To Heaven. I sort of have, which is probably Orgreave.”
He’s very aware though of not falling into an artistic rut. “You don’t want to stick to a rigid thing. Well some people do, it’s a good brand isn’t it, but it’s quite good to leave that and not think too hard about that. It’s weird being called an enfant terrible when you’re in your 40s or 50s. I think that might have happened to me recently in something. In easyJet Magazine.
“It’s more dangerous to do press like that. You just never know what’s going to happen and you can’t keep track of those things. You do them and forget about them but it’s too late to try and change words. The format of those Q&A things is strange too so you have to be careful.
“The thing is you’re only doing press because there’s something you want to tell people about, rather than just telling them about yourself. I thought people went on chat shows because they were interesting but of course there’s something happening. It’s the same with Desert Island Discs; most people who go on it are promoting something, but you’re not allowed to mention it. Someone has a big book coming out but they can’t mention a thing because it’s just meant to sound like a programme.”
Has he ever been asked to do it?
Would he do it?
“I’d love to do it, anyone would. For anyone who likes music, talking about your favourite songs shouldn’t be much of a trial.
“But I have almost stopped listening to music really. It’s a relatively recent thing. I listen to Radio 4 all the time, documentaries and the news. Right now I’m catching up on certain things from last weekend like a show about Harold Wilson in the 60s and 70s. It’s just random stuff but I love it. Especially the news. I love the news.”
I suppose I do still listen to music but not in the way I used to. But I don’t think anyone does, it’s all over the place now isn’t it? Consumption is different. It’s less tribal, it’s much more flattened. People of a certain generation – and I’m in that generation – talk about: ‘Oh we couldn’t get The Stooges album, we had to wait for six months for it in Wolverhampton.’ But I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It’s good to be able to find things easily but maybe it’s gone too far the other way now.”
This availability of culture leads to people making quick decisions about whether they like something or not, accelerated in a world where “likes” have become a valid kind of social currency.
“I don’t partake in any of that. I am not really interested in other people’s opinions.”
But you enjoy watching people interact with your work?
“I think most artists like that. I didn’t go to my show at The Hayward enough but we had this tea bar set up in the middle and I quite enjoyed hanging out there. I didn’t go so that people could come up and tell me what they thought of the show, I wanted to go there anonymously.”
How does he feel going to galleries and seeing visitors desperately trying to take a good selfie?
“It’s a form of showing off. People used to show off by what music they liked or by dressing in a certain way but now people form their identity through where they’ve gone, who they’ve met, where they’ve had their picture taken.”
Does that mean the nature of fandom changed?
We talk about what effect this has all had on the nature of fandom, a subject on which he’s well- placed to offer an opinion. In the past he’s curated exhibitions of art made by Manic Street Preachers fans, and in 2006 he collaborated with Nick Abrahams on Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, which saw them travel to Mexico, the USA, Germany, Brazil, Canada and Eastern Europe to meet some of the band’s most hardcore devotees. “In Russia, 60 fans met us at the airport and basically kidnapped us for two days, which was brilliant for the film,” he writes on his website.
I wonder though if he has an insight into how fandom works because he himself is a fan – of Andy Warhol, William Morris, David Bowie and people he makes art about, like the coal miner turned glam-rock wrestler Adrian Street.
He doesn’t disagree. “We’re all interested in people, in characters where there’s some contradiction or flaw. That’s what makes people interesting. I am interested in people who were very ambitious for art and for what art can achieve.
“I go through phases with Bowie really. I sort of OD on him. I am intrigued by Morris. The more I read about him the more I liked him if that’s the right way of putting it. He’s just a great character and a great human being who did incredible things. Everything that was available at that time artistically he was doing – music, poetry, prose, songwriting, stained glass, painting, graphic design, publishing; everything. He had all this going on in one career, a dozen different roles. It’s a very contemporary view of an artist.
“But they’re all hardworking people. Warhol was incredibly hardworking. So was Morris and Bowie too. Everyone thought he’d retired, but you think about his output in the 70s and it’s amazing. They’re century-defining artists, looking at the world around them and trying to make sense of it for themselves – which is almost the only thing you can really ask of an artist.”
As we get up to leave, I realise that in the hour-and-a-bit we’ve been in the café nobody has recognised Jeremy as far as I can tell. I can see how he managed to visit the tea bar at the Hayward show and often go unnoticed; he’s polite and engaging but understated. I put it to him that maybe that’s why he’s drawn to such flamboyant, epoch-defining figures like Warhol and Bowie, but even now he dashes my hopes of a neat conclusion. And with that the camp tramp, the hip nerd with curatorial smarts, the anti-Damien Hirst heads off to carry on being Jeremy Deller.