We sit starving amidst our gold

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(review and pics by comrades from Walthamstow)

“I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few.” – William Morris

British artist Jeremy Deller’s new English Magic exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in east London captures the essence of Morris’ thinking – that art and freedom are for all.

In a huge mural that forms the centrepiece of the show, Deller depicts Victorian designer and socialist Morris going head-to-head with billionaire Roman Abramovich.

The piece, entitled We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold, shows Morris hurling Abramovich’s 377-foot yacht into a lagoon. The piece was driven by Dellar’s anger at the ship’s appearance in Giardini quay during the 2011 Venice Biennale contemporary art festival.

The colossal, almost god-like painting is a fitting reminder of Morris’s legacy and of the timelessness of his ideas of equality and social justice, ideals to which Deller too subscribes.

Deller condemns capitalism and consumerism throughout the exhibition. He is heavily informed by grassroots protest movements. Both Deller and Morris are concerned with mixing politics and art together in ways that engage working class people and encourage resistance.

The installation Ooh-oo-hoo Ah-ha Yeah is made up of video, a crushed vehicle and a huge banner bearing those words. In the beautifully shot video, Deller simultaneously celebrates Britain’s natural landscapes and wildlife while condemning our consumerist and excessive culture.

The most poignant and disturbing aspect of this film is the juxtaposition of birds with the 4×4. Range Rovers are infamously connected to the shooting parties of the Royal family. In 2007 Prince William allegedly shot a hen harrier, one of the rarest birds in the country, on the royal’s Sandringham estate.

Deller also enlists former soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw scenes from their experience and those of their leaders, such as Tony Blair. All of these artists are painting from prison – where so many soldiers end up.

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We were lucky enough to meet on our visit Deller’s collaborator Stuart/Sam Hughes. He explained that Deller’s own left-wing leanings influence his not just his artwork, but his whole life. Hughes is certain Deller would decline any offer if Abramovich had wanted to buy the painting. He hasn’t succumbed to the trappings of big art money.

Hughes also explained the process of painting We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold. While Deller was responsible for the initial concept, it was Hughes and his team that spent 10 days painting the huge mural directly onto the gallery wall.

Some in our group went back to the gallery for a second look. Nanda explained: “It’s not until you view the exhibition again that you realise how well it works together. Deller’s collaborative work ethic references Morris’s own. The exhibition encourages visitors to get involved: you can make your own stamps of the hen harrier or the Morris painting, something Morris would have loved.”

Hazel said: “I was reminded of William Morris’s wonderful book News From Nowhere, which is mentioned in the exhibition. I read it as a young woman and it made a deep impression on me. I am going home to re-read it.”

Jeremy Deller’s English Magic exhibition has many references and themes. It covers excess, British culture and how it has failed us, magic, music, the destruction of nature and the miseries of war.

Combining the influence of William Morris with contemporary art, this free exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to make socialist ideas accessible to a broader audience. It runs until 30 March in Walthamstow, before moving to the Bristol museum and art gallery then the Turner Contemporary in Margate later this year.

Find out more about Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic”

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