The Turner Prize-winning London artist tells Ossian Ward why house prices make him ill, and what putting his teenage bedroom in the Hayward Gallery did to his chi.
I am sat in a plastic seat in an unassuming north London caff - somewhere between a greasy spoon and an Italian restaurant - waiting for a Turner Prize-winning artist. Not only has he had a major mid career retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 2012, but he also produced one of this millennium's most enduring and interesting artworks, 'The Battle of Orgreave' (2001), in which he restaged the bloody 1984 clashes between striking miners and police as a painstakingly accurate battle reenactment. The irony of Jeremy Deller becoming a household name, at least in contemporary art terms, is threefold. Firstly, his inaugural execution actually took place in his family home, although without his parents' knowledge, at least until as many as ten years later, recalling the old joke 'I'm not even a household name in my own household'. Secondly, his calling as an artist has never been clearly defined. Not only did that first execution, titled 'Open Bedroom', happen relatively late for him, when he was pushing 30, but he was never formally trained as an artist in the first place (unless you count secondary school: having had the same art teacher as Deller I would never make that claim myself. Indeed, he later says: 'I was embarrassed to call myself an artist, I wasn't sure if I was allowed to or if I even was one.') Finally, Deller has always firmly resisted the more despicable trappings and habits of the famous artist; he doesn't command exorbitant prices, nor does he present any lofty airs or graces and there are no legions of assistants staffing a large studio - he has never really practiced art in any traditional sense of the word. 'Before the internet I didn't have any money for a studio,' he says, 'and didn't feel I deserved one, really. I wouldn't have been able to check emails. I would have just sat there getting stressed, so I might as well do that at home for free. If I am doing a big thing, then I try to use all the people in that organisation; their offices, their teams.' Hence us meeting at his local caff.
Deller has meetings and even photoshoots here (and of course his breakfast: tea and marmite on toast, in case you were wondering). When he has ordered his usual, I comment favourably on his latest televisual appearance, presenting a BBC show about folk art, which he is something of an expert on, having amassed an archive of material that now forms part of the Arts Council Collection - including homemade Princess Diana memorials - with his friend and longtime collaborator Alan Kane. I ask him why his previous outing on the BBC, a documentary about Deller as an artist, was entitled 'Middle Class Hero', when that bastardisation of John Lennon's 'Working Class Hero', sounded like a filed criticism of Deller, or at best, a backhanded compliment?
'I had used the phrase on a T-shirt years ago,' he explains. 'It was a joke.' He made an earlier series of sloganeering T-shirts in the same vein for 'Open Bedroom' that include 'My Drug Shame' and 'My Booze Hell'. 'Also,' he says, 'there were a lot of people in the art world who pretended they weren't from that background: pretending they were proper working class, putting the accent, pretending to be tough.' He says he had to come up with a decent title for the programme as the production team were going to call it something along the lines of 'The People's Artist', at which he laughs incredulously.
Despite not being the Princess Diana of the art world, Deller has successfully campaigned on behalf of a number of worthy causes and charities he believes in, from the right of artists and the state education of arts to more prosaic topics including the plight of cyclists and bats, for whom he built a special home at the London Wetland Centre (bats, not cyclist). I ask him about the importance of having a home himself. 'I was very lucky during that period [leading up to 'Open Bedroom'], as my homelife was always stable,' he says. 'Basically I was far too old to be living at home, but my parents were going away for two weeks and I thought I would turn my bedroom into an open studio as everything I had ever made or thought about was in that bedroom.'
The show, an 'installation of juvenile', as he describes it, spill out into the dining room, the garden, the hallway and even the loo, where he printed out some choice bits of erudite lavatory graffiti, sourced from the stalls at the old British Library. 'And then at the Hayward there was this idea to reconstruct my bedroom, as a way of showing all that early work, the stuff that is slightly embarrassing or not very good. It worked in that context and was funny to see but also awkward as it still looked like a teenage bedroom. I think a lot of people take their teenage years into adulthood, men especially, so the things that obsessed you when you were 17 still obsess you when you're at 27. This was a way of getting all of that out of the way, getting things off your chest and clearing your mind. Thats what exhibitions are really, it means you can move on and to work about those works again.'
Although Deller has since gone on to the aforementioned bigger and better things - including his bouncy-castle Stonehenge entitled 'Sacrilege', which has toured the world, and the project he created around a suicide-bombed car from Iraq, which is now on show at the Imperial War Museum - there was something poignant and prescient about the obvious constrains he was experiencing as a fledging artist stuck in his mum's house. 'I didn't really have much work in those days,' he says. 'While I was secure enough not to snuggle financially I still struggled mentally. Being unemployed is horrible; I spent years waking up, not knowing what I was doing for the next eight hours or the next week. It's quite frightening, really. That is probably why I do too much now.'
Indeed Deller was busier than ever, preparing performance, processions and other interventions for Gwanju in South Korea, Helsinki next year and the centenary of World War 1, for the UK-wide programme of events called 'Lights Out': 'Thats proving quite difficult,' he says. 'Im trying to find an eclipse during the war. It will end up as four short films that reflect the end of civilisation, that's all!' He is also curating exhibitions, with one forthcoming in November on the links between Andy Warhol and William Morris while continuing to tour his incredible contribution to the last Venice Biennale, called 'English Magic' , a travelling charabanc of his thoughts, works an obsessions that is about to move from Bristol to Margate's Turner Contemporary.
It's not the intense travel schedule that's making him fidgety as he orders more toast from the caff's owner Dennis, but a different kind of pressure, caused by being a lifelong Londoner. 'I am obsessed like everyone else is in London with this ridiculous hype about house price,' he says. 'I can't understand how people do not understand that this is total madness. This speculation makes me almost ill: much more anxious than whether I am an artist or not.' If not quite a fully fledged Marxist, a middle-class hero or 'the people's artist', Deller is still very much a people person and could well be described as an 'artist of and about the people', insofar as he holds up the idea of collaboration and the celebration of others over his own egotistical concerns. It's all about as far from Claridge's as you can get as he says goodbye and disappears down the Holloway Road.
Ossian Ward was the art editor of Time Out an is now head of content at The Lisson Gallery London