jeremy deller.jpeg

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  


Home is where the art is - Stella Vine

Artist Stella Vine went from foster care and teenage pregnancy to selling her work to Charles Saatchi. Then she ended up living in a car park. 

Was the 'Dorothy' skirt that you painted for a recent Shelter auction a deliberate reference to the idea that there's no place like home?

I'm fascinated by the concept of home, especially as I'm always moving, but no: it didn't cross my mind till later on that day. I just follow my instinct and improvise. I like the way the skirt came out cute and girlie. I found the process of making it immensely enjoyable, partly because sewing reminds me of my mum who passed away from a brain tumour in 2003. She was a seamstress and I still have her thimbles. She was quite absent for most of my life and I longed to spend time with her but my stepdad wouldn't allow her to be with me. Sewing helps me feel closer to her.

What's your definition of home?

For me, it's wherever my paints are. Ideally it would have a shower, but some of the places I've lived haven't even had a toilet. What I need above all is an atmosphere that inspires creativity. I'm currently living in a small room in Camden, which has fantastic light. I'm fairly happy there. If I start to feel isolated I go for a long, soothing walk around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Occasionally claustrophobia strikes and I recoup to the seaside in Cornwall to the North East. But London always draws me back.

You ran away from home at 13. How have your experience of being in venerable situations shaped you?

My mother got remarried when I was seven years old; we moved to Norwich and everything changed. My stepdad was a cruel man who enjoyed humiliating me. A lot of things happened which I know were wrong. It got to the point were my survival instinct kicked in and I knew i had to leave. I was fostered briefly but clashed with the family over my refusal to go to school - I wanted to self educate in the library. I ended up living alone in a bedsit and fell into a relationship with a caretaker, who at 24 was ten years my senior. By the time I was 16, I was pregnant. When you have those experiences at such a young age, it's a struggle to stop seeing yourself as a victim, and you keep repeating the same patterns. Only now, at 44, have I ceased blaming myself for everything that went wrong.

Have you expressed your feelings about your past in your work?

Although my work looks like it's based on other people, it is extremely personal. My style could be described as "sickly sweet", like that feeling you get when you eat too much birthday cake as child. Originally I wanted to be an abstract painter, like De Kooning or Pollock, but I got sidetracked. People, and in particular their eyes, hold a fascination for me - there's so much fragility and complexity there. I usually end up projecting part of myself onto my subjects. That was the case with my painting of Rachel Whiter [a 21-year-old student who died from a heroin overdose in 2000] that Saatchi bought in 2004. She was a kid living on her own in a bedsit when she died and I identify hugely with her. The work provoked such a strong reaction that it caught me off guard. People accused me of capitalising on her tragic death to make shocking art and become famous. I censored myself enormously after that.

You were briefly addicted to cocaine at the height of your success. How did that affect your ability to identify with the dark side of humanity?

I stared using cocaine in 2005 when I was given a show at London's Hamilton's Gallery after David LaChapelle dropped out. I had just over two weeks to make all the work and was painting flat out. After a few sleepless nights, I contacted a local dealer and bought some cocaine. I desperately needed to stay awake to finish the work. The show was okay, considering the short timescale, but I ended up with a bad coke habit. I couldn't even go out to buy milk without having a line. For the next six months I just stayed in, worked and took coke. I painted all my Kate Moss pictures on it; it gave me self confidence I always lacked. I was just falling to bits, a mess, painting six feet of brown sludge for hours on end, with a hefty £400-a-week habit which became hard to maintain. The whole experience changed me. I was depressed when I came off it - I didn't seem to have the natural energy as before. It reminded me how easy it is to get stuck on repeat in life.

Do you worry that your personal story might influence how people see your work?

I found in the past that people on the periphery of the art world thought they could make money out of me, due to the press interest in my personal life, having been a stripper and a single parent, plus the kind of work I was making: "celebrity", as they saw art. Or they wanted to try to draw attention to their galleries through me. [It's] exploitative, really: not respectful to my creativity. I've also encountered a lot of snobbery form people who seem to think that because I'm not educated I can't make real art. It baffles me.

Do your experiences make it harder for you to put down roots? 

I have this fantasy that if I had a home of my own, then I would make themes of amazing art from ceramics, etching, sewing, sculptures, oil paintings: a place for everything. Occasionally I look online and see some shack in the Outer Hebrides for around £20,000. That seems achievable, but somehow I never manage to save. Everything costs so much these days. There have been so many times in my life when I've lost everything. A year after my big solo show at Modern Art Oxford in 2007, I ended up broke and living in my car in Bloomsbury Square Car Park. I had a resident pass from when I had a lovely little flat there. I can laugh at it now, but at the time I didn't know what to do with myself.

How hard has it been to make your work while living in such small spaces?

As long as you have some kind of materials you can make art. I made some of my largest paintings, including one of Pete Doherty [6ftx7ft] and Wonder Women [9ftx10ft], while living in a small studio. I emptied the room and shoved everything into the kitchen. The canvases covered the entire floor. Wherever I am, I tend to gravitate towards a tiny corner with everything I need nearby. Ideally I like my bed to be as far away as possible from my art, so I can look at it with fresh eyes in the morning, but that's not aways possible. I made some nice work in front of a van once. You don't even need much space or materials: you can make all sorts out of things in skips if you want.

What's your idea of domestic bliss?

My ideal would be to share a home with a partner who is funny, kind, intelligent and handsome (to me). We would have dinner parties for friends; I would make paintings for the walls of the house and ceramics for the dinner table. The outside world of money and survival wouldn't exist.

Find out more about Stella's paintings, exhibitions and other work at