Remember the heady summer of 2012? London was briefly transformed from its usual, greyish perma-grump into something resembling sun-dappled optimism for the Olympics. I’m a fairly cynical person, with about as much interest in sport as I have in, say, Red Dead Redemption, or taxidermy (none, to the point of active dislike.) Yet even this sport-hating miserablist was out there with the best of them, clutching a mug of wine and careering about the streets of Hackney trying to get a look at a torch.
One of the very best things about that summer though? Not all the abnormally fast running, massive tellies in parks, and so on, but a massive bouncy castle in the shape of Stonehenge. That gargantuan inflatable, of course, is Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege. “I just wanted to make the most stupid artwork ever made,” the artist said of the commission in his recent Desert Island Discs interview. Deller named the piece Sacrilege to beat any naysayers at their own game. “Some people will be very annoyed by it… so I just thought, well, you might as well just get the criticisms in first,” he said. The piece was daft, sure, but it wasn’t stupid: it was smart, fun and genuinely engaging.
The piece debuted at the 2012 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art before travelling to London during the Olympics—I had a bounce during its stint at Lee Valley Park in glamorous E10, and it was a truly joyful experience to see the hoards of grinning kids (and many, many adults) bounding about on art and history. No one really cared, of course, that the piece was art, or history: it was a huge bouncy castle, the sun was out—it didn’t need a wall text or impenetrably worded pamphlet to explain what was going on here.
“The piece was daft, sure, but it wasn’t stupid: it was smart, fun and genuinely engaging”
“A lot of my work looks at history, sometimes in a very serious intense way, otherwise in a very playful way, and this is obviously about as playful as you can get,” Deller says in the making-of video for the piece. The artist explains that Sacrilege nods to UK “freak out” culture, namely the likes of artist Bruce Lacey, space-rock behemoths Hawkwind and flamboyant director Ken Russell.
Indeed, Deller’s work always feels underscored by a certain sense of Britishness—not the royal wedding teacups and bunting type of course; nor that which is so aligned to an ignorant (and often intolerant) “back in the day” faux-nostalgia. Instead, he explores and commemorates that Britishness with honesty, a twinge of eccentricity and (where appropriate) wry humour; often soundtracking a historical standpoint with a hearty belly laugh.
“In a way [Sacrilege] was meant to counteract what I felt was the pomposity of sport and the Olympics,” Deller said. “As it happened, it wasn’t so pompous in the UK, but the whole Olympics movement seems to be really full of itself, so I just thought, let’s do something about Britain that shows we have a sense of humour about our history and we’re willing to satirise ourselves almost and have fun with our history and identity.”
Deller has recently returned to Stonehenge with a new work, Wiltshire B4 Christ, created in collaboration with photographer David Sims and fashion brand Aries.