WORK BY JEREMY DELLER WITH TEXT FROM CAM SCOTT
Commissioned by the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and the Mayor of London for the 2012 Olympics, Jeremy Deller's playground-sculpture Sacrilege will be humourously familiar to most at a glance: it is a replica-to-scale of Stonehenge, the pre-historic icon of Great Britain, and an inflatable bouncy-castle to boot. Slightly more intelligible with reference to Deller's roots in the free party and rave scenes, the touring sculpture is an all-ages pop-up; and this quintessential format of austerity-era art and commerce is ironised by the juxtaposition of airy fleetingness with a grandiosity of scale and reference. This much one may observe straight away; but like the national monument on which it is modelled, Sacrilege appears differently at a distance, whether critical or historical.
Of course, any British nationalist claim on Stonehenge is insupportably anachronistic; the monument precedes Anglo-Saxon migration by thousands of years, and its mysterious bearing has made it something of a blank slate for the projections of all sorts, from reconstructed Druids to ancient alien conspiricists, leaving aside the disputations of historians. Perhaps it is for this reason that the artist selected this subject, however lightly or evasively: "It's about tribes. It's not about politics. It's pre-political, literally," Deller insisted at an interview around the Glasglow opening (The Guardian 2012).
One may dispute the political implications of the work, and we will, but it seems correct to note that, as a symbol of 'pagan' culture which has taken on an eclectic afterlife, post-modern and pre-historical at once, the trope of Stonehenge cannot be said to glorify the nation-state. Perhaps in its vintage it is better thought as a divisor of these difficult terms, such that when Deller speaks of the tribe with respect to Stonehenge, he is not evoking a sedentary ethnic stock; he is speaking of the capacity of different peoples to organize themselves around a symbol, in a place, over time. The pneumatic monumentalism of Sacrilege is conceptually apt; it is a floating signifier, pun intended, in spite of its material weight.
Stonehenge is so stolid a fixture of British psychogeography that it appears to secure the landscape in which it is embedded; and certainly the speculative ritual function of the site presumes the same. It is in the function of the sacred to affirm the exceptionality of place in this fashion. Deller's title, Sacrilege, gnomic at first, evokes precisely this displacement of a sacred site; quite literally, for his inflatable replica has traversed the island it emblematises.
Such a profanation is already implicit in the monetized traffic to and from the actual Stonehenge; even in its myriad uses on the metaphysical market called 'New Age.' Where in former decades of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries lifestylists flocked to Stonehenge, in travelling caravans and the like, for reasons alternately solemnly religious and frivolous as a trip to the fair, Deller's collapsible temple comes to the rabble. It is more tent revival than cathedral.
Sacrilege seems to analogize this movement from heaviness to lightness – immovable stone plinths become pillows of air – to the fall from sacred to profane, where the sacred denotes that which is held apart from the everyday for ritual purposes, and the profane encompasses those objects so immodest as to be useful, even pleasurable, in their banality. Sacrilege is such an object; documentation of the installation depicts the henge peopled by children, of all ages, simply playing. And Giorgio Agamben reminds us that "the passage from the sacred to the profane can, in fact, also come about by means of an entirely inappropriate use (or rather, reuse) of the sacred: namely, play..." (Agamben, Giorgio, trans. Jeff Cox. Profanations. New York: Zone Books. 2007, p 75). Play and ritual are intimately related, such that one often begins in the other.
To some onlookers this may seem a silly spectacle – and surely it is that – but the profanatory gesture of the artwork is duplicated at the level of this response; for one might suggest that today, the practice of Art is vaunted as that special kind of good, properly useless, thus formally sacred in its social functioning. Deller's work is so entirely given over to childish things that it more or less bypasses certain patronizing tendencies of participatory artworks altogether: in no sense is it didactic, nor does it appear to promise any particularly edifying experience. One might suggest that it is merely public, rather than social. (Given the status afforded the social, as an ad hoc fix to the desire for politics, this seems suitably profane.)
This publicity likely has to do with the direction of the displacement: Sacrilege is delivered to its would-be pilgrim, not the other way around. In contrast, a more sanctimonious brand of participatory artwork produces discomfiture in the participant-body, automatized by an artistic director; this self-displacement or submission to a cause is supposed to produce experience, and the experiential artwork is perhaps the nadir of domestic tourism. In the case of an Olympic commission, this consumer optic on culture is a given; but Sacrilege presumes refreshingly little of its audience. In leaving people to their own, no doubt conditioned, disinhibitions, Deller's work obviates the earnest superego of post-relational, 'social' art. One might suggest that it is so gaudily simplistic that its functioning is meta-ideological.
However, Deller's description of his reference point as "pre-political" seems disingenuous, considering how easily assimilable his artwork is in symbol and placement to the pageantry of the Olympics; an event to fête the state and its most physically accomplished constituent bodies. The artist, however, appears to seize upon the occasion to remark on the absence of generalized play from such exceptionalising games, entreating every passing body to their share of a public trampoline. Perhaps Deller is only too aware of how a truly public artwork (and one can debate whether or not this is one) must, by definition, profane such a restricted, privatized, proudly hierarchical event. And like our enduring image of Stonehenge, the Olympics affirm an ancient site of ritual importance, albeit only in name – the feats comprising the earliest games were of course dedicated to Zeus.
Furthermore, the come-one-come-all invitational of Deller's clearing may have been ‘merely’ playful amid the Disneyland globalism of the Olympics, but it is of a broader political moment. As key voting demographics of Great Britain wallow in xenophobic isolation, mistaking an economic crisis for an existential one and turning their backs to the world, the work assumes new poignancy for its relative accessibility. An aforementioned theme of pilgrimage evokes not only religious devotion but arrival, following a literal movement of the body, and there is a hospitality here not to be missed. Perhaps as important as its London Olympic destination is the opening in Scotland; for one thing that new Little Britain must incessantly suppress is awareness of its conquests; this Britain which conflictedly insists upon its own sovereignty and solidary essence as it denies others the same.
To speak from a settler's vantage, one ought to consider how certain 'pre-historical' materials are wielded by colonizing nations in general. Mysterious symbols like Stonehenge tend to loom large in the colonial imagination, where they are made to stand for a profound cultural antecedence to which one has no present-day obligation. Such relatively obscure ruins are favoured tropes of an anthropological humanism that imputes unbreachable historical distance to every case of indigineity, implicitly denying any present-day territorial claim, and the contemporary being of each claimant. Perhaps this fantasy works in multiple directions; one might say that certain symbols of ancient 'England' are perennially re-sacrificed to distant posterity so that descendants of Anglo-Saxon migrants may live as though their claim upon the land were absolute, glibly innocent of history. Pre-history is a retroaction: something given to constructed timelessness, a kind of sacrifice.
The symbolic valences of Stonehenge are complex and irresolvable in this or any time. Yet in borrowing the strength of this emblem in its strangeness and obstinacy, Deller's carnivalesque seems less fleeting in its temporality, aligning its airborne participants with the unknowable rites of an island's distant past. More notably, perhaps, Sacrilege appears addressed to those yet to arrive – an inflatable invitational; a collapsible clearing; part parody and part parade.
To see more of Jeremy Deller's work, click here.