Soaring owls, above, and scrapped autos are just two of the subjects seen in Jeremy Deller’s short film “English Magic.” (Jeremy Deller, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise)
Soaring owls, above, and scrapped autos are just two of the subjects seen in Jeremy Deller’s short film “English Magic.” (Jeremy Deller, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise)

Not oils, not clay — Jeremy Deller’s favorite medium is people.

For his well-known 2001 piece “The Battle of Orgreave,” the London-based artist got about 1,000 people together to stage a live re-enactment of a key clash from the 1984-85 U.K. miners’ strike. Although Deller’s works usually center on human collaboration, he also likes to explore people indirectly, through their creations, cultures and impact on the world at large.

An example, Deller’s 2012 film “English Magic,” is on view at the Hirshhorn through the end of August as part of the museum’s Directions series. (Deller is scheduled to give a talk there on March 20.)

The Great Beyond

Deller is a big fan of D.C.-based musician Ian Svenonius’ recent book, “Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group,” a tongue-in-cheek history of rock told through a “seance” with important musicians. Deller says that if he were to do his own seance with visual artists, he’d try to reach Andy Warhol, William Hogarth, Diego Velazquez and “a Paleolithic human that painted in caves.” Having spent a few weeks in Warhol’s Factory when he was young, Deller is fascinated by art as storytelling and by artists who “purposefully or inadvertently become associated [with], if not emblematic [of], their moment in history.”

Beautiful Creatures

Deller’s 14-minute film is a collage of scenes featuring various subjects, including owls and hawks flying in slow motion, a parade, people playing on a bouncy castle version of Stonehenge, and cars getting crushed at a scrapyard. The soundtrack features London-based steel drum band Melodians Steel Orchestra (which appears in the film) performing music by David Bowie, A Guy Called Gerald and Ralph Vaughan Williams. “The music is all from the U.K. and is very English,” Deller says. His favorite scene in the film is the one with the birds (“filmed on the coldest March day since records began — it was almost too cold for the birds to fly”), set to Vaughan Williams’ “Symphony No. 5.” It’s “the most beautiful imagery with the most beautiful, intense music,” Deller says.

Use Your Illusion

Deller chose the visual and audio components of “English Magic” for their mysterious and brooding qualities. “I like magic when it’s done well, illusions especially,” Deller says. “Magic can delight and be alluring or it can deceive and trick — like the magic of the financial sector. So, it’s an attraction/repulsion thing.”

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW; through Aug. 31, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza)