On one level, Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” video looks like a parody of a car commercial. A rather long parody of a car commercial. Fortunately, the 14-minute wordless collage, on continuous view on the lower level of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is packed with enough appeal — stunning visuals, slyly sardonic wit, catchy tunes and overall strangeness — that it’s never dull.
The work, which was the centerpiece of the British artist’s installation at last year’s Venice Biennale, prominently features fetishistic footage of cars and slow-motion shots of soaring birds of prey, along with such symbols of English national identity as Stonehenge. Unlike any commercial, however, “English Magic” focuses entirely on vehicles as they are being flattened by a car-crushing machine. In an unsubtle jab at the English automobile industry, they’re all Range Rovers.
As for Stonehenge, the one that appears on camera is not the real thing but an inflatable, moon-bounce-like version of the ancient site. Called “Sacrilege,” it’s actually an interactive sculpture created by Deller, who toured it around London during the 2012 Summer Olympics. In “English Magic,” we see children and grown-ups tumbling, like drunken Druids, against its cushiony stones.
A cheeky meditation on Englishness, the decline of empire and the commodification — or cheapening — of history, “English Magic” is set to a score by British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams, David Bowie and Gerald Simpson (a pop musician who performs under the name A Guy Called Gerald). In a nod to Great Britain’s colonial past, the music is provided by a Trinidadian steel drum band based in South London. The soundtrack recording, which includes an instrumental cover of Bowie’s ballad of identity crisis, “The Man Who Sold the World,” is available on limited-edition vinyl.
Despite these disparate sonic and visual elements, Deller’s artwork is surprisingly coherent. The shape of the metal claw that grabs the cars before depositing them in the crusher, for instance, is echoed by the talons of the birds — rare owls and falcons, the presumptive equivalents of the American bald eagle. Later in the video, we catch a glimpse of “Angry Birds” mascots marching in a parade.
(Angry Birds, of course, in the popular smartphone gaming app, live to knock down Stonehenge-like structures. But the company that makes it, Rovio, is Finnish, not English.)
So what does it all mean?
Less didactic than impressionistic, “English Magic” resists overly literal readings, even as it wears its jaundiced view of jingoism on its sleeve. As Deller has said in interviews, the word “magic” connotes both revelation and concealment. When it comes to the view of Great Britain espoused by “English Magic,” part of the work’s power lies in its ability to simultaneously evoke affection and disaffection for its complex subject.
If you visit “English Magic,” be sure to also check out “Black Box: Santiago Sierra and Jorge Galindo,” featuring the six-
minute video “Los Encargados” (“Those in Charge”) by a pair of Spanish artists. Like “English Magic,” their work explores the theme of power with an attitude that’s less than reverential. Unlike “English Magic,” however, their point is crystal clear.
Shot in sober black-and-white, Sierra and Galindo’s video documents a 2012 performance/prank in which the politically minded pair organized an official-
looking motorcade through downtown Madrid, featuring seven black Mercedes sedans mounted with upside-down portraits of King Juan Carlos I and the six prime ministers who have ruled Spain since the restoration of democracy.
Evoking the violence of decapitation, “Los Encargados” caused a sensation when it was posted online. In the setting of the Hirshhorn, its revolutionary sentiments seem almost painfully obvious, especially in juxtaposition to Deller’s more subtle message.
One extended section of “English Magic” features footage from a bizarre-looking procession through London featuring uniformed military personnel, a giant balloon in the shape of a piece of meat, rolling floats and contingents of marchers representing — at least according to the signs they’re carrying — “lightmongers” and other archaic-sounding professions.
Known as the Lord Mayor’s Show, this centuries-old pageant celebrates the annual inauguration of a new Lord Mayor of the City of London, a now ceremonial position that is unrelated to the job of London’s mayor. (Also known as the Square Mile, the City of London is a discrete district within London proper, and home to the city’s financial industry.)
The term “lightmonger,” meaning a person who sells lamps, is a vestige of the days when merchants and craftspeople would form trade guilds. The term “float,” familiar to American viewers of parades, derives from the fact that the original route to Lord Mayor’s swearing-in was largely by barge on the River Thames.
— Michael O’Sullivan