Jeremy Deller: ‘It is what it is.’

Jeremy Deller

From the imperialistic history paintings of the nineteenth century to solemn and harrowing renderings of the First World War, many artists have created emotionally charged artworks in response to war. Over the course of the last century, conceptions of ‘war’ and ‘art’ have shifted dramatically, raising questions about the best way to express the intensity of conflict and what it is to fight.

Artist Jeremy Deller discusses his fascination with war as an artistic subject, and considers the social and political ramifications when artists depict conflict. Reflecting on the tradition of history paintings, Deller proposes that his own large-scale, collaborative works like The Battle of Orgreave (2001), It Is What It Is (2009) and We’re Here Because We’re Here (2016) are like ‘public inquiries’, creating ‘living memorials for the dead’.

1 comment on “Jeremy Deller: ‘It is what it is.’

  1. This is brilliant interesting informative and very well produced. I wish it was around when I did my degree.

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As a child, I was always interested in history. History books were what I liked most, learning about history and so on. And of course, history is usually based around warfare and battles and conflict. And great drama is born out of conflict. Again, just between people, or groups of people, societies, countries and so on. So, it’s natural for an artist to be attracted, if that’s the right word, or interested in conflict. It’s sort of human nature isn’t it?

I studied art history so I know about these paintings, I’ve seen them, these great scenes of like thousands of people fighting each other with great detail. History painting often is painted by the victor and is a fantasy.

I think, the heroic painting of warfare really ends in the First World War. You couldn’t do that anymore. Obviously, the nature of warfare changed so much — before that, you would have had scenes of imperial glory. Of like, basically killing the natives as it were, being out numbered but still managing to kill them. All those sorts of scenes, the glory of the empire, just didn’t wash anymore. Also, because so many people had experienced it, you couldn’t lie about it anymore. One of the major works from that time is the John Singer Sargent painting Gassed, which was meant to be, I think, a heroic depiction of the trenches. And he ended up painting this epic, huge painting of these men who’d been gassed and with sort of eyes covered.

I did a piece called We’re Here Because We’re Here (2016), which was a work involving thousands of people appearing in First World War uniform on the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Somme. What I was interested in was bringing the war into their daily lives. The soldiers would go to shopping centres, would be in stations, be outside schools, so they would intervene in the daily life of a citizen.)

On the first of July 2016, I planned for almost 2000 people around Britain to appear dressed very accurately as soldiers, and representing soldiers that had died. They weren’t speaking, they had cards with the names of the dead soldier they were representing which they’d give to the public. So it was a living memorial. A living memorial of the dead, effectively.

There’s a role for memorials, for permanent memorials. The Cenotaph is more or less a Modernist structure, in a very British way. And, it’s very necessary that it’s there. The way the Royal family are using it, and the politicians are using it, the solemnity of it, and I wanted something that wasn’t solemn in the way that is. And if you think about it, the way we commemorate war is through silence. When actually war is a very noisy thing. And through order rather than through chaos. And I wanted my piece of work to have some kind of unexpected quality to it, not chaotic, but chaotic compared to a remembrance service which is very solemn and ordered and quiet and respectful. I didn’t want mine to be necessarily any of those things. I was just making it a physical thing, a performance, rather than a canvas. To commemorate a day, something should be happening on that day, and it should be physical and it should be kinetic.

[News footage:] The second wave of mounted police went in, scattering the pickets

The Battle of Orgreave was a confrontation between striking miners and the police in South Yorkshire in 1984, 18th of June 1984. And it’s something I saw as a teenager on TV. The minor’s strike was, in a sense, a civil war in Britain. No shots were fired, some people were killed. But it was a cultural, and social, and political civil war. And it was a fight to the death effectively. That’s how it appeared at the time, and that’s how it looks now.

I was interested in in presenting that battle between the miners and the police in the form of a battle re-enactment that you might see on a Saturday afternoon, if you go to a big fete or you go to some sort of English Heritage event. It has an absurdity within it. But it’s a very serious thing to do. So it was trying to present a battle, a political battle in the canon of great battles, “great battles”, of British history, of battles fought on British soil. We had former minors and their families. Former policemen and serving policemen trained up people to be riot police. They took part. So it was like revisiting a crime scene. It was like a public enquiry through art. Through performance art.

The Disasters of War was a series of prints made by Goya over a period of ten years in his response to the French Peninsular War. They’re really visceral, and I don’t think anyone had made work like that before, on that level, to that degree, in art history. And in a way they’re very contemporary. And, I see Goya as the beginning of modern art.

Goya was obviously very interested in people. All you have to do is look at his portraits and you can tell he’s really interested in human beings. A lot of great artists are, they’re interested in the human condition and human beings, how they look, what psychic connections there are between us, their personalities and so on. You just have to look at his work and it’s clear he’s really, really interested in that.

Especially in warfare, these are human beings in extreme heightened states, often dead, you can’t get more extreme than that. And so it would make sense that that would be something he would gravitate towards and be concerned by and want to document. I suppose a lot of war art is a bearing of witness, you bear witness. That usually speaks more, for me, much more clearly than anything a contemporary artist could go and make.

I did a piece about the war in Iraq. I never went there. I was always advised not to go basically by people ’cause it was so dangerous. But I did get a car from Baghdad. I actually towed it around America with an Iraqi citizen and an American soldier and we just talked to people about the car and about the war and so on, and we just stopped off at places almost randomly through the south, through Republican states, this was in 2009. Just to see what people’s reaction would be to it.

[Passer-by:] I think it’s wonderful that you guys are bringing reality to us. People can actually, instead of seeing it on TV and seeing what’s happening out there, who don’t have family that has ever been out there, they see what is actually happening. Like that car is totally destroyed! I don’t even know what kind of vehicle it is. And it was destroyed at a marketplace? That’s horrible.

The work was called, It Is What It Is (2009). Which is sort of a pointless title in a way. It’s something that’s used as a phrase, it’s used in the army a lot apparently, which is how we came across it. It was a kind of show and tell. Dragging this relic of a war through a country. It was there to raise conversations, to start conversations, so yes it was a provocation. Which is in a way – elicits a response. Questions like, ‘what’s this doing here?’ basically. ‘What is it?’ ‘Why did you bring it here?’  And I think every time you do something, you’re trying to what art is, and what it can do a little bit further ahead. So it’s a study of humanity, of conflict, of politics, of social change. You find out about different societies.  It’s more than just looking at paintings, it’s actually about why things were happening reflected through art. It’s the study of the world basically.

With thanks to

14-18 NOW


Creative Time

Imperial War Museum

Somerset House




AP Archive

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Footage Farm

Huntley Film Archives Ltd

Imperial War Museum

Museo Nacional del Prado

National Theatre

The New Museum




The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

The National Theatre of Scotland



Audio Network

9 Lives


Full list of images shown: 


We’re Here Because We’re Here, 2016

Jeremy Deller with Rufus Norris

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW


The Battle of Orgreave, 2001

Jeremy Deller, dir. Mike Figgis

Commissioned by Artangel


The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781

John Singleton Copley, 1783

Photo © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)


The Battle of Passchendaele

Unknown, 1917

Imperial War Museum © IWM 158 (Reel 2)


The Surrender of Breda

Diego Velázquez, c.1635

© Museo Nacional del Prado


Fighting between police and striking miners at Orgreave

Unknown, 1984

Huntley Film Archives Ltd 37350


The same (Lo mismo)

Disasters of War, no. 3

Francisco Goya, 1810-1820, pub. 1863

© Museo Nacional del Prado


Bury them and keep quiet (Enterrar y callar)

Disasters of War, no. 18

Francisco Goya, 1810-20, pub. 1863

© Museo Nacional del Prado


For a clasped knife (Por una nabaja)

Disasters of War, no. 34

Francisco Goya, 1810-20, pub. 1863

© Museo Nacional del Prado


They do not arrive in time (No llegan á tiempo)

Disasters of War, no. 52

Francisco Goya, 1810-20, pub. 1863

© Museo Nacional del Prado


The women are courageous (Las mugeres dan valor)

Disasters of War, no. 4

Francisco Goya, 1810-20, pub. 1863

© Museo Nacional del Prado


A heroic feat! With dead men! (Grande hazaña, con muertos)

Disasters of War, no. 39

Francisco Goya, 1810-20, pub. 1863

© Museo Nacional del Prado


It is what it is: Conversations about Iraq

Jeremy Deller, 2009

Video by Benjamin Brown

Commissioned by Creative Time and The New Museum


Death of Captain James Cook

George Carter, 1783

The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum



John Singer Sargent, 1919

Imperial War Museum

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