Football in the Work of Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller: Joy in People

at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania

through December 30

by Jeffrey Bussmann

Jeremy Deller: Joy in People is not only a mid-career retrospective of Deller’s work; it doubles as an impressionistic sociopolitical and cultural history of Great Britain in the Nineties and Aughts, as well as other critical moments from earlier decades in the twentieth century. His work likewise reflects the recent history of sport in his home country, namely the emergence of the English Premier League (EPL). It must be remembered that association football (a.k.a. soccer) originated in the mid-Nineteenth Century in England before gradually ascending to the status of the world’s most popular sport. Any expression of English consciousness that excluded football would be grossly incomplete; Deller’s work contains numerous references, though they are not as legible to an average American viewer as they would be to an English audience.


The Premiership was formed in 1992 by the collective decision of the top 22 clubs to break from the then hundred-year-old institution known as the Football League. The years just preceding this radical change (and in fact much of the Eighties) had arguably been the nadir of English football. Deller’s public output began at roughly this same point in time. The ICA exhibition commences with Open Bedroom from 1993, a restaging of the formative show he put on at his parents’ home while he was well into his twenties and still living there. Visitors are invited to open cabinets and drawers in the recreated bedroom, each containing an assortment of knickknacks. One such drawer holds a collection of intriguing “At Home Invitations.”


Deller modeled his invitations after the calling cards used by hooligan firms, which were to be dropped on a fallen enemy after a thrashing. The origin of the practice has been traced to the notorious Inter City Firm (ICF), whose collective image has been codified in popular media representations of football hooliganism.[1] The ICF supports the club West Ham United (counter-intuitively from the east of London) and holds its most bitter rivalry with the Millwall Bushwackers, the firm supporting Millwall F.C. from the south of London. [2] Deller himself hails from the area of Dulwich, also in South London and, from a geographical standpoint, he would have been familiar with this rivalry.


Deller’s customized invitations assume the identity of famed Arsenal, Chelsea, and Millwall hooligan firms (all clubs from within London). Rather than acting as a memento of who has just pummeled you, these cards are a chipper, nearly courtly incitement to rumble. For not only do they resemble hooligan calling cards; they function as twisted society ball invitations. Deller anonymously mailed a number of these cards to aristocratic debutantes. There is something both puckish and insidious about this act. It is possible to consider these an instigation of class warfare, given the working class and industrial roots of many of these football clubs and their supporters. The resonance with his later works The History of the World (1997) and Battle of Orgreave (2001) is unmistakable.


By invoking hooliganism, which reached its violent critical mass in the Eighties, there is also a significant tie to Thatcherism, a legacy that Deller has thoroughly questioned and dissected. Without becoming mired in a historical analysis, it can be said that because of the misdeeds of a minority of rampant hooligans, Margaret Thatcher declared war on all football goers as sternly as she did on striking miners.[3] It was in the wake of this dark phase—punctuated by the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster and the subsequent five year ban of English clubs from participating in European competitions, as well as the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and the police cover-up which wrongfully blamed the victims—that the English Premier League was established.


One of the celebrity football figures from this turbulent period was midfielder Paul Gascoigne (nicknamed “Gazza”) who, although he reached the height of his prowess during this era, narrowly missed the dawn of the Premiership, having been sent in 1992 to the club Lazio in Italy. Gazza was the talisman of the English national team in the early to mid-Nineties, rising in prominence with his standout performances during the Italia ‘90 World Cup. A true original, both brilliant and barmy in spades, he cultivated the image of being a jovial Geordie prankster who let his footwork on the pitch answer critics. He was also a deeply troubled individual whose mental and substance abuse problems eventually caught up with him, damaging his later career and overall health.


In this light, Gazza fits nicely with other pop culture personas celebrated by Jeremy Deller. There is more than a little similarity in trajectory compared with Shaun Ryder and Bez of the Happy Mondays. Gazza even had a novelty chart hit of his own, rapping over a heavily reworked version of folk group Lindisfarne’s song “Fog on the Tyne”. It was around this time that Deller created the series of silkscreened promotional posters for imagined exhibitions, ones by his own admission that he wanted to see realized. A fake poster for The World of Gazza!! at the Museum of Mankind sits next to one for The Art of Baggy (both from 1995).[4] In it, Gascoigne, decked in his Tottenham Hotspur kit, strikes a flippant pose with tongue out, a trademark gesture. Deller has since commented that, in the passing years, these shows that he conjured have in some ways come to be realized. It could be said that Gazza’s life since leaving professional football has played out like a public exhibition. He has put his personal troubles on display in two autobiographies, a documentary television program, and numerous appearances on talk shows.


Now jump ahead nearly fifteen years: Deller’s work and the English Premier League have changed considerably. In nearly every regard, the EPL has become the most valuable football league in the world. With the amount of money at stake, the game cannot afford to have a tarnished image. Embracing the information age and lucrative overseas broadcast rights means that viewership has become global, increasing the number of spectators (this author included). The specter of hooliganism has largely vanished, but it is not completely extinguished. It is more appropriate to say that casual subculture has been pushed underground; one simply cannot ignore the occasional incidents of violence that still bubble to the surface. All-seater football stadia in England, devoid of treacherous terraces, now have the veneer of being more community-friendly environments, exactly what club owners and sponsors crave.


It is interesting, then, that Jeremy Deller chose to include a brigade of football mascots in his Procession (2009) for the city of Manchester. The actual event was a one-off parade, an example of the types of “happenings” that Deller has become known for organizing, presented at ICA in video form in the gallery. The mascots hailed from rival teams across the greater Manchester area, but there was nothing competitive in their parade behavior (aside from this penalty shoot-out promotional video). They formed a unified phalanx, representing the different sporting sympathies of people all across Manchester. If one takes football hooligans as the extreme end of a continuum, people in fuzzy costumes must surely be the polar opposite.


Deller’s obsession with Manchester and Mancunian culture also reflects, perhaps coincidentally, a shift in the balance of geographical power within the Premiership. While Manchester United has been a dominant force throughout the twenty years of the EPL’s existence, it often traded off championship trophy wins with London clubs (either Arsenal or Chelsea). With the arrival of Emirati wealth at the club Manchester City, a chronically underperforming team for ages, football pundits have predicted a period of unmitigated domination by the two largest Manchester Clubs. It remains to be seen what will happen this season, already in progress, let alone in the EPL’s next twenty years (provided the current competition format is retained).


Naturally, after parsing so carefully the references to football embedded in Jeremy Deller’s oeuvre, one begins to wonder: does he support a particular club team? I have not found a statement by the artist claiming any such allegiance. Looking back to his upbringing in Dulwich, he would have had the most exposure to a South London club; but there are fourteen professional clubs peppered throughout all of London. Then again, who is to say whether his preference ranges to a Manchester team? Here, it is informative to refer to the catalogue for Joy in People. In his essay, Stuart Hall[5] writes of Deller, “He does not belong to any political party or sect—he’s not, he says, the ‘joining sort’—though he confesses to be fascinated by them and has clear political sympathies.”[6] It is reasonable to believe this rationale applies equally to his sporting allegiances. But Deller is an untiring champion of common people and things quintessentially English; it would be odd to think that he does not have a tender spot for the Three Lions, if nothing else.



Jeffrey Bussmann is the Assistant Director of Development at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He is a registered supporter of Arsenal F.C. through its America chapter.

[1] Lindsay Eanet, “16 Hardcore Hooligan Firms, Ultras We Wouldn’t Want to Mess with,” Bleacher Report, 15 Nov., 2011

[2] On one of his calling cards, Deller uses the name “Millwall Surgicals,” a reference to the practice of wearing a surgical mask to conceal one’s identity.

[3] Andy Lyons, “Thatcher Attacks Football- 1985-1989,” The Guardian, 17 May, 2009,

[4] “Baggy” is an adjective coined to describe certain music and fashion emanating from the Madchester music scene in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

[5] N.B. This is not Stuart Hall, the veteran BBC football commentator; it is Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist.

[6] Stuart Hall, “Jeremy Deller’s Political Imaginary,” Jeremy Deller: Joy In People, Hayward Publishing, 2012, p. 81.