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Review: Jeremy Deller, with Metal Liverpool: With a Little Help from my Friends (Brian Epstein Died for You)

Jeremy Deller, with Metal Liverpool: With a Little Help from my Friends (Brian Epstein Died for You)
Posters around Liverpool all summer 2017

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Brian Epstein Died for You’, a blasphemous sentiment parodying Jesus Died for You, is plastered to walls around Liverpool City Centre. However you feel about this particular fly-posting spree you can be fairly confident the person next to you feels differently.

With three days to reflect on the posters, Liverpool’s reactions have been mixed to say the least. We put out some pictures on Twitter (@artinliverpool) and it was clear that some see the work as a disrespectful take on mental illness, making Epstein a figure head for a cause that perhaps misunderstood the way pop-culture contributed to his death. Other responses have claimed it to be a crude repatriation of religious phrasing. Mostly though, people see it as a celebration of Brian Epstein and his often overlooked contribution to the success of the four scousers who reached superstardom.

The main poster is up on a billboard on Erskine Street, visible from West Derby Road and parts of Kensington, out toward Everton, and driving up Islington out of the City Centre. The billboard is seen by around 20,000 people every day, so it will be fairly apparent fairly quickly how well this contribution to the Sgt Pepper at 50 festival goes down.

The festival is dedicated to the album’s legacy, but most importantly, to its origins. Origins which are very much within the people of Liverpool, and the city itself. The album’s shape was partly down to Epstein too so these potters are a fundamental part of this festival.

The artist behind this work, Jeremy Deller, is a Turner Prize winner who has represented Britain at Venince Biennale. One of his first big solo exhibitions was at Bluecoat, and Tate Liverpool hosted his work early and, in his own words, he has “always had this vague obsession with Brian Epstein because of his role in popular culture, as the manager of The Beatles.”

The explanation the artist offers probably sheds a little more light on why there is such a mixed reaction to this work, so immediately: “I don’t think he’s ever been properly credited for his role within popular culture. And he paid the ultimate price for that. He effectively became a martyr for pop music, dying for its cause so that it could live. ‘Brian Epstein died for you’ is also a phrase that can potentially offend so many different people in so many different ways, and I like its blasphemous quality.”

In 1994, early on his career as an artist, he actually started the ball for this project, albeit in the wrong city. Brian Epstein Died for You, was exhibited on London Streets, in road signage in ’94, and in ’95 the artist entered a eulogy in the Telegraph: “EPSTEIN. – BRIAN SAMUEL. Aug. 27, 1967. Remembered this day and every day. J.” The phrase ‘Brian Epstein Died for You’ has been part of Deller’s work since then.

The work isn’t a stretch for Deller, though he his perhaps better known for video and installation art, who has been leaning towards physical poetry in some form for most of his career. Installations of his work on fly-posted walls go back to 2014, when he clad Crate, a former-printworks-turned-gallery in Kent with ‘English Magic Re-Mix’ posters. That was a clear response to the gallery’s history, but the fly-posting continued afterwards, regularly driving a desire to put words out in public view.

It was far earlier when his love for simple poetry became clear though. Short statements, often fiddling with fixed sentiments. “What Would Neil Young Do?” (2006) was a poster giveaway at Frieze Art Fair, which, just like these Brian Epstein memorials, took words of religious origin and twisted them into something that served a new purpose. But other word works can be seen by the artist as early as 1991.

Wander the streets of Liverpool, look out for fly-posted signs, or look up in Lime Street Station, glance out of the car on Islington. Or just take stock of the statement. However you engage with the idea that Epstein died for you, your judgement is an absolute part of this city wide installation.

It might be provocative, it might be inspired, it might be obsessive, but whatever it is, it’s in Liverpool. And that’s where this should be raised.