Thumbs up David Shrigley
British visual artist David Shrigley attempts to rock climb on the Greek island of Hydra and within minutes he draws an appreciative crowd. While he may be improvising for a photo shoot, performing isn’t new to him. Shrigley was an extra in the film Trainspotting.“I didn’t realize it was going to be some iconic film. It was just a job. You don’t actually see my face. My legs are in it. I had a big scene, where I was sitting next to Ewan McGregor and he was talking to some guy, but that character was cut out of the entire film. I was so disappointed.” Since then, Shrigley has become an important figure in contemporary art, known for his comic style line drawings filled with dark conceptual paradoxes. With irony and humour, he generates questions about the role of the artist and the purpose of art, but what is most intriguing about the work is that it allows the viewer to interpret it in a variety of ways.
Shrigley has made a number of striking sculptures, like his giant ceramic eggs with “EGG” written on them, which were part of his first museum retrospective Brain Activity (2012) at the Hayward Gallery in London. “A lot of the work that I make is about the relationship between language and images, text and images.” He points out that the word “egg” is very distinctive, a strange word with its one vowel and two consonants. “And an egg is a very primal thing; it is where life comes from. For me there is some sort of, maybe, slippage of the word and the object. I am interested in that odd relationship. It does not mean anything, but intuitively I am drawn to that. Also an egg is a shape. An oval ovoid shape. I’m just saying it’s an egg, but do you really need to know it’s an egg? Obviously, it’s an egg. You don’t really need to be told that. So, there is also that element to it of telling you things you already know. Why am I telling you?” Shrigley, like Magritte, wants to disrupt how we naturally connect text and images. “I’m very much thinking about Rene Magritte’s painting La trahison des images (1928-9). The image (a pipe) and the words that describe the image (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) are two different things. Objects and ideas are two different things.” Explaining his process, he says that he starts with a list of words. “I look at things in books or things on the Internet and then I try to illustrate the words. By the time I have come to draw those things on that list, I have forgotten what it was that I was looking at. And some more text gets added to it. It’s a process of having a start.”
One such egg decorates the entrance of Dakis Joannou’s summer estate on the island of Corfu in Greece. Collector and founder of the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Joannou is the one who has also invited him to be the 2018 guest artist at Deste’s satellite project space on Hydra, so he is here to look at the site, an old slaughterhouse, and attend this year’s opening hosting American artist Kara Walker. Since he is still not familiar with the geography of the island, I suggest we walk to a nearby café perched on a cliff with views of the Saronic Gulf. Reserved and softly spoken, he reflects. “The art world is a funny bubble, a microcosm of some strange thing, where we all have our little place and we all somehow make a living. Sometimes things are too serious. Comedy for me to some extent is humility, where you accept that the things I am saying maybe they are important, maybe they are not.”
“Comedy for me to some extent is humility, where you accept that the things I am saying maybe they are important, maybe they are not.”
Shrigley grew up in Leicester. “I was one of those children who didn’t need a lot of entertaining. Paper and pencils were enough.” At 19 he moved to Glasgow to study environmental art at the Glasgow School of Art, graduating with a poor mark as his tutors didn’t think he was particularly gifted. “I certainly don’t demonstrate many craft skills in terms of drawing.” He nevertheless kept pursuing his passion taking up at the same time a series of odd jobs. His method has a clear purpose and that is making work for himself. “I am very committed to my work and when I am working I feel most free. I make work that I find interesting, because I don’t think you can expect anybody else to be engaged by what you do unless you are engaged with it yourself. I think it’s essential to do that. You can’t make art just for other people. Otherwise it’s art by committee, which is no good.” Along with drawing and sculpture, he took on a wide range of other pursuits: animations for Pringle of Scotland (a luxury cashmere knitwear brand), record covers for Franz Ferdinand, a pop video for Blur, and many books that became an instant commercial success. Today the 2013 Turner Prize nominee is knocking on the door of a house that is up for rent in Hydra, creating a little playful, figurative narrative.
Another of his poses echoes one of his word art pieces, If I find out who you are I will kill you. The work might seem confessional with motifs drawn from Shrigley’s own life, but he admits it is entirely fictional. “It is definitely not Tracy Emin. . .but through this invented character I am playing there is some catharsis.” Words are used as weapons in the same way that Dadaist artists like Marcel Duchamp used them, but, although rebellious, direct and cynical, Shrigley hopes to convey a positive transformation in art. He has become involved in art therapy for children and supports several mental health causes. “After having been a professional artist for 20 years, I started thinking, “What am I doing? I find it very pleasing that the work can be used to deliver a positive message. Trying to find a purpose for the work is trying to find a meaning for your own life. I am hoping that there is something positive, rather than just some stupid comedy.”
Shrigley does like playing with semiotics, and his sculpture Really Good currently in London’s Trafalgar Square may be his most public statement so far. The bronze cast of a fist with an out-of-proportion thumbs-up was the winning commission for the Fourth Plinth Project, which has been inviting artists since 1999 to make a proposal for the empty plinth, originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV that was never made. “I made a drawing of an elongated thumb that said everything is good and I wrote some text that sounded like some sort of weird political satire: If we make this sculpture, we can make the world a better place through some kind of self–fulfilling prophecy.” Soon he got shortlisted and was asked to make the model. “I thought it was a proposal for a real thing that probably wasn’t going to happen.” He showed it to the jury and forgot all about it, but four years later to his surprise he won.
“I couldn’t remember why I had done it. I realized whilst I was being sarcastic, ‘yeah let’s make the world a better place,’ at the same time I believed it. There was a real paradox there. I started to have the idea that maybe art is to make the world a better place.” However, he considers the piece a work in progress and it’s not until it departs in March 2018 that it will be finished. “This piece is an endorsement of everything, not just of progressive politics as I would like it to be. (Shrigley has been vocally anti Brexit.) It’s an endorsement of good things, bad things, an endorsement of violence and an endorsement of peace, and that’s a strange thing. But, for people to project their own meaning onto it, that is quite exciting.”