British artist David Shrigley unleashes his waggish works on Christchurch

by Sally Blundell / 19 April, 2017
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Famous for his giant bronze thumbs-up in Trafalgar Square, artist David Shrigley has brought Lose Your Mind to New Zealand.

British artist David Shrigley is seriously jet-lagged. He is a Virgo – “a pain in the arse, always lingering around the stationery store” – and, according to his Twitter profile, “likes pens, rulers, etc”.

Bleary from a long flight from his adopted hometown of Glasgow, he walks me through the result of the “etc” in the appropriately named Lose Your Mind touring exhibition at Christchurch’s Centre of Contemporary Art gallery.

“It’s very inconsistent work,” he muses. “A lot of my work looks like a group exhibition; especially if you take the drawings out, it does look like a group exhibition.”

It is an expansive show, a selection of work from 22 of the 25 years since Shrigley left the Glasgow School of Art in the early 1990s, at the beginning of the Young British Artists hegemony, to peddle books of drawings printed on a photocopier for £3.50 each at the local pub. Since then, the Turner Prize nominee has worked on an opera libretto and in video, music, animation, print-making, photography and sculpture. Last year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled Shrigley’s Really Good, a colossal bronze thumbs-up with elongated thumb, on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth – it’s an ambiguous symbol for ambiguous times.

“Three phases of things happened: the Scottish referendum, which wasn’t such a bad thing; Brexit, which was a disaster as far as I was concerned; and Donald Trump, which is an unmitigated disaster and who knows what horrors are yet to come. It’s interesting times to be an artist.”

Cynical times?

“I’m not a big fan of cynicism – irony yes, cynicism no. There’s enough cynicism in the world. I think art has to be something hopeful. Maybe you can be cynical and hopeful at the same time – I don’t know. But I like comedy. I like irony. I’m interested in trying to achieve some kind of slippage of meaning between words and pictures.”

Most commonly, this uniquely Shrigleyan slippage is expressed through drawing, an incessant output of handwritten capitalised text (“ONE SHOE IS NO GOOD”, “IT’S OK TO USE FOUL LANGUAGE”, and, beneath a drawing of a pony-tailed girl, a memorable “DON’T TOUCH IT”) and crudely drawn pan-faced, pupil-less figures. From diaristic commentary to what he describes as “gonzo conceptualism”, this throng of images has swarmed across newspaper cartoons – the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman – and gallery walls with the obsessiveness of a marker-pen and black-book-carrying teen and the graphic sophistication of an astute and funny artist.

The clunky drawn-ness of the hapless figures and wobbly text extends to his sculpture – a set of ceramic boots, pointy-toed and irregular; an ostrich, strangely logical in its heedless headlessness; a 400m coiled sausage of clay, drying and cracking in excremental excess – all cartoonish in their scale and irregularity.

“I see maybe the sculptural work as more like the illustration of a drawing,” he says – “maybe” and “perhaps” are frequently used. “Drawing is at the centre of what I do, but the sculptural work is an expanded version of some of the ideas in the work.”

Like the obsessive doodler confronted by a blank page, Shrigley works to cover the given space. A stretch of wall is filled with a map of the gallery and a handwritten list of works – “A work that isn’t a work,” he says, “an artwork that isn’t an artwork. I guess I just make artwork to fill the requisite amount of space.”

Elsewhere, a single black dot occupies an otherwise vacant wall.

“I loved being able to make a work like that. It could have been made by any number of artists, but in mine it means something very different – it means something I dragged out of the clever world into my stupid world.”

In another area, a series of drawings done by others of a model made then destroyed by Shrigley surrounds a vacant plinth. We see what the drawing class did, not what they saw – there is no way of knowing which is “right”.

“I am interested in this – it is about the importance of drawing, the function of drawing and memory.”

How did this combination of profound ideas wrapped up in a bald-faced, hand-drawn, seeming artlessness – Shrigley’s “gonzo conceptualism” – go down with his art-school teachers?

“I didn’t have a lot of good critical tuition at art school, but I felt supported by my teachers – they took note of my subsequent success.”

As did his parents. Initially worried about his apparent joblessness, they watched an hour-long Channel 4 documentary in 2003 on their son.

“And they changed their minds. Suddenly, overnight, ‘We know exactly what it is you do.’ And they seemed to know an awful lot of contemporary art, which they never knew about before. To complete the circle, I think I need to see a documentary about them.”

LOSE YOUR MIND, by David Shrigley, CoCA, Christchurch, until May 28.

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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