Looking back at more than 20 years in the business, David Shrigley, one of Britain’s most renowned and loved artists, opens up for an honest dialogue about his work, its meaning and its place in the history of art.
Have you ever been to Shanghai, he asks me straightaway. It’s easy to get an idea of the curious mind behind his unique art in just a few seconds. “It really doesn’t look like it’s in a communist country,” he says. The friendly, calm voice on the other end of the line gives the impression that we could probably keep talking about Shanghai for another half-hour or so.
Shrigley has just arrived back in the UK from another destination on his tour that has been showcasing his art around the world. Over the past two years, the tour has made stops in Mexico, Chile, South Korea, New Zealand and now, last on the list, China. Most famous for his drawings accompanied with text, slogans and puns, Shrigley is an artist who is not particularly easy to get a grip of. His CV lists sculptures, large installations, animations, paintings, photography and music, contributing to a complex description of an artist. Among the many projects that have got the attention of the public, there have been collaborations with musicians including Franz Ferdinand and Blur, and his giant, 7-metre-high thumb, entitled Really Good, in Trafalgar Square, London. “I’ve kind of worked in almost every media there is,” he says, laughing. “Maybe apart from dance, but dance is on its way, you know. I’m sure it will arrive in the future.”
Growing up, his heroes were Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and he took to the pen at an early age. After graduating from art school in the early 1990s, he returned to what he knew best. With limited funds and space, he came to create what soon would be the foundation and centre of his oeuvre. “It was the easiest and most economical way to say what I wanted to say. I have done it for my entire life. I never really intended that it be the centre of my practice, but I realised that it was my thing, so that was what it became,” he says.
After publishing his second book filled with the characteristic drawings, Shrigley ended up on the cover of what he describes as a “fancy” art magazine. “All of a sudden, everyone knew who I was, and that was that.” That was 23 years ago, and his work hasn’t stopped amusing and amazing people. “I never intended to be the ‘go-to guy’ for making funny drawings in the world of fine arts. But I sort of have become that guy,” he says. His style is truly unique in the art world, maybe best described as straightforward and simple, yet magnetic. His pieces are anything but boring – and the process isn’t either, he admits. “I’m trying to amuse myself all the time, not just to make myself laugh, but amuse myself in the sense that I’m trying to get to a place I have never been to before, and trying to do that by just making drawings a lot of the time.”
So is it art? Is it good? And who says so? Shrigley has come to challenge many basic norms of the art world since making his entry more than 20 years ago. Today, he looks at himself, his art and its place in different light. “So, the work is funny. I mean, it’s sort of unique in the world of fine art, in that it genuinely functions as comedy as well as art. It’s been a thing I always end up talking about – making funny art, and can funny art be serious, or taken seriously as art? And it’s a question I don’t really care about any more. Who cares, really? Who cares whether people take it seriously? I mean, people do take it seriously. I drive a brand-new Volvo, so… ” he says before breaking into laughter.
When asked to try to explain the success he has experienced over the years, he laughs again. “I never intended to be a success, but I’m very happy that I am. It was never anything I anticipated, and I really just do what comes naturally. I mean, my job is just to make art that I think is interesting, because I can’t expect anybody else to think it’s interesting unless I do.”
And now, his installation Exhibition of Giant Inflatable Swan-things, created exclusively for the Spritmuseum in Stockholm, is about to open. Unsurprisingly, the installation originates from what Shrigley calls a “bizarre idea”. From a typical Shrigley drawing, giant, three-dimensional swans designed as swimming-pool toys took shape. “There is something weirdly fascinating about changing shapes. Inflation and deflation, there is something about breathing, life and death somehow,” he says in a slightly dreamy voice. While nothing is quite as it seems in Shrigley’s universe, one thing is for sure: watching his work never gets boring.
Art & Photo credits:
#1 Headshot by Craig Gibson
#2 Self-portrait (2018)
#3 Gold-shit (2018)
#4 A Pleasing Situation (2018)
#5 Knock Everything Down (2018)
#6 Lies (2018)
#7 Your Pizza has Arrived (2018)
#8 4th Plint (2017), Photography by Linda Jablonsky