David Shrigley: Art has become about the richest 1 per cent and what they buy

Winning the Turner Prize would matter to "my mum and dad and to the commercial galleries that represent me."

David Shrigley is one of six artists in contention to make a work for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square for 2015 and 2016. His submission, “Really Good”, is a giant hand making a thumbs-up gesture. He is also nominated for this year’s Turner Prize. Work by the four nominees is on display in Derry-Londonderry as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations until 5 January 2014.

Are you an artist or a cartoonist?

I’d call myself both. If I’m working on paper, then I’m more of a cartoonist but if it’s a sculpture, then I’m an artist.

Can you draw?

I know how to draw – I was taught how to draw, though I’ve never been very good at it. So kind of yes and no. I could impress you if you couldn’t draw but I have very limited skills, for a professional artist.

Are you an insider or an outsider?

I’m very much an insider. I don’t think you can be nominated for the Turner Prize and be an outsider.

Do you ever fear you will dry up?

I never have so far but I do fear I might get bored doing what I’m doing. If I do, I might become a professional dog walker instead.

What do you think about all the Shrigley merchandise – cups, T-shirts, postcards?

Why don’t I make more money out of it? I don’t get paid by the people who make it, which is irritating. But then, if an image of mine works on a T-shirt or whatever, that’s all good. It doesn’t diminish it. If you put a Matisse painting on a greeting card, it diminishes it – but not one of my drawings.

What do you want from your Fourth Plinth entry?

I want the commission. Britain is full of civic spaces but Trafalgar Square is unlike any other civic space I can think of. The debate around contemporary art is often tedious, but not around the Fourth Plinth. The debate around the Turner Prize is “promoted” to get people who may not even like contemporary art to see the exhibition but your view about the Fourth Plinth is relevant because it stands in a civic space – so real people’s reactions matter. Also, potentially I get to make a massive sculpture. That’s exciting.

Would winning the Turner Prize matter?

It would matter to my mum and dad and to the commercial galleries that represent me. And it would matter to my ego. At a certain time in your career, the prize would make a really big difference – 12 years ago for me, perhaps, but less so now. But maybe I’m just telling myself that for when I don’t win.

How many drawings do you make a day?

If I dedicate a day to them, I can knock out about 30 with a 25 per cent success rate. Fewer than ten would make it into a frame. I tear the rest into pieces and put them in the recycling – and I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to the New Statesman. I don’t feel I need to justify myself to you.

Do you collect art?

One ends up acquiring it. Other artists you’ve shared a flat with leave it behind. And then, when you have a bit of money . . . My wife has a habit of going to openings, charity things mostly, and getting drunk and buying pictures that end up in my studio when she sobers up.

Do you like fame?

No, I don’t. I’ve been on the telly a few times and I occasionally get recognised in Waitrose. I find it really intimidating.

Is humour always appropriate?

I think it is. Comedy is important in life. You can, of course, say the wrong thing at the wrong time but there’s always potential for comedy in every situation. But one wouldn’t want to bloody well offend anyone.

You are a musician as well as an artist. Do you wish you had followed that path more?

No, I think as a visual artist, you’re in your prime in your forties. As a rock star, you are way past it by then. That would be depressing. The fact that I’m in my mid-forties has nothing to do with it.

What do you make of the contemporary art world?

It’s a mixed bag. So many people make a good living out of contemporary art that you can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable. I suppose it mirrors the massive inequality within capitalist society – it’s about the richest 1 per cent and what they buy.

Are you political?

Yes. Everyone’s political. You can’t avoid it – or political debate, especially when you live in Scotland right now. [Shrigley studied at the Glasgow School of Art and has lived in the city for 20 years.] As an Englishman, I’ve only been treated differently during the World Cup or when other football is on and I’m in the pub. People make value judgements.

Scottish nationalism has an unpleasant side to it but I’ve never suffered racial abuse in a tangible way. I’d stay if Scotland became independent. I’m not going anywhere – except on holiday.

Why are you so fascinated with death?

It’s not just me. It is human to ponder the finite nature of life. I don’t think I’m obsessed with it. Death and some of the other themes in my work – violence and sexual perversion, for instance – are a bit taboo but they are sources of comedy, too, so naturally I want to touch on those things.

One of your best-known works is a stuffed Jack Russell holding a sign saying, “I’m dead.” Do you like dogs?

I like dogs very much. I have a dog. My recent work is positively pro-dogs. If I lost my dog, I’d be pretty upset. I wouldn’t have it stuffed, though. It would be pretty traumatic to have my little companion hanging around. If you’re going to have taxidermy in your home, make it the pelt of a stranger.

Life Model 2012 (Installation) Copyright David Shrigley, Tate Photography: Lucy Dawkins

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge