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

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge