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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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