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.