David Shrigley was planning to become a cartoonist. But during his studies at the Glasgow School of Art, he changed direction: happily, without losing any of his humour or renouncing drawing. If, in 2000, he intervened in the daily newspaper The Independent, it was as an artist rather than a hardened satirist. This platform allowed him – the artist – to cast his singular eye of an amateur over the world. By contrast, the caricaturist acts like a journalist and sometimes, even an editor. He has a score to settle with the news. The artist does not.
Born in 1968 in an unremarkable, middle-sized town in the centre of England, David Shrigley decided to stay in Glasgow after art school. It is here that he practises his acuteness and merciless sense of wit. Among the numerous artists issued from this Scottish city’s stimulating art scene (such as Claire Barclay, Douglas Gordon, Jim Lambie, Jonathan Monk, Ross Sinclair, Richard Wright and others) Shrigley is without a doubt the biggest…in height! His almost two metres gives him an impregnable view of contemporary society – its big or small and comic or sordid metamorphoses and breakdowns. A bit like the great industrial city he has chosen to live in, which is constantly swinging between recession and promises of a new prosperity.
Because the dominant culture is obviously urban and so strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon standards, which now vary little from one country to another, the competition between large metropolitan centres seem rather absurd and fictional: the biggest stadium, the tallest building, the largest airports, the greatest museum, etc. Shirgley quickly understood this. Glasgow is the centre of the world but no more and no less so than Paris, Milan or Los Angeles. There is no longer any difference between the vernacular and the universal. What is true for Glasgow is also true for all other western cities. This intimate and infinitesimal sensation provides the artist with much material for drawings, photographs and sculpture and is neither more nor less negligible than a heroic gesture, as long as it inspires in others the memories of similar sensations – be they inappropriate, repressed or simply disagreeable.
If I had to cite one theme in Shrigley’s work, I would be inclined to use tooth decay. One does not die of a tooth cavity. Tooth ache is only a small misery but it quietly digs deeper and can end by poisoning your life. The artist never spills over into pathos but he is not adverse to obsessional outpourings even when this touches the flimsiest of worries. Besides, one often dies in Shrigley’s work. And often by violent means. The absence of pathos does not guard against fate.
Once, I asked the artists about his daily schedule and he answered: “I get up towards 9am in the morning, I go to bed around midnight and in between, I am awake.” His formulation was as laconic as it is efficient. Because when an artist sleeps, is he still an artist? Despite the Surrealists and unless an artist has decided it while he was awake, it is doubtful. After all, a dead artist is no longer really an artist! What do you think?
Shrigley is alive and recently, he diversified his artistic production. Acerbic chronicler of modern life, he is most evident in his drawings in which, between false confessions, real observations and maniac questionnaires, he gives free reign to his black humour. His photographs, which often include writing, are produced more parsimoniously and are centred on the questioning of public spaces. (Question: “Which is better – a tunnel or a bridge?”) His sculptures never reach very large dimensions and are presented as transformed everyday objects, subjected to the treatment of cartoons: a cat’s basket, a nail, a tube of glue… We can also delight in his books, which are collections of his thoughts and drawings. His caustic sense of the absurd is often accompanied by an ostentatious meticulousness, which the artist uses to describe the non-events and those, all too real, of life in the housing estates of urban sprawl. The poor housing estates were once, as we all know, countryside and Shrigley is quick to remind us of this bucolic past: the trees that are reduced to artificial implants in this hostile environment. There are always rivers to sell, fantastic animals and island of wildness in the seedy landscapes that form the background of his work. A powerful imagination is necessary to transform these rubbish dumps into treasures and Shrigley has become a sort of Robinson Crusoe of the badlands who constructs his hut in the urban no-man’s-lands.
The artist’s knowledge of these difficult neighbourhoods is by no means academic. Invited at the end of the last century to do a public commission in a particularly underprivileged area on the periphery of Glasgow, he decided to create a playground. However, as soon as it was opened, it was completely destroyed by its users. The only elements left standing were two feet of a faux-Antique colossus firmly anchored to the earth, which the artist had conceived as a promontory for the neighbourhood children. Shrigley, however, was not unduly discontent with the relentless destruction of his public intervention. For him, the vandalised feet are a true ruin, far removed from the learned public of beautiful sites and old monuments. If we apply the old adage – Charity begins at home – to tourism, we must, in effect, reserve quality landscapes for quality people and compel the others to live underground in order not to denature the most remarkable natural landscapes! Then, what can be done for mutilated sites? If we cannot even stand them in paintings, we must aid them by caricature but like David Shrigley, we must aim correctly.
Insignificant or remarkable things can be said during the installation of an exhibition. Shrigley had never seen such a large amount of his own works in one place as the collection brought together in the summer of 2002 for his exhibition at the Domaine de Kerguéhennec. Nevertheless, he saw this exhibition as a parallel routine to and almost without any effect on his work. Under these circumstances, one should not expect any staggering declarations. The exhibition confirms, it does not endanger and it does not participate in that waking state that under the cover of irresolution, is much more demanding than his joke first suggests. Shirgley is not disinterested by exhibitions. He even has an indisputable skill for hanging his work but he exercises it with a quiet assurance – placing one drawing and object after another like a brilliant DIY expert fitting his own house. He works without any flourish of ingenuity or desire to avoid minor tasks, like cutting out photocopies or retouching the paint on his sculptures… The absence of stress favours dialogue. When I asked what he wanted to do next, he let fall the important word of ‘resolution’ and cited two memorable ones for 2003: learn to speak French and to use Flash animation technology. The five films presented on www.mudam.lu/shrigley are a prolongation of his drawings. But the jury is out as to whether sound will make as much progress as movement. Shrigley now has six months to improve his lamentable French.