After a busy week, I decided to pop to the Hayward Gallery’s late night on Friday to see their new David Shrigley exhibition.
The Hayward Gallery. Own photograph.
The Hayward has deviated from their norm for this exhibition. Firstly, after showing your ticket at the main door, you enter via the lift (the attendant and I shared a baffled glance while I waited for it to arrive) which is filled with Monkeys – Shrigley’s spoken word installation. It’s slightly claustrophobic but effective and dramatic. Shrigley is that bit different; people are forced to do as he wishes and he is very much guiding our viewing. And so I arrived at the upper galleries ready to be led wherever the artist wanted to take me.
Installation view of David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery. Image courtesy of the Hayward Gallery and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
Shrigley is known for his sense of humour, which is often rather warped, but there is no denying that his witty comments on everyday life are funny. Brain Activity, which includes 68 new works made especially for the show, is the first major survey of Shrigley’s work to span the full range of his varied media – drawings, sculpture, taxidermy, animations, films, paintings…
David Shrigley, Very Large Cup of Tea, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
At the Glasgow School of Art, he wasn’t considered a serious artist and he left with a 2:2. He was already antagonised by the establishment because they felt his artwork was inappropriate and more cartoonish than fine art. So, on leaving the GSA, he became a cartoonist – not to take heed of them but to escape the environment and the people who kept degrading and undermining his work. Eventually, he reconsidered and in 1995 his work was featured on the front cover of Frieze magazine. Shrigley had made it, he was somebody.
Given this background, it is natural that Shrigley has little respect for the art world and he has never sought to fit in. A Glaswegian, his sense of humour is often coarse and he has no issue in ‘sticking two fingers up’ at the art institutions that have made him famous. He has a dark humour that comes from a deep sense of frustration and drawing, for him, is a cathartic process. Shrigley isn’t as you’d expect him to be – he’s quiet and polite, clean-shaven and wears socks with his sandals. He works calmly for eight hours a day; he is not the madman that some of his works would suggest.
David Shrigley with his work. Image via www.mydaily.co.uk.
Shrigley appeals to people who aren’t typical art lovers. He produced a weekly cartoon for the Guardian for many years and has also been the political cartoonist for the New Statesman. He doesn’t try to shy away from this and very much has a foot in both camps (cartoon and fine art) – he is overtly commercial and his work is found on t-shirts, badges, cards, duvet covers and tattooed onto the bodies of numerous fans. Cartoons, however, are normally tidy and highly finished whereas Shrigley’s works are usually messy with crossed-out sections and scribbles. His drawings and animations, which play on a range of familiar social subjects and everyday situations, are often awkward and crude while remaining immediate and accessible. He is not a skilled draughtsman nor does he aim to be. For him, drawing is just a method of communicating, writing a message to convey his thoughts.
David Shrigley, Untitled, 2011. Image courtesy of David Shrigley and Yvon Lambert and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
Shrigley is known for producing thousands and thousands of drawings, a corpus currently thought to include more than 7,000 works on paper. There were around 25,000 but he discards a lot. We don’t, however, feel the impact of his relentless scribblings here. There’s not enough on show; the exhibition features around 240 works which may seem like a lot but I wanted more.
Shrigley is absurd: there’s a bell with a card saying ‘not to be rung again until Jesus returns’, a childish painting of a door marked ‘door’, a sign that says ‘hanging sign’ as he plays on the obvious in a comic way, a taxidermied rat placed under a fake wall and ominously visible as you pass by (ick!), and his, now-famous, taxidermied dog holding a placard that says ‘I’m dead’.
David Shrigley, I’m Dead, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
Death and the macabre are frequent themes in Shrigley’s work. A gravestone with the words ‘Bread, Milk, Cornflakes, Baked beans, Tomatoes, Aspirin, Biscuits’ is an ironic take on our day-to-day consumption. Shrigley commented that he prefers to see the humorous side of death as it isn’t something we can avoid. Like me, he’s always been interested in lists and enjoys placing seemingly random information together in a way that forces it to become coherent. His message may often be pessimistic but, notwithstanding this, he’s often able to induce a smile. In the darkest of subjects, there is always some light to be found.
David Shrigley, Gravestone, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
In one of the outside courtyards stands a stick figure. Try to get closer though and you can’t. Shrigley has stuck the door, teasing us. Again, we go where Shrigley tells us to. One room has a fake wall with 12 eggs on top – suggestive of Humpty Dumpty as a small Alice in Wonderland-styled doorway in the wall allows you to see the feet of those passing by (the perfect place to check out the footwear). Again, we want to go there but it’s not that easy. The other courtyard is exhibiting Look at This but we can’t get out there either. Visitors were smearing away condensation from the windows to try to look. The joke is on us.
Some of the works are a bit bland but I think, like a comedy act, this level of humour is impossible to maintain all the time. Brain Activity is actually the best-curated exhibition I’ve seen here in a long while. It has been skilfully planned and lit and really transformed the gallery space. Shrigley has made the Hayward his own.
David Shrigley, Hanging Sign. Image via www.whosjack.org.
While walking round I overheard someone uttering the predictable ‘is it art?’. Although this is something that people often ask of Shrigley, this is now an old and boring question. He thought to do it. They didn’t!
I don’t think Shrigley’s art is funny all the time but I caught myself smiling when I least expected to and, it was nice to see that the exhibition was having the same effect on other people. Like a Mexican wave, a shared joke was moving across the galleries. Shrigley’s aim is not to make people actually laugh – this is just a by-product of his art; using simple mechanisms and objects he seeks to engage people through humour.
David Shrigley, Nutless, 2002. Image via www.thedrawbridge.org.uk.
But (and it’s a big but), the exhibition only takes place upstairs. The ground floors will be given over to the Jeremy Deller exhibition which opens on 22nd February. Fortunately, there’ll be a £10 joint ticket so visitors aren’t expected to pay twice for what is normally one exhibition space but I still felt let down. I was enjoying the exhibition and it finished far too soon.
David Shrigley, Untitled, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
You don’t need to know anything about Shrigley or his practice to enjoy these works. There will be no added pleasure from doing your homework before going to this exhibition. Shrigley’s ‘stuff’ is eclectic to say the least. It shouldn’t be funny but it is. I just wish I’d been given the opportunity to laugh at more. It was good but it wasn’t great as I know that Shrigley could have filled the whole of the Hayward and I’d have come away more satisfied.
David Shrigley: Brain Activity is at the Hayward Gallery until 13th May 2012, www.southbankcentre.co.uk/shrigley.