Interview with David Shrigley

Scotsman
November 8, 2004

Mid-afternoon, once we’ve swapped the rocky ground of question and answer for conversation and laughter, it occurs to the interviewee to wonder what happens if you put a computer CD into the CD player? White noise issues from the speakers, and a look of pure delight crosses his face. The CD sleeve carries a customer service number. “I wonder if you phone them up, do you get this sound....”

Welcome to the world of David Shrigley.

Even if you don’t know the name, the chances are you’ll have seen his work. Maybe years ago, when he was a cartoonist for the List and the Independent on Sunday, or recently in a gallery (no round-up of the happening names in Scottish art is complete without him). Or you’ve caught the video he made for Blur’s latest single, or picked up one of his books... And if you’ve seen his work, the chances are you’ll have thought ‘that looks like it was drawn by a 12-year-old’ – but a 12-year-old highly attuned to the cultural static.

Shrigley does careless, funny drawings accompanied by messy handwriting with frequent spelling mistakes and crossings-out. He is an artist whose work does not look like Art. In this way he pleases the people who feel baffled and excluded by much contemporary art, and he pleases the critics who appreciate the conceptual cleverness of what he is doing. It sounds gimmicky and formulaic, a joke which would quickly wear thin, but somehow it’s not like that. In that ‘somehow’ lies his claim to Art.

Gulled by the work, I was expecting a speccy geek in an untidy bedsit, not a gigantic golden boy: six foot six, rosy-cheeked, rosebud-lipped. He lives in a white-painted flat in Glasgow’s West End: the sort of airy, aspirational space that gets photographed in glossy magazines. A work-in-progress on his desk proclaims ‘KILL YOUR PETS’, but you know he doesn’t mean it. Shrigley’s art is often described as “bleak”, ranging across a spectrum of fear, anxiety, boredom and rage. Yet even in the most disturbing images there’s a tension between the violence and a certain, well, wholesomeness. His drawings represent interruptions of order, not limitless chaos. In this way they have a sort of sweetness.

In the days before he got bored with environmental art he used to specialise in notices. One, attached to a lamppost, appealed for the return of a lost pigeon (“normal size, a bit mangy looking, does not have a name”). Another, placed in front of the ‘Armadillo’ concert hall in Glasgow, read “Ignore this building.” Then there was the filofax bearing the legend “Please do not return this to me as I do not want it back”. It was, of course, returned.

He has just published two books, the entirely fictional autobiography Who I Am and What I Want, and Yellow Bird with Worm. The latter is a collection of drawings presented like a toddler’s picture book. The images include a bear surrounded by the blood and body parts of the person it has just dismembered, blue birds perching on a spiky cactus prettily streaked with their blood, an acid green mutant emerging from the vagina of a many-legged monster (“the miracle of birth”), and a blue squirrel called Timmy opposite five “pigeons Timmy has fucked” (Elaine, Fuckwing, Spam, Bernard and Little-Miss-Turd-Eater).

Did he choose the childish format to nudge his art into a territory we might call “sick”? He looks nonplussed. “I’ve made this kind of work for so long that I don’t really think about it.” Put like that, he can see it’s a bit twisted, but he was seduced by the high production values. Anyway, he rallies: “All types of violence and mayhem and perversity are very appealing to children.” Appealing to children is one thing; sharing their outlook, quite another. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s trying to represent the inner child. “I’m an adult: it’s an adult voice. I’m not trying to pretend I’m six-years-old. I actually think what I’m doing is quite sophisticated graphically, compared to faux naif drawings. I do it eight hours a day, five days a week. I’m searching for something and I do it with great intent, even though I don’t know exactly what it is I’m searching for.”

Knife: what’s for dinner?
Fork: soup

is a typical Shrigley artwork (albeit lacking his trademark beheadings, mutilations, copulating dogs, erect penises, etc). It’s also a fair summary of what happens when you try to interview the artist. Offer him a theory of how his work might function and his face acquires a resistant look. It’s not just that theorising is irrelevant to what he does: it’s potentially inimical. He is an artist who mines the rich seam of the unconscious in a repeated, deliberate, even systematic way. There’s always the risk that the process will implode under the weight of its own contradictions.

The misspellings and scorings-out are mostly genuine but also, he concedes, a bit of a mannerism. He wants the work to contain everything – humour, insight, ambiguity, melancholy – but also to be as uncontrived as possible. It is spontaneous, he insists, but it’s a complicated form of spontaneity. “My working method is probably one of just trying to convince myself that I’m not making art work, that it’s an elaborate form of doodling.” Something happens between the mind and the pen which cuts out conscious thought-processes. “It’s like trying to take your eye off it, get it to go out of focus for a bit.” He never does the same drawing twice. If a work is not right, it gets discarded. “Everything’s got to be exactly as it happens, otherwise it’s no good.”

An hour or so into our meeting I stop trying to interview David Shrigley about his work and a certain tension in the atmosphere lifts. The politely resistant artist emerges as a droll raconteur and mimic. He starts smiling. Best of all, every story seems an artistic parable.

He once took part in a panel discussion of nihilism at the ICA in London. It was a nightmare. “I didn’t really know anything about nihilism but they’re: ‘it doesn’t matter.’ I forgot my slides. I was talking to my brother-in-law and he said ‘get a flip chart, do a Win, Lose or Draw thing.’ It went down like a reggae band at a Ku Klux Klan convention. I thought it’d be very entertaining and they’d be very sympathetic, but the other artists turned really nasty towards me.

“This guy in the audience started on about how he hated contemporary art and how we were all rubbish. The rest of the audience started going ‘yeah, yeah, it’s rubbish, you’re rubbish, you don’t know anything about nihilism.’ There was this guy with leggings and rollerblades: I said ‘if you wanted to be entertained you should have gone to Starlight Express, you idiot.’ It all descended into horrible abuse between the audience and the artists.” Lest I’m in any doubt, he adds “I’m not a nihilist.”

But even if he had been, it’s inconceivable that he could have got his ideas across in such a setting. The essence of Shrigley’s ‘somehow’ is lightness of touch, apparent inconsequentiality, free association. He shuns the conventional grid of action and reaction for an alternative web of connections. ‘Genius’ is one word for this sort of thinking, ‘madness’ another. He spends a lot of time assuring journalists that it’s perfectly normal to have such a warped sense of humour, even a sign of mental health. Though, “if I heard people spouting about how mentally healthy they were, I’d think they were just about to grab the machine gun and run into Woolworths.”

In an interview two years ago he admitted to believing that the attack on the Twin Towers was triggered by him losing his car keys. Reminded of this, he concedes that he may have been mistaken, yet he’s reluctant to dismiss it altogether. “At some level I felt there’s some kind of butterfly flapping its wings in China aspect to the world. It sounds irrational, but when you analyse it, it makes perfect sense.” He laughs. “I suppose if you probe anyone deep enough you’ll find they’re a bit of a spanner one way or another. I’m no different from anyone else.”

To an extent he’s right: we’ve all had some such whimsical notion. That’s why even his most surreal drawings ring distant bells. But where others shrug off these fancies, he nurtures them and turns them into art.

A few biographical facts about David Shrigley. He is 35. He had a happy childhood in a “mean kind of redbrick suburb of Leicester.” He was into art and football. His parents are more interested in A Touch of Frost and PD James. His father was an evangelical Christian. Young David could not understand how Jesus could be crucified at the age of 33 when he was born at Christmas and died at Easter. He attended the local comprehensive, where he liked the teachers but not the kids – though he wasn’t particularly a misfit. He believes there is a supernatural side to life. He is a jolly person when he’s in a good mood. Glasgow School of Art awarded him a 2:2 in his finals.

If I were to impose a grid on the delicate web that is the world of David Shrigley, I’d say that his art evolved partly as an expression of his personality and partly in reaction to his experience at art school. It’s no accident that his drawings appear untutored. Until two or three years ago he also made highly-crafted sculptures (steel flip-flops, giant candles, fibreglass handbags etc). Then he decided to stop making objects that took longer than a day. Craft skills can be a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, he says. “‘I’ve learned something at art school. You can’t do this, I can.’ After a while I realised craft isn’t something I’m interested in and probably hides the things I am interested in.”

His final grade stung back in 1991, but now he says the examiners did him a favour. “I’ve always had a massive ambition to do something creative and have never really doubted myself. Getting a 2:2 really made me very determined to make something of my creative talents.” Since he didn’t seem to have what it took to be an artist, he decided to become a cartoonist, but the newspapers he approached were unimpressed. Then one of his friends said he preferred the doodles in Shrigley’s sketchbook to his worked-up cartoons and Shrigley realised he felt the same.

For four years he published his own books under the banner of The Armpit Press. “It was art, but it was a long time before I started calling it art.” Meanwhile he paid the rent working in a gallery, doing DIY and film extra work, and performing with the site-specific cabaret group Mischief La Bas. “I’d have to go to some e-fuelled techno club, stand there in my underpants and get covered in spaghetti.” In 1995 he was approached by an art publisher and invited to exhibit at the Transmission Gallery, and his career took off.

These days he’s a cult figure who is offered far more work than he could possibly manage. Exhibitions, books, magazines... He counts David Byrne, Will Self, Shirley Manson, and now Blur among his fans. The record company hated the video, he remarks. (Something to do with the squirrel biting off the fairy’s head, perhaps? Or the loud leaf-blower sound effect intruding over the song?) Luckily Damon Albarn made a stand for artistic integrity.

There was a time when he said no to the advertising work, but the admen went ahead and ripped off his style anyway. “It’s the worst of both worlds: everybody thinks you’ve done it and you don’t get remunerated. I’m a bit of a lefty and everything but I just think, fuck it, if somebody’s going to get paid it might as well be me.”

By the end of our afternoon together David Shrigley has almost convinced me that he is, indeed, perfectly normal: no different from anyone else. Then I go home and open one of his books, and laugh.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications