David Shrigley: Brain Activity

by Sue Hubbard

Until 13th May 2012, Hayward Gallery, London

The term black humour was first coined by the Surrealist André Breton in his 1940 anthology of texts, which traces the literary history of the satire of death. In 1896 Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist play Ubu Roi ushered in Surrealism which created a platform for political and psychological disruption against the events of the early 20thcentury, particularly the atrocities of the First World War. Satire provided a way of facing death as well as subverting authoritarian thinking.

Ds5aAbsurdist humour forms the basis of David Shrigley’s art practice. His drawings with their dead-pan one line jokes, his videos and taxidermy have created a whole new category that sits somewhere between popular culture and fine art. It’s as if the jottings of a nerdy comic loving teenager had been plastered round the Hayward Gallery. Some of his drawings are very funny indeed: the pair of feet that says ‘clap your hands’, the wall painting of a man where his ankle has been labelled ‘tooth’, and his penis ‘chimney’. Or the sign high on the gallery wall that simply reads: Hanging Sign. Yet as I write this down something is stripped away. It just doesn’t sound so funny – but it is. Often it is simply the tension between the object, the context and the text, the stating of the obvious in a way that’s never quite obvious until Shrigley does it, that creates the humour. There is also something very English about it. His are the sort of jokes you might find in those old school boy comics the Dandy and the Beano or in Monty Python.

A course in Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s and early 1990s seems an unlikely springboard for such zany work. Yet it appears to have provided a sense of context for his absurdist interventions. Leisure Centre (1992) depicts a white flimsy cardboard box with a cut-out door on which he has written LEISURE CENTRE. Placed in the middle of a muddy building plot it implicitly comments on the paucity of local authority services. Another placard stuck in dry ground announces RIVER FOR SALE, whilst a sheet of paper pinned to a tree simply reads: LOST. GREY+WHITE PIDGEON WITH BLACK BITS. NORMAL SIZE. A BIT MANGY-LOOKING. DOES NOT HAVE A NAME. CALL 2571964. The bathos and pathos of this little narrative are almost worthy of Sam Beckett.

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Necessary Luxury

by Dave Munger

Sculpture4It's almost impossible to come up with a pithy statement summarizing the age-old struggle to define “art” and “artist.” Yet for my stepbrother Mark, for whom daily existence is a struggle, wrestling with these concepts takes on a new dimension.

I can still remember scoffing in my Intro to Art class in college, when the professor told us about objets trouvés and showed us works like Duchamp's Fountain—an unmodified urinal displayed as art. That's not art, I muttered to myself. If I can do it, it's definitely not art. Picking up some random object and putting it in a museum does not make something art. Art is something more than that (Of course, maybe it's not, but at the time I was quite convinced I was right).

When we were kids, Mark was always picking up sticks and shaping them into amazing things. I was particularly fond of a knotted piece of driftwood that he carved into a hydroplane with his pocketknife. Hydros are like Seattle's version of stock car racing, and here Mark had transformed a bit of flotsam into something any ten-year-old would love.

Eventually one of his parents gave him a set of real carving tools, and he started to make sculptures out of wood. “Wood is interesting to me because it had a previous existence,” Mark says. “Then it ends up dying and being made into something completely different. What it went through in its life affects how it grows, which affects what you can make out of it.” Mark created the sculpture above to represent metamorphosis; as you rotate it, the magical person he's depicted seems to change, to lose its skin and express its inner self. But the act of creating the carving mimicked the work itself (or is it the other way around?), as he transformed a piece of wood into into a work that expressed what he wanted.

The more difficult transition, the one he's still struggling with, is making himself into an artist. It's something I share with him, because I struggle with it too. The differences between the two of us are primarily due to chance. I've never had the physical ailments he's had, and unlike me, he wasn't lucky enough to marry someone who can support the irregular career of an aspiring artist (Once again, we're back to definitions—you can of course dispute whether a writer is an artist).

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