'What the Hell Are You Doing?' This Is the David Shrigley Universe. Do You Want to Go There?

Gabrielle Malcolm

If art is meant to be creative and communicate ideas, that then prompt ideas and imaginative scenarios in the heads of others, then Shrigley makes art. If that is what art is.

What the Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Price: $35.00
Author: David Shrigley
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-10

Squiggles, or ‘Shriggles’. That’s what you can call them. Some are. Some are concepts or mottos for life – written in pen on a scrap of paper. Some things are sculpture. Things and Shriggles. Shrigley’s universe. The Shrigleyverse. Do you want to go there?

David Shrigley tapes a note, handwritten on cardboard, to a lamp post underneath a blob of clay in the shape of a little head. It reads: ‘Notice’ – While you are reading this there is a man in one of the windows high above you who is taking your photograph. He will make a wee model of you and put it with other wee models of other people. Then he plays weird games with them.’

So be prepared. If you enter Shrigley’s world then weird games happen, the exact nature of which are left to our imagination. If art is meant to be creative and communicate ideas, that then prompt ideas and imaginative scenarios in the heads of others, then Shrigley makes art. It works. But that’s only if that is what art is. And we do not know what we all mean by art and so we can all relate when Shrigley captions ‘Artists Talk About Their Work’ with:

‘Artist: I went around town and asked dossers if I could buy their underpants from them. I got six pairs for £5 each and used them for my show in France.’

‘Artist: I go around bars at the weekends and deliberately get into fights and get my head kicked in while a friend of mine videos it.’

Shrigley appears to be popping the bubble of pretentiousness and wind-baggery in the art world. But simultaneously he appears to be adding to it with some of his own comments and conceptual pieces: such as the stuffed animals bearing placards that read ‘I’m Dead’. He is both thumbing his nose at the art establishment and also bearing witness to its necessary (evil?) existence. His work is mundane and simultaneously troubling, and what writer Will Self in the introduction calls ‘terrifyingly archaic’. By this he means that ‘Shrigley-world’, in his view, is populated with ‘demons and bogey-beasts’, and ‘stick-figure shamans’.

Shrigley is a Midlands-born artist, who trained at Glasgow’s School of Art. He is more Gen-X than existentialist, more about plumbing the depths of the sub-conscious than scaling the heights of the sublime. Never have more unaccomplished looking doodles signified so much, however. Endowed with a shamanistic quality they are reminiscent of Neolithic cave drawings, or Egyptian hieroglyphs (especially when his figures are drawn stiff-limbed and in profile).

But funny – mostly funny. The effort seems minimal, until you get to the beautifully polished and carved headstone he has photographed, which reads ‘Bread, milk, cornflakes, baked beans, tomatoes, aspirin, biscuits,’ or the small Mexican Day of the Dead skull, perfectly carved from a raw potato.

So, above all, Shrigley is contradictory and surprising. Just when you think he is being ‘fnarr, fnarr’ and oh-so-ironic, or clever-clever sending up the orthodox view; he will then come out with a bleak, bitter, nihilistic statement that pulls you up short.

I will finish on an appropriate Schrigley-ism: ‘My only task is to fill the page. You have not been given a task.’


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