Guest Director David Shrigley on Brighton Festival 2018

PUBLISHED: 10:02 22 May 2018

David Shrigley at Brighton Dome Concert Hall (Photo by Victor Frankowski)

David Shrigley at Brighton Dome Concert Hall (Photo by Victor Frankowski)

Victor Frankowski

Turner Prize-nominated David Shrigley hopes to create a slightly surrealist version of Brighton’s annual cultural celebrations

“I have no wish to destroy Brighton Festival – for the record.”

David Shrigley has a reputation as a subverter and satirist – married with a keen sense of fun and dose of black humour. From carving shopping lists on gravestones to taxidermy sculptures of stuffed animals holding up signs saying “I’m dead”, his work can be seen both on greetings cards and in fine art galleries. He put a giant bronze thumbs up on the Trafalgar Square fourth plinth, has designed album covers for Jason Mraz and Malcolm Middleton, and has released a steady stream of books featuring photographs of his sculpture work and his distinctive hand-drawn images, which can both amuse and disturb.

Having moved to Brighton’s Kemp Town in 2015, the 49-year-old is now presiding over his new home city’s annual celebration of culture. “I never anticipated that I would be asked,” he says. “It’s a great honour, and a great opportunity for me to meet a lot of people – to find collaborators and understand the cultural side of the city. I haven’t lived here that long. It feels like a fast-track to being one of the cultural people in the city.” He has already added his own distinct branding to the annual programme, which has been penned in a font based on his handwriting.

“I wrote a big list of acts I wanted to see and luckily a lot of it they were able to put on,” he says. “I have collaborated with the band Deerhoof from San Francisco, and they are playing. Ezra Furman is an artist I really like but have never seen before. The people who are working for the festival are also trying to find something special to bring to Brighton – for me the point of a festival is to find something you’ve never heard of before.”

David’s long-running contribution to the Brighton Festival 2018 programme is Life Model II, which launched at Fabrica on Saturday 14 April. Based around a 9ft tall sculpture of a woman – a companion to a male sculpture David made in 2012 – visitors are encouraged to draw the model in an art class setting. The results are then displayed for visitors to see.

It’s a work which David enjoys staging: “Usually when I make an artwork I spend a lot of time making it, and get totally sick of it,” he says. “I still have a great affection for these because they beget lots of artwork from other people. People are presenting their interpretation of the work and adding to it in that process.”

He experienced a similar feeling with Really Good – his fourth plinth contribution which was unveiled in September 2016 and was only replaced in March by Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. “When people interact with a sculpture the context changes,” says David. “Really Good was almost a work in progress – I really enjoyed the commentary about it, how it became a meeting point, and how people projected their own meanings onto it. It made me understand things about art that perhaps I didn’t understand before. Being able to make a work like that and put it into a space over a time period was a great privilege.”

David is creating a new performance piece for Brighton, based around musical instruments he designed for a 2016 exhibition in Toulouse. “I’ve been in bands for a lot of years and really like guitars,” he says of his creations, which only have one string. “They’re such fetishised objects. These are really difficult to play. They function really well, but as musical instruments you have to figure out the weird scales.”

At Toulouse he made a rehearsal space inside the gallery. People were invited to go and play on the instruments and put on a performance at the end of the day. Last year he returned to the instruments in New York – a band led by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and featuring Brian Chase of Yeah Yeah Yeahs was invited to perform an improvised piece. “Lee made this crazy noise performance,” says David. “It was totally different from the other piece.”

Now David is creating his own musical, entitled Problem in Brighton. It is based around the instruments, which also include giant fist-shaped maracas and a gong, backed up with a real guitar and bass. Brighton musician Lee Baker is working on the music, while David is arranging the songs and writing the words. “There’s something arch and contrived about the guitars,” he says. “They aren’t musical instruments, they are sculptures, but at the same time they are musical instruments that I’ve made as artworks, and you get more art when they are played. I decided to explore that idea a bit more. I want to entertain people with the piece – I don’t want them to regret going to see it, but that’s all you can hope for with any project, that it’s not rubbish! The more I work on it the more I realise what I can do to subvert things, or do things that are entertaining. It’s a voyage of discovery.”

David puts process at the heart of his work. He sees himself carrying on a path which was first established by the subversive Dada movement during World War I and when Marcel Duchamp submitted his infamous Fountain into the 1917 Society of Independent Artists in New York. “Everything goes through a process,” he says. “I make a certain amount of drawings and somehow something happens along the way.” His drawings are all one-off first drafts, he doesn’t go back and finesse, hence his characteristic crossings-out on some of his works. “There’s a big bag of torn-up drawings in my studio at the moment that I’m going to have to dispose of,” he says. “My assistant has said she will burn them for me, but as an environmentally conscious person I’m not sure. Maybe I need to make something out of papier-mâché, or buy a shredder. There’s a solution to every problem…”

His focus on drawing at the start of his career was partly down to necessity. On leaving the Glasgow School of Art in 1991 he didn’t have a studio, so had to find art he could make in his shared flat. “I never said I was going to be the guy who does the funny drawings in the art world,” he says. “My heroes were Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Philip Guston and a lot of literary figures like Franz Kafka and William S Burroughs. I wasn’t influenced by comic books and illustrations. I ended up publishing books myself in the days before the internet. Everyone projects their categorisation on what it is. I work in a lot of different mediums, but I guess I’m best known as somebody who does funny drawings. I feel fortunate – whatever path I have taken, it’s a good one.”

He admits to having had conversations about the place of humour in art for more than 20 years, and expects to have more over the next 20 years. “My answer changes,” he says. “I don’t feel like my work is necessarily poking fun at the art world, I just have a certain attitude which is akin to Duchamp or Dada. I have a deep love and understanding of contemporary art and the history of art. I discovered Duchamp when I was 14 or 15 years old – I was fascinated by Dada and the Surrealists in my formative years. I consider my work to be a continuation or a celebration of Dada. It doesn’t sit outside the art world. It comes from a desire to subvert things and not do what you’re supposed to do – and that desire is part of what any artist wants to do, to mess it all up and rebuild it.”

As he feels the world getting darker, with the twin rise of Putin and Trump, and the uncertainty of Brexit, he feels a sense of humour is the only way through. “I guess a lot of people are very disappointed about the situation we find ourselves in,” he says. “The only recourse is humour and sarcasm. There is no point getting angry – the only thing that is going to get us through is to laugh at these people.”

Having spent three decades in Glasgow, David’s move to Brighton was inspired by memories of visiting his sister in the city during the 1990s. “She came to Brighton for ten years,” he says. “I developed an affection for the place. She came to visit recently from where she now lives in New Zealand – we went to the Royal Pavilion for the first time. It’s so amazing and so beautiful, curious and surprising. I’m sure there are loads of people who live here that have never been there. I really love the West Pier, even though it only exists as a silhouette. I remember what it used to look like, and the Madeira Terraces when they were still intact.” And he is still making discoveries.

“This year was the first time I had seen the murmurations,” he says. “My mum and dad had come to visit, and we went up the i360. When we came down we saw the starlings going to nest. I would pay [the entrance fee] to see that alone...”

Life Model II is at Fabrica in Duke Street, Brighton, until Sunday 27 May 2018. Fabrica is open noon to 5pm Wed to Sat until Friday 4 May, and noon to 5pm Mon to Fri, noon to 7pm Sat/Sun during the festival. Entry is free.

David Shrigley gives a talk at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, in Church Street, on Wednesday 23 May 2018, from 8pm, tickets £10.

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