“Being funny is a serious endeavor” - David Shrigley
David Shrigley draws like a child, and yet he has become one of Britain’s most prominent and acclaimed artists. He blames it on the limits to his creativity and explains where the boundaries of good taste lie and why Monet would suck in the digital age.
Mr. Shrigley, you named your new book “Weak messages create bad situations – A manifesto”. What made you publish a manifesto?
In some way, the book is the installation of my worldview. I’m not sure if it is a manifesto, but if you call something a manifesto, it becomes a manifesto. But then again, I think that the book is actually the opposite of a manifesto.
A lot of the things in the book sound like statements that I make and firmly believe in, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes I’m just saying things and then try to figure out what they mean afterwards. That’s not the typical way to write a manifesto.
It’s a manifesto but not necessarily yours.
All the statements are mine, but luckily, sometimes it’s just me playing a character.
If you were to take all the things in the book at face value and consider them to be my personal points of view, it would probably suggest that I am mentally ill.
In the book, there’s a picture of a girl lying in the floor, saying: “I wish I could take life seriously.” Can you?
My worldview is a comic one. There’s a lot of comedy in the things I say, write, or draw, but that doesn’t mean that I am not a serious guy. Being funny 24/7 is a serious endeavor. I need comedy to survive. A life without comedy is not a life worth living.
You call it comedy, but there is also a lot of irony in your works.
There is, but there’s also paradox and chaos in there. They are on some level very similar. I am often deliberately paradoxical. Irony is a great distancing method, but in order to be ironic, you also have to know what you are talking about. A lot of the time, I don’t actually know what I am talking about. I’m just saying things in the same way a child does when they are learning how to talk. But the language I use is the language of someone who writes a manifesto. Sometimes the image suggests that it is a metaphor for something, but then the message makes it clear that it is actually very literal. There is a lot of ambiguity there. It’s not very clear whether it’s ironic or not. That’s what I am most interested in: this twilight zone between literal and ironic meaning. My messages might be clear, but my motivation for saying them is not.
Art used to be about beauty and strong messages. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your works don’t seem to strive for either of these two.
I agree, my drawings are neither beautiful nor politically defined in any way. But I don’t think it’s the job of the artist to figure out how their art will be seen in the canon of art history. It’s also not desirable to only think about these two categories. I like to focus on the process rather than the outcome or reputation of my work. When I was in art school, I never imagined that I could become an artist. I wasn’t a good painter, and I still think that my drawings aren’t that different from the ones I did when I was a little boy, trying to amuse myself.
What kind of things did you draw as a kid?
My paintings always had a somewhat violent quality to them: a lot of monsters biting human heads off, that kind of stuff. Later on, when I learned how to write, I added text to the pictures. So I have always done what I’m doing now. Nobody at art school told me to draw this way; I draw this way despite having gone to art school. Upon leaving art school, I just gave it a try because I thought that a) it is what I like and nobody can prevent me from doing it, and b) I am not going to have a career in the art business so I might as well do this. Turns out I was wrong.
A lot of other artists like Demetri Martin or Hugleikur Dagsson do very similar things and are also very successful with it. What does that tell us about the way people perceive or think of art today?
It’s not really a strand of contemporary art that I want to think too deeply about because I am so deeply immersed in it myself. But I am not the first person to make crude, funny drawings, although I sometimes get that impression because people brand me as a pioneer in that field. But I consider my work to be a collage of all the things I like. I choose drawings because I like to draw and when I started out, I didn’t have the money to do sculptures or installations. Now it’s my area of expertise. But that was not foreseeable when I was an art student.
It is now for many budding artists.
True, they look at me and realize that this is an option to make a living. I did it because it was the easiest way for me to do art. It was art born out of a lack of alternatives.
You once said that for an artist it is a handicap to be able to draw. Does creativity need limitations?
I don’t want to advocate that art students shouldn’t be taught how to draw because it is a very useful skill. I was taught how to do it, but I wasn’t very good at it. But there are certain limitations, and as an artist you need a starting point and some parameters to start working. Sometimes these limitations provide you with a starting point because they only allow you to do a specific thing. Limitless possibilities aren’t always helpful. You can also be too good a craftsperson.
Being a good craftsperson doesn’t make you a good artist. The two are related but are not the same. As an artist you often encounter limitations and it depends on how you deal with them.
Could you give an example?
Imagine the following: I want to make a drawing and need a larger piece of paper that is also a bit more costly. There are two marks on the piece of paper. I could easily throw it away and take a new one but since the piece of paper was more expensive, or because I don’t want to waste it, I decide to stick with it and not throw it away. I only have to cover up the two marks, so I include them in my painting to cover them up. They are a limitation because I can’t just draw around them, but they also become my starting point.
Your drawings are very childish and crude, but the things they depict are often frighteningly deep and complex. The image in which a plane bombs a city and one pilot says to the other “I feel really bad about this” and the other just replies “Don’t worry, it’s fine”, comes to mind. Is this humorous approach a way to deal with such difficult topics?
On a psychological level, it probably is. You can lose all senses but never your sense of humor. Everybody experiences tragedy, and there is gallows humor to help you get through these situations. Without that life would be miserable.
Art and tragedy have always gone hand in hand, but most art approaches tragedy from a very serious angle. Why is there no room for humor?
In terms of people losing their lives, there’s only so much comedy that’s appropriate. One needs to be careful to guarantee that comedy helps people rather than feasting on their misery. And I don’t think you have to choose between seriousness and comedy.
Comedy is not the opposite of seriousness. The opposite of seriousness is incompetence. And the opposite of comedy is not seriousness – it’s misery. The ability to laugh is a luxury that everybody should be able to afford.
Most often, humor doesn’t have to be well thought out or spectacular. The most banal thing can make you laugh yourself to tears. My favorite drawing in your book is the one with the dog operating the crane that says “He should not be operating the crane” … and he really shouldn’t!
It’s hard to be too serious all the time. You can’t really escape laughing. We laugh every day because it is part of our everyday life – just like banality.
You have published a number of books but also put your works on show in numerous museums all over the globe. Do you prefer your work to be printed or put on display in a museum?
It certainly is a different kind of engagement. I used to think that my drawings work better in books, but I am not so certain of that anymore. It depends on the experience. A drawing on a piece of paper feels like a documentation of a specific moment in time, and it’s nice to see that on display in a museum. The reprinted version – the book – is more accessible and approachable, and you can dictate the narrative and hence the way people look at it. You can call it a manifesto and then people will ask you why you have called it a manifesto and you have to explain to them that you don’t really know why.
Would you agree with the assertion that your art is the perfect art for the 21st century because it’s so crude, easily accessible and more about the joke than the quality of the painting? In a way, it’s almost meme-like.
True, Monet would probably suck in the digital age. The advantage of my drawings is that they can go on many things. There are David Shrigley mugs and T-shirts, and it doesn’t make the original artwork any less aesthetic because it is not very aesthetic in the first place. It’s very portable, which is good, because that way, the context of the artwork is always in flux. When you put my art on a T-shirt, it doesn’t cheapen the original; it makes it more interesting because you’re inviting other people to make the statement you made.
Depends on the statement, I guess.
Of course! I once made this T-shirt that had “Kill your pets” printed on it. And I would run into all these people walking their dogs that were wearing this shirt and they got into some real trouble because some people didn’t really get it and took it too literally. I stopped wearing mine.
You once said that you are interested in misunderstanding the context. Do you think that you are successful at this?
I think I am. The more you start to identify misunderstanding, the more you realize that we live in a world of misunderstandings. The “Found Magazine” is a good visualization of this context-free and deliberate misunderstanding. They just show random things from random people’s lives. I have my own archive of misunderstandings and try to use it as well as I can.
Could you give us a glimpse into that archive?
I once had an exhibition in a museum and when I saw the first brochure for it, it was called “As soon as possible”. So I rang up the museum to ask why the exhibition was called that, and they told me “Oh, that’s what you wanted the exhibition to be called, right?”. I just stood there for a moment, completely puzzled, before assuring them that it was. Afterwards I browsed through the e-mails we had exchanged and realized that it was a huge misunderstanding. They asked me when I would tell them what I would like the exhibition to be called and I just replied “as soon as possible”. So they printed that slogan on a huge banner and hung it over the museum. I never had the courage to tell them.
Interview for The European Magazine