David Shrigley: Brain Activity, Hayward Gallery, until 13 May 2012

From the steel casket that is the Hayward Gallery lift, one exits to stand adjacent to a headless ostrich. Monkey-calls and a disembodied voice have accompanied me thus far on my journey. Above, perhaps where the red fire-bell should be, is a round biscuit. It is affixed solidly to the wall with a very large nail. Elsewhere many pairs of cast ceramic boots, all black but in differing styles, are set on stairs: one per step. I can almost hear them marching, bringing a kind of enforced cartoon fascism. Somehow this quasi-political wind ran into a warm pocket of whimsy and, like the snow flurries outside, precipitated a gallery of art-objects – objects imbued with a darkening Kafkaesque sense of horror and dread.

Refreshingly, however, the artist whose work this is, David Shrigley, is chatty and engaging. He is clearly not infected with the increasing tendency among young artists to be difficult or intentionally dumb. Mature enough to admit genuine pleasure at being given this mid-career retrospective, he answers questions about his practice openly and directly.

I ask him about the role of humour in his work. He replies, ‘I might be funny, but I’m not a comedian.’ He elaborates that if people see too much humour it is because of the overall ‘relentlessness’ of it within his output. It is he who then mentions Kafka, along with Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Even with ceramic boots these are big shoes indeed.

When Duchamp upended a urinal in 1917 for his Fountain, it created a momentous break in art history. Artists who had previously focused on the production of paintings and sculptures could now use any object already produced in wider society. With one act it became an effective tool of political understanding and social critique. Forty years later Warhol used this as a basis for interrogating not only the objects themselves but the marketing, brand names and celebrity icons associated with them.

Add another fifty years or so and Shrigley’s project becomes another important manifestation of Duchamp’s original idea. Yet again it is through a set of objects the popular press will find contemptible but may later love. Bell (2007) is a substantial school-type hand bell standing on a shelf next to a card demanding that it is not rung again ‘until Jesus returns’. As a bell is it an ordinary object, yet the mere addition of that message shows how easily we defer to myth and authority. Would I ring the bell? No! I instantly assume the writer has some moral standing and power. I am scared that Jesus may indeed return and find me wanting because I had rung that which was forbidden. All this is regardless of my own beliefs and religious leanings which would completely undercut any real taboo and leave only good manners.

Shrigley thus forces us to cut through any created artifice. These works, he seems to say, have now become empty of any political force (or even artistic force). They have become too full of ideas, credos, spoonfuls of mumbo- jumbo that they are rendered completely useless, the sole exception being that of a mirror to our fearful and vain selves.

Dead (2010), the poster-child for the show, is a taxidermied puppy in a perspex case standing on its hind legs and holding up a sign that reads ‘I’m Dead’ in clear capitals. The small dog is indeed dead, and this is set against the promise of its enforced preservation. Yes, the dog is there but the sign undercuts the myth that his essence has been in anyway preserved. Without the sign, might we talk to our stuffed friend, remind him of those good times, all the while safe in our fantasy of a continuing relationship? With the sign, the dog itself has been destroyed as instantly as putting it into the crematorium oven. Nothing remains, other than a foolish human talking to a bit of skin and sawdust.

Likewise, a nearby tombstone, Gravestone (2008), is carved with a shopping list of breakfast items, including aspirin. Their passing was unexpected and perhaps a bit of a headache, in the way we can be ‘caught’ by a doorstep-salesman or charity collector. It seems to represent an inconvenient night-time interruption to our to-do lists in a lifestyle

I’m Dead Installation view of David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery
Leisure Centre (1992)

unprepared for death’s universal application.

The sculptures might seem overly similar in tone: Shrigley is not yet used to exhibiting on this scale. Thankfully, however, the animated films, posters, photographs and drawings all operate with a satisfying independence.

The drawings offer an easy-to-read statement or question, coupled with an exceptionally austerely drawn allusion in a crude line-style. In many ways they ape the Biro drawing style of Tracey Emin but without being intentionally provisional and scribbled – and, thankfully, largely free of any sexual material. (Shrigley rejects the monotone vulgarity of YBA Britain.) His drawings give us a harder-edged interrogation than the sculptures. Laugh at your ‘career path’ (the drawing shows a man entering a long, dark water-main-type tube), but do not forget that kids still get bullied and workplaces are regularly abusive places. What is more, you know that those evils are there because even a simple line can both remind and show how much you choose to forget.

Pithy and direct, then, yet their very primitiveness avoids any feeling of moralising or descending into the stultifying smugness of the contemporary politician.

Perhaps, if these drawings signal the birth of a political Shrigley-ism, the painted posters operate as its religious wing. The narrative quip is still there but the focus of the posters is much more on the way we understand sign, motif and colour.

In one example, ‘Hard Core Pornography’ is written around three overlapping coloured rectangles. It brings to mind paintings by Mary Heilmann and, indeed, this could be an insult aimed at the art world – a sluttish, indulgent reading of abstract painting. Yet, a more prosaic tone is preferable. For example, the excitement contained in Broadway, the Raymond Revue Bar sign, or even a visual representation of the tacky music track of a long-forgotten and found-in-the-shed ‘adult’ video. Whatever it is, like the whole exhibition, it again promises the anticipation of the game-show, yet reveals us wallowing only in screaming banality when the lights fade.

Again, Shrigley wants to trick us into thinking we are winning when the prize was not really worth having. It is a bit like the couple on the 1980s television show, Bullseye, who live in central Leeds and have just won a speedboat.

David Shrigley will always have his detractors. What art based outside any ‘craft’ would not? But this show is enjoyable on many levels. More important, however, is its aptness at a time when we are once again looking for leadership instead of silly promises and self-interest. As an exhibition it places itself clearly within art theory, while avoiding any kind of academic dryness. Indeed, it wears its complex thinking lightly; perhaps so lightly that we sometimes miss the clinical precision of unsympathetic laughter aimed squarely at us and society. ‘We really do get what we deserve’ could be the overall message.

In one room a drawing reads: ‘One day a big mind will come.’ With David Shrigley that mind may already have arrived.

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