British artist David Shrigley's humorous works go down well in Australian exhibition

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

David Shrigley agrees: for a journalist it's the perfect badge. "Integrity for sale", it reads in his distinctive, childlike printing.

The badge - going for A$2.95 (HK$19) - is one of many wares with a message in The General Store. Green silicone bracelets (A$4.50) bear the words "meaningless bracelet"; plush cat soft toys with slogans across their chests (A$26.95) announce "rights for soft toys" or "neither use nor ornament". The salt-and-pepper shakers (A$129.95) are labelled heroin and cocaine.

The T-shirts feature everything from a headless man and the words "I don't have a head but still I must go to work", to a drawing of a moth flying to a flame. The sign on (open) the door is a giveaway: "Closed. Back in 100 years."

This isn't just any quirky shop. The store in Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria International foyer is itself an artwork, part of an exhibition called "Life and Life Drawing" by Glasgow-based artist Shrigley, which also includes drawings, paintings, sculpture, animations and books.

Noted for his stripped-back, deceptively simple line drawings, often accompanied by text, he is one of Britain's leading contemporary artists, a Turner Prize finalist last year, and the subject of a major retrospective at London's Hayward Gallery in 2012.

He has published 40 books, the latest The Life Model, companion to Life Model (2012), the centrepiece of the Melbourne exhibition.

Shrigley's take on a life drawing class has easels and chairs arranged around a figure on a plinth - a sculpture of a naked man who blinks intermittently and urinates into a bucket every couple of minutes. Hidden in the plinth is plumbing recycling the water up his legs and out again.

This is participatory art. A gallery assistant distributes drawing materials. On the walls are participants' pictures and work is collected for future display. It is a big hit. Kids delight in the naked, urinating man and his noisy blink. And while the adults labour to precisely capture this curious, distorted figure, the children draw whatever they feel like.

In fact, the entire, free exhibition is a hit. The tone is set at the entrance where a motorised bodyless head with ballpoint pens in its mouth does circuits on a piece of paper creating an artwork. The room is dominated by noise from a large projection of a drawing of a sleeping man, his noisy breathing audible throughout the gallery.

In front of a wall of small drawings, words and pictures pasted mural style, gallery-goers take selfies and laughingly read the text aloud: "I live apart from my wife now. It is for the best" accompanies a drawing of a man in a tent; a half-dozen bombs with fuses lit headed "Family". Some reflect aspects of daily life with which we can all identify: "Eat your dinner".

There are no title cards, just a large, hand-drawn map of each room listing its contents, including napping station (mattress, pillow and crochet rug). "I just think it gets in the way of stuff," Shrigley says of wall plaques.

"So for this exhibition, I decided to make these big plans. There is nothing complicated about it. I think my work for the most part does not really require any explanation.

"Some people just want to be told what is in it. I just think if you need to be told, go and look at something else."

For a man with such a quirky sense of humour, noted for subverting the ordinary - and described in the exhibition notes as "perhaps best known for his stripped-back, darkly humorous and deliberately crude drawings that explore existential dramas, human dysfunction and anxiety" - Shrigley, 46, is something of a surprise. Pleasant and unassuming, he is neatly and conservatively dressed - not so much as an outrageous badge in sight.

I think my work for the most part does not really require any explanation

He went to Glasgow in 1988 to study at its School of Art and has been there since. He thinks of himself as British, "a citizen of the UK and Europe", and objects strongly to narrow definitions of citizenship, he says, criticising moves to withdraw Britain from the EU as "reactionary, right-wing nonsense".

"Citizenship is about the place where you take social or civic responsibility. Your ethnicity should not be considered," he says. "I feel very strongly that being a citizen is about very tangible obligations on the part of the individual. One should achieve one's citizenship and not have it ascribed."

So, yes, he is a Scot, although he was born in Macclesfield, a market town in England. But no references to the recent referendum feature in his artwork.

"It was so divisive people don't talk about it any more," he says. "In terms of the contents of artwork, don't go there. It was very, very divisive, unpleasant."

Rather than trying to impart messages to his audience through his work, Shrigley says: "I think a lot of the things I say are just nonsense, I say things and then try to figure it out afterwards. That figuring out is part of the editing process."

And so the text does not quite illustrate the image. "I'm interested in statements with a built-in ambiguity. Things are out of context sometimes and if you start to read them out of context or consider them out of context, they take on an odd meaning," he says.

Shrigley, who enjoys the fact that his art is recognisable because of his handwriting, says his recent art has a blurring of the borders between who makes the art and what the artwork is: "Sharing art is inviting people to ruminate in the same way as I do."

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David Shrigley: Life and Life Drawing , NGV International, until March 1, 2015