in Interviews | 05 NOV 93
Featured in
Issue 13

Last of England

Gavin Turk interviewed by James Roberts

in Interviews | 05 NOV 93

You've recently been levitated by a magician and now you're going to provide an evening's entertainment in a Bermondsey pub. Do you think that it is part of an artist's job to entertain people?

Someone once asked me whether I would prefer five minutes on MTV every night for two weeks or a month-long exhibition in a national museum. I had to choose the museum, although MTV would give me a massively larger audience, because the museum environment is the environment for which I work. I think art actually has a very difficult job at the moment because it has become aligned with the entertainment industry and, as entertainment, art isn't particularly entertaining. The number of times I've been incredibly moved by art is very small, but when it's good, it's very, very good. The problem really is trying to make a successful piece of art. I suppose it involves making a work that means you don't have to make any more. Perhaps it also means that no one has to make anything any more - it's that cut and dried.

So you'll go down in history as The Man who Ended Art.

When art is put down in history it becomes allied to the culture that created it. If my work is kept for any reason, it will be seen through the filter of being English art. It's a way of trying to define a perimeter fence and people are still imported and exported on the basis of their cultural background. You read this at a very early stage of looking at artwork: this comes from England that comes from....wherever.

Your image in the newspaper collage is pretty ambiguous: you seem to be representing Britain, but it is hard to tell whether it's as a protector or an aggressor.

I could be wearing the beret as a soldier or as an artist. The picture is an altered version of a front page of The Sun from the time of the Gulf War. There is the idea that I am representing my country but there's a slight ambivalence...maybe I'm being represented by The Sun as a British artist.

Do you play up to that?

Kind of...flogging British culture perhaps. Flogging it as in whipping it and flogging it as in selling it. I think that I have quite a British attitude to making work and out a lot of American art at arm's length. American art is very seductive and powerful in terms of the amount of documentation that exists around it, but I find myself trying to work around it. It's cultural warfare in a way: you give us this and we give you that. It's a losing game in this country now because most people seem to feel fairly bewildered by things, unwilling to move or change. There is still a lot of cultural embarrassment about having had an Empire, but at the same time being sorry that it's gone. There's definitely a sense of nostalgia in my work but nostalgia as a theme, as a condition.

Some of the nostalgia doesn't seem to be real nostalgia. The waxwork, for example, is dealing with something that is before your time and the three people represented in the figure are blended into one.

Exactly - it's more of a cultural nostalgia than a personal one. When I originally thought of making it, it was a way to induce a kind of surreality. The waxwork is a self-portrait - it's the only one I've done - and the other personalities there are supposed to represent different aspects of my identity.

I think that it is interesting that you picked two particularly strong figures that were both destroyed by America in one way or another.

Well there are strange relationships between what Sid Vicious is wearing in the Way video to what Elvis is wearing in the Warhol painting: they both have a thong, they are both wearing boots and they both hold guns. If you want to go very quickly back through fashion, a lot of the punk movement was fuelled by Hell's Angels which in turn were influenced by cowboys. I'm standing in the same position as Elvis in the Warhol paintings and I'm wearing Sid Vicious' clothes because he is an icon of modern Britain, and at the same time an incredible loser.

Is being a loser particularly British?

I think Punk is incredibly British. America hasn't really got to the point where it can understand what Punk was.

Perhaps that's because America is a country that doesn't really appreciate losers.

I don't know quite why we like them - I don't know what the loser has to offer. Perhaps it is just someone who is not a threat. Maybe there is also a level of honesty about it as well - it's quite endearing to be a loser.

Specially after decades when everyone pretended to be a success.

Everyone wants to be a loser now...although in some of my work I'm making out that I am much more successful than I really am. The plaque and the signature drawings refer back to the very outset of Modern Art when art started to be bought and sold on the basis of people's identities. It's as if established artists. It's as if established artists are unable to make a bad piece of work - all their output is valuable. Picasso touches a lump of clay and they can't get it out of the bronze foundry fast enough because he is Picasso, the genius with the master touch, Mr Vision. Velásquez' Les Meninas has been called the first Modern painting because the artist sticks himself in the painting and says, 'hang on a minute, there's a bit more to this painting than the King and Queen, there's the painter that painted it too.'

Is that what you were looking at when you made the signature drawings?

The signature is usually there to validate the artwork but when the signature is the content, then it doesn't work the way it's supposed to. The first one I made is a modern gallery sized painting in which my signature is about five feet long. In the corner of the painting there's a tiny badge which lists the ingredients of the painting. It says that the stretcher is made out of recycled timber and a tree has been replanted to replace the loss of wood; the canvas is recycled tent fabric, the paint is carbon based black pigment mixed with tree extract; and the whole structure is not glued or pinned in any way, just dry-jointed with the canvas strung onto the stretcher using hemp, and made taught using matchsticks. It's a completely environmentally sound piece of engineering, although it's more about the Body Shop conundrum than the need to be environmentally friendly. I was trying to solve as nearly as possible, the dilemma of making something that people will not learn anything from and are going to be fairly horrified by, but which can't really be criticized as a waste of resources. The signatures have been going on for some time now and perhaps they have to come to an end. I could only make them in the first place because my signature wasn't worth anything, but now I suppose it is.

Will the mirror piece be the last?'s called Epiphany after Richard Hamilton's piece but I was also thinking about 'Jan van Eyck was here'. It was specially self-conscious because I had to watch myself signing it. A mirror is a very symbolic piece of equipment.

Like the lavatory...

Ah- my ceramic objects. I haven't made them yet, but they'll look like the profile of a toilet rotated through 360 degrees, so that they sit like vases: minimal objects, but with a conceptual background that refers to other things that I've made - and to Duchamp and all the other toilet-makers in art. On their plinths will be the names of international museums where these objects are going to end up. Of course they can be bought by anyone, but if you buy one it will have a plaque attached to it so it looks like you've stolen it from the Tate Gallery or wherever. In the end the Tate will buy it because their name's on it. Or maybe they won't be able to, and they'll end up with the one that says Art Institute of Chicago. They were partly inspired, indirectly, by Richard Hamilton's fairly nasty relief pieces of the Guggenheim in different colours. Obviously he hadn't been commissioned to produce them, but of course the Guggenheim just had to have them because they were portraits of the institution.

Tell me about your pipes...

Pipe was about trying to make a piece of work that could fulfil a certain criteria: it could appear as a found object and at the same time relate to the two beer cans by Jaspar Johns. I also wanted it to have a certain kind of male rhetoric about it, like van Gough's pipe on a chair; to be playful; and to be surreal in that it doesn't actually work as a pipe - it's solid. It looks like a blob of paint or a cat shit. It has to be shown in its box, because the dimensions of the box are relative to the dimensions of the pipe to the chair its sitting on in the painting by van Gough, and the positioning of the pipe is the same. In part the work is about how the residue of famous art works is sometimes found in things like supermarket packaging, in street furniture, in design and, here, in a liquorice pipe. That's one reason why people enjoy historical artworks more than contemporary artworks - contemporary artworks don't have the sense of filtering through to everyday life.

What's the real pipe for?

Originally I wanted to get a particular type of pipe that was featured in a handbook made by La Corbusier in 1926. It had a very straight mouthpiece and a medium sized billiard-ball type bowl. I ended up talking to David Harrod, the director of a pipe company who sent me this. It's the closest he could find but nothing like the one I wanted. So, my mission to get the ultimate design object from the 20s as authorised by Le Corbusier, was totally scuppered. Anyway, it's a substitute pipe and now serves to sit on my table, an inspiration whilst I am making briar eggs.

Which are...

The briar egg, when it's at home, is a blown egg, hand painted so that it looks like wood. I'm interested in the awkward relationship they have to craft objects: they're something you might buy in the village hall.

If someone were to buy one, what would they do with it?
They'd give it to their granny.

The mirror cubes have a strangely hand-made feel about them as well - what happened to them?
They've corroded, they look like they've been left out in the garden for decades. The piece is called Robert Morris Untitled 1965-72 - I felt Morris' original piece perfectly bridged the crossover between Minimal and Conceptual art. It's now a museum piece and virtually every major art museum owns a version of it. I thought that my piece was a bit like Robert Morris and one of the Brontë sisters going for a walk - it has that outdoor feel about it. It all comes back to American art arriving in this damp, rainy little island.

Britain seems to be very good at domesticating things, putting them in their place...

That's why people have such a problem with Carl Andre's bricks in this country. Essentially the work is about access but the problem is, as soon as you create a work about access, you create a category which is about the opposite - exclusion. On the whole, people fit into the latter category and don't understand it. Every time Andre's work is put on display it ends up in the tabloid newspapers. On the other hand, every time that happens it's an increasingly valuable experience in the world. More often than not art annoys me, which is one of the reasons I find it slightly infuriating that I am an artist. One of the brilliant things about art, though, is that it seems like a way of being able to change my past. My past isn't something I would have thought to have been the right kind of past to have got to my current situation. If you succeed in the future though, then anything that wasn't in place in your past suddenly falls into place. Making art is the thing I's my revenge.