Interview: Gavin Turk by Paula Smithard

Joe Coleman

8 May 1998; 142 Charing Cross Road

PS: I'd like to ask you about how you feel about the avant-garde and your relationship to it, given that it's so directly quoted in your work.

GT: I'm not really sure there is an avant-garde and if there was an avant-garde I'd probably try and avoid it, but then maybe that would be a definition of something.. someone trying to be avant-garde.

PS: On the one hand your work seems to be a critique of the Culture Industry etc. but on the other perhaps there's a certain homage to your heroes: Duchamp, Manzoni, Warhol and others. Your work seems poised between the two, what is interesting is the ambiguity or tension between those two things - on the one hand critique and on the other celebration. So I was interested in what roles Duchamp, Manzoni and Warhol might play in your work?

GT: I've found myself learning, seeing, experiencing those artists' work and thinking there was a kind of work, or attitude, that I wanted to take a part in. I've almost created, I've tried to create, a space within which I could almost re-make their work and therefore have part of someone's idea inflected ... or create a mood on the way that you would read my work.
One of the reasons that I've selected those particular artists is that I do find them particularly pertinent... Klein as well, probably even Beuys. They've had such an incredible influence over the way in which people understand contemporary art. That influence may not be a highly conscious or academically constructed idea; it may be someone on the street that will talk about when they went to a gallery and they saw a blue, just a blue, painting. I think your point about the celebration and the critique was accurate.I'm trying to continue in the same vein, trying to acknowledge that context, trying to get an alignment with some of the ideas they were using in their work and with some of the ways in which their work looks.

PS: Given that there is an element of critique in your pieces do you feel any sympathy with the position or approach of conceptual art or Art and Language? You've very definitely chosen a different position to put yourself in.

GT: A lot of conceptual art of the 1970s, which tried to refute the given premises, the given kind of ways of making art; of constructing contexts or making environments, served an important function. I find myself working in a sort of after art, an ethereal space where artists, contemporary artists, are actually quite ghost-like, in as much as they wander around in the shadows of a slightly battled scene...you know the smoke is just in the air. At the end of the eighties it seemed that postmodernism was everyone's favourite word, though no one quite knew what it meant, there was at that time a lot of dialogue about the idea of art being over and in effect art from that moment on has been much more reflexive, much more aware of its...

PS: History

GT: Yeah its own history, that's right..in a way of its own making, it's like you can't simply be a painter, you have to do something which a painter would do.

PS: Do you feel that the weight of history feels like a burden on the shoulders of a contemporary artist.

GT: In a way history is a burden generally. I think the burden of history is a burden on everyone and I don't think itÕs just an art thing. I think it's just around, you're walking along the street and you just sort of come round, like come to and suddenly you go: wow everything is here because of history, because of a human history and somehow I've just arrived on the end and here I am wondering how it all turned out like this.

PS: Another perspective that we could explore with these references in your work to an avant-garde or international modernism is that there are also quite specific references to localised cultures that are familiar to you from your urban British experience such as punk (I'm thinking of pieces like Pimp). In that sense your own identity is bound up with the cultural experiences and icons which interest you, and how do the references to art history and popular culture act upon each other?

GT: In many ways they don't go together very comfortably, they are forced together. There always seems to be something of a tension. It seems really important to try to bring an awareness of that together with more of an academic reference that comes from an art history, and art history is probably being used in an incredibly crude way..

PS: It's quoted

GT: Yeah, generally it's quoted. Although I think there is a point where I would acknowledge that. People wouldnÕt necessarily get all the quotes or be able to figure out what the references were, but I hope that wouldn't matter because they would be able to figure out some, maybe not consciously, but unconsciously.

PS: Would you agree with the perception that artists in London in the 90s who've gained success tend to have made a part of their work an enjoyment of popular culture and pleasures as opposed to adopting a critical distance upon mass cultural forms as witnessed in 'critical postmodernism' as John Roberts would call it. Do you feel that has happened amongst other artist as well, do you feel part of a shift that has taken place in the sense that you are referencing things that are your experience of your social life actually in your work and not denying those things?

GT: Yeah, if there is an element of appropriation in my work, the appropriation is, as I was saying before, quite a crude appropriation. ItÕs generally existing iconic references. I generally donÕt use very oblique artists...

PS: You reference your everyday enjoyment, like your listening to punk or whatever that you don't shut out of your work, you celebrate it or enjoy that rather than taking some sort of critical distance on the idea of popular culture or mass culture.

GT: Well, I think that there are still some quite traditional and very subjective elements to my work. As I say, I still think IÕm quite a traditional artist really. I've made one work which was documented on video and I've still really yet to get involved in anything thatÕs too technical in that way. I made a kinetic sculpture once but it took me ages, in a way, to pluck up the courage to actually make a sculpture that plugged into the wall. I wanted the work to be able to work within its own space, within its own power as it were...

PS: I wasn't so much thinking about the forms but the references in your work to punk or the Sun newspaper, or things that are very specific and localised and not denied as part of your experience. Maybe this could lead into another question because youÕve said in the past that looking at art and thinking about the country and culture it was produced in was an important way for you to think about art. Is this still the case now that youÕve been tagged with the 'young British artist' label? Do you think differently about it now that youÕve been so strongly identified by people with a certain Britishness?

GT: Maybe being identified as a young British artist sometimes means that you donÕt have to think about it any more and you can try and become a totally global person. When I started out I was trying to make sure that I didn't lose sight of a kind of Englishness (and now in fact itÕs a yBa, a Britishness, because it involves the Scottish artists as well). I think that now, yeah, it's probably become a very sticky area. Certainly artists are being identified en masse and works are being shown in a way where the private identities of works are being broken down...

PS: Just on the question of this Britishness would you say that you're ironic about Britishness or perhaps nostalgic for a romantic or mythical British identity. I'm thinking about your conference presentation ('WhoÕs Afraid of Red White & Blue?' 25/3/98 UCE, Birmingham). It was a bit ambiguous as to your relationship to this notion of Britishness.

GT: I feel really ambiguous because I'm trying to make a work that can deal with an idea of Englishness.

That work needs to allow you a view in which you can think that it is very nostalgic, that it has a certain kind of self-effacing quality to it or whatever those... er... English or British traits are. The work could have those traits but it also needs be an extension, or an exhibition of those things. It means that you are working in a slightly apolitical, amoral, anostalgic Š in an ambiguous area. I put myself in a really ambiguous place.

PS: I was also going to ask you about the role of irony in your work or being ironic. I was thinking here of instances like when you arrived at the private view for the Sensation exhibition dressed as a tramp.

GT: To start with the irony just seems to come through, it comes out through thinking about possible futures, if you just think about art and its association to a kind of wish-fulfilment, you might quite quickly follow your line of thinking, your line of wish or your line possible futures and then somehow if you manage to write that down, that can quite quickly...seem to be ironic. The outfit that I wore at the Sensation exhibition, dressed as a tramp...it got quite complicated, like what a tramp actually looked like, it was actually really rather difficult because I felt fairly similar to how I looked; the clothes that I used were the clothes that I had already and I made the shoes. I thought everyone else would be dressing up and I didnÕt have any party clothes, so I ended up disguising myself. The sort of response that it generated was quite interesting. People didnÕt quite know what was happening, and because it was an art event it seemed that it could move from being OK to not being OK. I mean, I found it quite disturbing but also quite an interesting experience. I learnt a lot from it.

PS: Does your new waxwork relate to that experience of going to the Sensation opening like that, is that where that piece stems from?

GT: The work is actually wearing all the clothes and it's going to have my hair Š he's basically a kind of degenerate version of the other waxwork that IÕve made (Pop). It's a kind of depreciation of the waxwork that was made of a fairly dilapidated historical character anyway. So, I'm playing with odd notions of referencing my own work and disintegrating and degenerating my own work and also looking at something about human disintegration as well, a social disintegration.

PS: In a sense you're building your own mythology as an artist ; you've commodified yourself. You were asked a question at the conference in Birmingham ('WhoÕs Afraid of Red, White & Blue?') about what fame means to you now that you're famous or what this means for your work. You said in reply two things - 'whoÕs famous to whom' and secondly 'the answer might be to disappear'. I wondered what you might mean exactly about disappearing?

GT: I think disappearance would be, much harder than appearing. I'm currently thinking about creating a computer version of myself and I'm wondering about the possibility that I could, in future, just appear in a virtual way, so maybe I could personally disappear in that way.

PS: You adopt other guises, like in the Sid Vicious piece and the new waxwork, you disappear behind different roles or guises anyway. In different ways artists like Christian Boltanski or Duchamp before him have explored the idea of disappearing as an artist and it has got quite an interesting history in itself. In the past you have an expressed an interest in the way in which cultural icons resurface in different parts of a culture and resonate as household names in packaging and so on. Are you interested in the this level of visibility for yourself or are you disturbed by that process?

GT : Yeah, it does disturb me; the idea of me appearing in a very visible household form! But then there is a point where I think to make being an artist worthwhile I have to try and be the best possible artist and make the best possible work I can ever make. And somehow those terms lead me back to a point where the work had to be successful or what are the terms of success? But there is a mystery within showing your work; if you don't show your work to everybody there is a mysterious part, or side, of your work, where you feel it hasnÕt been properly seen or fully exposed. Also showing your work might possibly demand a question of who you are making it for or who you are showing it to. And possibly the answer is that youÕre showing it to someone who's exactly the same as you or more intelligent, so that they can understand it better or add a little bit to it, or possibly less intelligent, so that they can look at it and learn from it. But in a strange sort of way you assume that the audience is complicit with you...

PS: I was going to ask you about your attitudes to death.Your work seems to imagine yourself to be already dead (Sid Vicious committed suicide, Elvis is dead, Warhol is)... you imagine your own death or your own fame after death.

GT: I think that the idea of death follows philosophers and artists around all the time, it's a necessary chapter. You could also have a chapter about being born and the very early first moment of memory, the little space before you realise that you're separated from the world. I think the notion of death is very important to a thinking about being alive and to thinking about existing You can also see it in a much more clichˇd way in the value of an artist and how that value increases when their production stops. To return to Marcel DuchampÕs work, I think one of his best works was that he managed to stop working (seemingly) and that he managed to get the fact that heÕd stopped into his historical account... the casual manner with which he was able to turn 'being an artist' on and off has endeared him to everybody. And there's also that sort of awkward 'death of the author' conversation where literally [the work] being out in the world, or it being alive, is the moment where it becomes, or it takes some kind of horrific death or finality.

PS: The display of your sculptures in the past: plinths, vitrines, bronze plaque labels etc. seem to mimic museum displays of objects, highlighting the way in which artifacts are invested with a magical value in museums. To what extent are you fascinated by the display of the object and what are your favourite museums?

GT: I've spent quite a lot of time wandering around museums. I never know quite what to do with a museum. I think that it is about the wandering. A museum is where you go and muse (and possibly something to do with being amused as well). It's a very static, slow, form of entertainment but you have to make a lot of it yourself. I'm always intrigued by the usefulness and dangerousness of the museum. The way that the museum fixes and makes exemplary certain things when other things that perhaps have an equal significance, or more significance, are left to degenerate or are not kept. The museum enables a picture-building of the world which is a certain kind of conceit or construction of the world. I think that my favourite museums are.. they're probably the most classical things like the John Soane Museum, the Geffreye Museum or the Horniman Museum. When I studied at the Royal College of Art I was backed up against the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum. I spent a lot of time at them and the V&A Museum where I did actually work. I'm interested in the way that the museum sets up a view, it creates a way of looking. A lot of the practical side of making art is trying to get people to look at something in a particular way, or trying to get people to take on board an idea through something that you've made pictorially.

© Paula Smithard 1998 elogo