David Shrigley, review by Ruth Hogan
A headless, taxidermied squirrel presenting its decapitated head in its paws, a glass ball containing five years of toenail clippings, a granite gravestone engraved with a mundane shopping list: these can only be creations from the darkly comic mind of David Shrigley.
Known for his macabre, sardonic wit, Shrigley explores themes of death, sex, and the banality of everyday living, in ‘Brain Activity’ at the Hayward Gallery. This is the first survey show of Shrigley’s work in the UK and represents the range of his multi-disciplinary practice, delivered with a deadpan hilarity.
The exhibition is divided into sub-sections entitled ‘Headlessness’, ‘Death’, ‘Misshapen Things’ and ‘Relationships’ among others. Humour is pivotal to the artist’s practice. According to Shrigley, ‘there has to be humour in life, or else it’s not life’. Citing the writing of Franz Kafka as an influence for being both ‘hilarious and horrific’, this sentiment characterises the whole exhibition, as one is both appalled and amused when encountering Shrigley’s taxidermied animals: the headless ostrich at the entrance to the exhibition - ‘Ostrich’ (2009) or the upright Jack Russell terrier, brandishing a placard announcing ‘I’m Dead’ - ‘I’m Dead’ (2010). When confronted by such witty reminders of one’s own mortality, often is it not best to laugh’
Shrigley is most renowned for the unique aesthetic of his drawings. One hundred and seventeen drawings feature in the appropriately named ‘Drawings’ space. Some seem instructional, some seem philosophical and some are just plain funny; a series of one-liners with a visual punch-line. Each drawing contains, what curator Dr. Cliff Lauson refers to as a ‘condensed narrative’ - in essence, an autonomous strand of thought from Shrigley’s bizarre imagination.
In his own words, Shrigley claims that ‘drawing was a reaction to art school and the seriousness with which the artwork was treated’. Although there is ‘no theoretical starting point’ to his work, this ideology remains today and can be read in both the visual citations in his work and the approach taken in the method of production. References to Andy Warhol and René Magritte are evident. A simplistically rendered, black and white line drawing of a pipe including the text ‘This is nothing’, is an ironic homage to René Magritte’s famous painting ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe) (1926). Here, the tone of the narrative is playfully poking fun at conceptual art, or more so, the sombre, revered terms with which most contemporary and conceptual art is critiqued. Another such citation is a drawing of a can of ‘fizzy pop’ with the tag-line ‘It is a beverage, but it is also a very powerful idea’, a clear nod to the importance of Andy Warhol and Pop Art on contemporary culture.
It can only be speculated whether it is Shrigley’s intention to parody the apparently absurd nature of conceptual art or not. What is certain is that this exhibition not only raises a laugh, but also highlights the importance of humour within contemporary art and art criticism.