An Interview with David Shrigley: What The Hell Are You Doing?

by Reid Singer on October 21, 2011 Interview

David Shrigley, Untitled (Crap), 2011, Image via Yvon Lambert Gallery

RS: You have throwaways. You must have stuff that you just decide you don't like.

DS: Yeah. Seventy-five percent. I'd say.

RS: Seventy-five percent?

DS: Seventy to seventy-five percent is thrown away.

RS: And what's your most common reason for doing that?

DS: Because it's shite! I think that you have to have a criteria of things being good; it's a really judicious editing process, and it has to be. I make a lot of work, and it doesn't really take a lot of time to make an individual drawing, an individual cartoon, so it's just as well I'd throw it away. Otherwise, there'd be too much work in the world. I think there's quite a lot as it is.

RS: Do you have a frequent reason for throwing something away, a frequent habit?

DS: I don't know. It's hard to articulate what the criteria is. I guess you kind of want to be surprised every time. I do a lot of drawings that are quite similar, that seem to revisit the same thing a few times. I want to still be interested by what I'm doing, and if I'm not really interested in it, away it goes.

RS: How often you've gotten books published in the US?

DS: In the US, I've published a few books, and this is the first book with Norton, but Norton made a big effort with it. The previous books I did were much smaller runs with another publisher, and they really didn't make me do publicity or anything. I think there's maybe one person in the company who liked the work, and then nobody else did, but I think Norton, they're on board. So I'm here. Talking to you.

RS: Thanks! The reason that I ask is because I'm kind of curious about what you think your reception would be given an American sensibility, what American sense of humor is like, what American taste in art is, etc.

DS: I don't know. I'm not exactly a household name in Europe or in the UK, even. I occupy a certain space, I suppose. I have a certain niche. I'm sort of the funny fine artist. It doesn’t really concern me, how the American audience will get my work. But then again, it's really impossible to see yourself as other people see you. I suppose it lends itself to people saying, “You've got a British sense of humor,” and “Do you think the Americans will get your British sense of humor?” But I don't really know. I'm not really aware of being aware of being British or Scottish, even.

RS: You identify yourself as Scottish?

DS: Politically, I'm Scottish, I suppose — in that I've lived half my life in Scotland — but ethnically, I'm English. That's kind of a funny way to say it. I have an English accent. As far as a lot of Scottish people are concerned, I'll always be English, but I've been there since 1988.

I haven't been to the States much. I've been to New York quite a lot, more than anywhere else. I've been to the Midwest. I've been to the West Coast a few times. I think America's such a big place that it's unlikely that I will be as successful as a Calvin and Hobbes-type thing, but there's also kind of a place for everything to a certain extent. I feel duty-bound to try and sell the book, and I could have asked the publisher, “Are you sure you want to sell the book? It's okay if you don't. I won't be offended.”

RS: Are you apprehensive about your work being perhaps so dark or absurdist that a lot of people simply wouldn't get it, especially given the basic timbre of American humor, cartooning, and art making?

DS: I don't know. A lot of stuff that I like that comes from America is graphic art, and is dark as can be. There's a lot of stuff that is born in America that is way darker than what I do. That's for sure. I think there's a place for it, but what the publisher wants to know is, “How many people are prepared to buy the book?” I don't think I'm going to be on the Jay Leno show or anything like that.

I think there's perhaps a perception of people in the UK, who haven't been to the United States that they're all Christian fundamentalist right-wing Republicans, and few Democrats, or a watered-down version of the same thing, and they don't realize — politically, even — that Noam Chomsky's from America. There’s this giant panorama of points of view in politics, just as there’s giant panorama of appreciation for different forms of culture, and different forms of art. I've shown here, and I've sold books. People come to the events that I do, and they come to the exhibitions, and I suppose they buy the art there. Anyway, we're giving it a go.


RS: Could you talk a bit about your TV commission “Who I Am and What I Want,” your work of animation about a man who, isolated in the woods, recounts the life that brought him there?

DS: It was based on a book that I published a few years before that's called “Who I Am and What I Want,” and I worked with an animator and the director. It was the first longer piece of animation that I've done and also the only book that had a character in it. I always want to make longer narratives, but somehow the films that I make end up being a lot shorter. But I really like characters, and working with actors, because there's a lot more scope for comedy in that. It's something that I will do more of, and part of my desire to make the opera is part of that. It's got a lengthly narrative, which is somehow subverted or made easier by the fact that it's set to music and all the words are sung. It's a piece of music, like words to a very long song. I think there's always a kind of a character in most of the things that I do.

RS: Is it a version of yourself? An avatar?

DS: No. It's just a person who's allowed to say a lot of really weird stuff that one isn't allowed to say, and one wouldn't want to say. Maybe it's some kind of cathartic device, but I don't think too hard about it. Like I say, the work is arrived very intuitively. It's not something I think about too much. And quite often, you're sort of aware when you're having a conversation like this, that you're saying things that then become like some kind of manifesto of yours. That's inevitable, because I've been doing this a long time.

RS: And you’ve been interviewed a lot too. I think I read something by you saying “wanting to fill the page.” Or wanting to draw something that you like.

DS: Yeah. My only task is to fill the page. And once the page is full, that's the drawing finished. Obviously, there's only a one-in-four chance that it'll survive the editing process, but that is the way of it.

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