Interview with Neil Mulholland

Neil Mulholland: A key aspect of your work for me is its ambient character. Vignettes crop up in public spaces unannounced and disappear quickly and quietly. This seemed to be a strategy you shared with some of your peer group when you were an art student in Glasgow in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Can you say something about how this work came about and what you feel about it now?

David Shrigley: In terms of making 'public' art I've never felt that I wanted anything I did to last. This was (and still is) partly because I don't want to permanently alter the world. I don't feel I have the right to. Only the city council is allowed to change things forever. And also partly because I like the mystery of transient things. I feel that among my artist peer group I am the only one who has really made a lot of 'public art'. I felt that when I graduated from the Environmental Art course at GSA I was really a quintessential public artist, more so than anyone else, but I don't think any of my teachers agreed with me.

NM: I can still remember the photograph of your ŒHell‚ motorway sign in your degree show. I'm sure lots of other people who went do too; it was certainly a stand out work that year. Why do you think that a Department famed for being progressive and open failed to see the potential in this work? Did they have a vision of public art as permanent or being based in direct work with members of the community?

DS: I suppose it's a bit sad for me to still be whingeing about my degree mark after all this time, and probably quite arrogant on my part to assume my former tutors were in error (but I'm still glad you agree!). There is a trend within the UK to try to make art education more academic which does not just manifest itself in making Fine Art students write more essays but also into justifying their art practice by placing it into some kind of theoretical framework. In the Environmental Art Department that meant 'researching the site'. I personally could not see how researching the slip road on junction 20 of the M8 was going to help my artwork, so I didn't.
I think it's a case of 'It works in practice but does it work in theory?' I have subsequently taught students in my old department and my eyes glaze over when I am presented with their public art project books which contain detailed histories of the Co-op car park and other such fascinating places.

NM: There's a real sense in your early work that you were trying to reinvent your immediate environment in very subtle (and inexpensive) ways, using unobtrusive signs and cheap sets. You still make art in this manner, a good example being the recent River for Sale sign. This strategy has become very big in the advertising world in the UK since the late 1990s. There has been a big split recently in the UK between the 'legitimate' Outdoor Advertising Association and 'guerrilla media' ambient stuntmen associated with the newly founded Out of Home Media Association. You've been quite an influence on the latter group, so much so that you've recently been asked to speak to St. Luke's, a top London agency with designs on the ambient sector. Were you aware of the impact your work has had in this field; do you welcome it?

DS: I'm surprised that my work has had this kind of impact. I'm obviously flattered by the attention I get. The ironic thing is that on a subconscious level I think that I made these works in response to advertising. Certainly in response to signage in general which advertising forms a part. I'm pretty ambivalent about the world of advertising. I think it's boring. It only exists to sell things.

NM: I think you‚re right. There is a great deal of competition between agencies to outgun each other in this area, both for personal kudos and to gain new clients. Acclaim Entertainment seem to have gone farthest so far by paying bereaved relatives to allow ad placements on their loved ones‚ gravestones for the launch of Shadowman 2, on PlayStation2. I wonder how this would have been received when you were studying Environmental art given its close proximity to some of the strategies encouraged in the late 1980s. Environmental art in Glasgow always had a critical relationship towards advertising, drawing on photoconceptual work from the mid-1970s. Perhaps this was just was boring as advertising itself, since all it did was tell people that advertising is trying to sell us things. I like to think of your drawing, Cup of Tea for Sale (date??????????) disparaging this mindfield of mediocrity. Something so unassuming and pleasantly ordinary demotes the Œnecessity‚ to counteract commercial intrusions in everyday life by turning the whole slick political apparatus of ads and anti-ads on its head. I‚m not sure that this can be said of some of your peers. One corollary of the success of contemporary public art in Glasgow is that you can‚t go for a pint these days without being accosted by a Kenny Hunter sculpture or blinded by a be-spoke Douglas Gordon neon. Maybe the proliferation of officially sanctioned ambient art isn‚t too far from the current brandalism and spamming of the ad world?

DS: I think that if the public works I made were ever officially sanctioned it would make me stop wanting to make them. Not because I'm some kind of habitual rebel but because I don't want people to see what I do as Fine Art, or at least not the work of a Fine Artist. When it's sanctioned it can never be seen as anything other than Fine Art. In 1999 I collaborated with a group of architects to redevelop a site in the Possilpark area of Glasgow. The redevelopment consisted of a park and play area for which I added some texts from a childrens' encyclopaedia which were sandblasted into the concrete surfaces. I also included some giant feet carved in sandstone which were supposed to suggest the remnants of a giant statue. Along with the rest of the project the feet got heavily vandalised almost immediately. The project as a whole was quite a frustrating experience for various reasons and not one that I am particularly proud of or would care to repeat, but curiously I now think the carved feet look much more like a piece of my work than they did when they were initially finished. First they were covered with graffiti and the toenails were painted. Next the toes were smashed off and eventually one whole foot was removed. I guess they now conform to my aesthetic, or maybe their destruction served as some kind of catharsis for me. In the same way I now like the statue of Donald Dewar which was recently installed in Glasgow city centre and was vandalised within hours. Vandals climbed up the giant figure and mangled poor Mr. Dewar's spectacles with a hammer. Some months later the late (first ever) first minister of the new Scottish Parliament still stands with his spectacles awry reminding me somehow of the late British comedian Eric Morecambe.

NM: For most of the early 1990s your work appeared in your own publications such as Slug Trails (1991) and Blanket of Filth (1994), or was to be found in public spaces. In this sense, you held onto the values of public art, that it should be something that took place outside conventional art establishments. How do you consider your gradual transition to gallery spaces, starting most notably with your solo show Map of the Sewer at Glasgow's Transmission in 1995? (Do you think this took you longer than other Environmental Art graduates, if so why?)

DS: When I left art school I didn't think that I was going to be the kind of artist that showed in galleries. This wasn't really because I didn't want to but because I thought I couldn't. I didn't think it was possible to make a living as an artist, not in Scotland anyway. Not when you only got a 2:2 for your degree and were not in possession of the requisite social skills (or burning ambition) to schmooze to with important people. I was not a winner in those days. I think I must have been smoking quite a lot of dope. I was also learning to play the guitar which took up a lot of my spare time. When I left art school I decided that I wanted to be a cartoonist. Even though I didn't know anything about being a cartoonist I thought I could be a success at it. I wasn't very good at drawing (by art school standards) but I thought I could compensate for that with interesting content. The Easter holiday before I graduated I had been in bed with the flu for a few days and had done this one page cartoon strip called 'Tiny Urban Cowboy' and that got me thinking about being a cartoonist. I had always made a great many drawings while I was at art school but they were mostly confined to my notebooks. I re-drew some of these into what I thought constituted a cartoon format and with them I self-published my first two books. I was of course a failure at being a cartoonist; no magazines or newspapers were interested. Most bookshops were reluctant to stock my books. In 1994 I published my third book 'Blanket of Filth'. The drawings in this book were taken directly from my notebook without any attempt to make them look nice. It felt much more comfortable producing books in this way. On the strength of 'Blanket of Filth' I was commissioned to make an Artists' book by Bookworks in London. I had never considered my books to be artists' books before then, but I didn't object, as they were the first people to show any real interest in what I did. So I suppose at that point I became an artist and not a cartoonist anymore. During these first years after art school I still made public artworks around my neighbourhood and I even had a studio where I made sculptures (most of which I destroyed) but I think that if I had been a success as a cartoonist that's probably what I would be doing today rather than Art. I think I probably owe a debt of gratitude to my good friend Jonathan Monk who was the first (of my friends) to tell me that my cartoons were crap and I should stick with the drawings from my notebook. Whilst I have always embraced and enjoyed the democracy and accessibility of my artwork being in book form, part of the reason I started making books was as a means of self-publicity, so I'd be lying if I said I make books as a natural progression from having studied environmental art. I think I'm an Artist now, not only because I was a failure as a cartoonist but also because the art world was most sympathetic to what I did. I guess exhibiting in galleries has come about as a kind of natural progression. Originally my drawings were black and white only because they were easy to reproduce that way, whereas now I often use colour and collage, etc. because the work is intended to be seen on the wall rather than on the page. Success in the art world seemed to come almost overnight for me. I never really sought it out, it just sort of happened. First I got this commission from Bookworks on the strength of this crappy photocopied book I'd been selling in the pub, and then a few weeks later I got asked to do a solo exhibition at Transmission. I think the sum total of my exhibiting experience between 1991 and 1995 was to have exhibited in two group exhibitions in Glasgow. The tradition at that time was that one Glasgow artist was asked to do a solo show at Transmission each year (the running of the gallery and exhibition program being the work of a committee of 4 or 5 artists), so it meant a lot to me at the time to be asked to do it.

NM: Your work has been turning up in unusual locations lately: the Canadian Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun, the American insurance company Allianz Risk Transfer's annual report and in the lyrics of an aspiring band's demo tape. I can see that some of these publications might interest you. What, for example, do you find appealing about Buddhism, one of the many religious allegories that appear in your work?

DS: I guess I'm pretty interested in Buddhism. I bought a book about it at the airport once. It was nice of the Buddhists to ask me to show my work in their magazine. They paid me in Karma, which was great, but I think it's worn off now. Since the book at the airport I've read quite a bit of Buddhist stuff and it makes a lot of sense to me. What I like most about the teachings of the Dalai Lama is that he's very un-dogmatic. Dogma is one of the things that annoys me about Christianity. God tells us to be virtuous at the risk of our going to hell. The Dalai Lama tells us to be virtuous because it makes everyone happy. I guess Buddhists also want to be virtuous so as to attain enlightenment and not be reincarnated as a gnat, but to his credit the Dalai Lama never labours the point. Having read His Holiness's autobiography I was interested to learn that he is not a vegetarian and that also in his youth he a liked to shoot small animals with a rifle.

NM: I particularly enjoyed looking at FEL, the Swedish translation of your book ERR, especially the way it carefully mimicked your wayward handwriting. FEL really emphasizes the way that your drawings focus on arbitrary systems and language games by making the text appear as image (at least this is how it looks to a non-Swedish speaker). The 'I's, a drawing consisting of the letter 'I' repeated to look like a family of stick men, becomes brilliantly pointless when translated into the Swedish 'Jagen'. I find these new contexts remarkable in the sense that they all function as argots, like technical talk, Piccadilly palare or prison slang. Do you have any plans to further develop the publishing contexts of your work beyond your own books and catalogues?

DS: Having my work translated into Swedish was a wonderfully absurd thing. It would be great to have it translated into Japanese. Maybe I should do it myself. I've been writing quite a lot of dialogue in my drawings lately as a way of trying to make work which is more narrative. I think that ultimately I'd like to create some kind of film, maybe an animation. In writing these short dialogues I try and create new vernaculars which borrow little bits of regional colloquialisms and mix them up with antiquated expressions and other stupid words that I make up. I like the fact that when you read it, it suggests it's supposed to read be in an accent but you have no idea which one. I think this might have something to do with having grown up in England and the having lived in Glasgow for a long time. When I first moved to Glasgow it took me about six months before I could understand what people were saying. I haven't picked up any accent in the 14 years that I've been here but I have picked up pieces of Glaswegian vernacular which I use without thinking. My mother often ridicules me for saying things like 'Och aye' in my East Midlands accent. She thinks I'm being silly.

NM: You were discussing a few strange misprints of your drawings in The Independent newspaper, such as the reproduction of the drawing Time to Reflect without the reflection! You also had to edit the mind map you made for Allianz Risk Transfer because of what they regarded to be blasphemous and offensive elements. It seems inevitable that these things will happen when you seek different audiences and contexts. How do you feel about your work being taken out of your hands in this manner?

DS: I guess you have to laugh about it. The things that the Independent on Sunday did to my work were so outrageous on some occasions that I couldn't really be angry. It just left me perplexed. The thing I did for Allianz Risk Transfer was funny. I didn't mind changing my work. It was still a good commission and I was glad to do it. Here is the letter I got from them (I've paraphrased a little);
Dear David,
I have listed in a clockwise direction starting in the upper left hand corner all the terms which have proven to be a problem for Allianz Risk Transfer. As I stated Allianz Risk Transfer is a very corporate, very American company......... DIE, MILK THEM & EAT THEM, CONTAINING VIRULENT PLAGUE FROM OUTER SPACE WHICH BRINGS THE DEAD BACK TO LIFE, CEASEFIRE? SHOOT HIM, DISPOSE OF CORPSE ?, LET IT STINK ?, YES, ACID, BURNING, BURIAL, DEEP, SHALLOW, DOG WILL FIND IT, WITH ANIMALS, PRISON, INSANE ASYLUM, MAY BE POISON, MIND OF THE PSYCHOPATH RENDERED WITH LINES, WAR.

NM: Maybe you see your work as an argot in its own right, as something that can't be translated. Could it be said to have a persona; is there something that can be referred to as a Shrigleyism?

DS: I'm sure my work does have a persona, but it's something that other people are more aware of than I am. I'm sure every artist has some kind of persona within his or her work to a greater or lesser degree. Maybe mine is more so because it my 'hand' is so evident and also because my 'voice' is so audible.

NM: People seem to engage with your drawings because they think they have an immediacy or authenticity about them. This, in turn, is how they have been presented in major drawing shows such as Surfacing at the ICA in London. Do you think this is misrepresents your drawings? Are they genuinely spontaneous (especially when compared with earlier books such as Merry Eczema); do they grow over a long period of time or do you want to get them over with as quickly as possible?

DS: I draw them very quickly and then I think about them for a long time to try to figure out if they're any good. I have a box that I put drawings into when they're finished. It is called my 'artistic distance' box. I leave the drawings in the box for weeks or months (sometimes years) and then I have a look at them again. If they're still no good after 2 years I throw them away. If they're no good in the first place I don't even put them in the box, they go straight in the bin. I think I throw a lot more away now than I used to. Last month I threw away 200 drawings. It's a good thing to do once in a while but it can be dangerous as it's quite addictive and you can end up throwing all of your possessions away; furniture, CDs, legal documents, or worse still you can start throwing away things that don't belong to you such as your girlfriend's clothing or rare books that have been lent to you.

NM: Your drawings are often compared with those made by abject slackers such as the American Pathetic Aestheticians Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw. However, you've said that you're far more influenced by writers such as Donald Bartheleme than by other artists. Bartheleme is something of a postmodern absurdist in the tradition of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and the writings of Joyce and Borges. The narrator of his short story 'Chablis' in his book 40 Stories - a man who examines his wife and child as though they were aliens - seems very close to the point of view expressed by your work. Do you think Bartheleme's black humour has had a major impact on what you do, or does it appeal to you because of what you do? Are there other writers that you're interested in?

DS: I very much admire Donald Barthelme and have done since I first was introduced to his writing when I was a teenager. What I really like about his writing is the way that he allows you glimpses of great profundity in amongst the playful 'literary exercises' he seems to be engaged in. To what extent I am influenced by him I'm not sure. I'd like to think my humour is my own but I guess it must have evolved incrementally, borrowing bits from various sources along the way. I'm probably influenced by a great many different writers. I was thinking about the 'Talking Heads' series by Alan Bennett the other day while I was writing some dialogue in one of my drawings. I identify with his characters a great deal, as much as for how compassionate Bennett is towards them as for their delightful 'kitchen sink' dialogue. I also like Ivor Cutler, but only his recordings, I've never been much interested in his publications. People keep mentioning Tristram Shandy to me but I still haven't got around to it yet. Obviously the absurd is an important part of what I do, but I'm not really interested in it in a Monty Python kind of way. I find Monty Python quite tedious. Donald Berthelme's work is what I aspire to. I've never really identified closely with artists such as Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw, though I really like what they do.

NM: The important thing about writers such as Bartheleme is their use of metafiction, a form of writing that comments on itself, informing the reader of the processes that the narrator is going through as they write. This can be found in a great deal of contemporary art, but your work seems to take a literary angle rather than be caught up with well-worn problems that are just to do with visual art. You deliberately use blotches, score-outs, blank pages and typographical marks to draw attention the paradoxical status of the artist (simultaneously omnipotent and impotent) and to your work's status as an artefact (most notable on the botched dust jackets of ERR and Blank Pages and Other Pages). To me, it always seems that you manage to do this without getting overly analytical or grimly ironic. It all seems to hang on distinguished puns, individual invention and spontaneous fabrication at the expense of external reality or literary and artistic tradition. Do you think this is the case? Is this metafictive aspect something that you'd like to play down?

DS: I don't think I could really do the kind of work that I do if I was making work about any aspect of art history or art theory. In fact I don't think I could do it if I tried to make work about anything. I do obviously take pleasure in using the devices you mention but my using them has really come about intuitively; the fact that you can describe what I'm doing better than I can is probably an illustration of this. All my work is pretty intuitive; I think it must be fairly evident. I have starting points, but I have no idea where I'm going.

NM: I suppose another way of looking at what you do would be to think of the world itself as fictional. Your sculptures work well in this sense I think. You perform the pathetic fallacy, giving eyes to fallen trees and pulled teeth, resurrecting them to prey on the humans that destroyed them. Your sculptures don't have the same degree of roughness as your drawings; they are normally quite finished and cartoon-like which seems appropriate to me, as this is how I always imagined drawings would look if they were to become flesh. The whole process reminds me of It's a Good Life, a classic episode of the Twilight Zone (1961) where a young boy has the power to make the world in his own image and decides to turn his rural community into a Loony Toon. Many of your sculptures seem to take on things that don’t exist or are impossible in some way (for example, what does Crud look like?) Nevertheless, some critics seem to have had problems with your sculptures, assuming that you should always work in the same way or that there should be a direct correlation between the drawings and sculptures. Maybe the finished sculptures don't have the same formal insecurity that your drawings and plasticine models seem to have but does this really matter; is this all that people should be looking for in your work?

DS: I like your explanation. I understand why a lot of people don't like my sculpture compared to my drawing but I don't know what they expect me to do about it (apart from stop making sculpture).

NM: Since your show at the London Photographer's Gallery in 1997, your photographs have become progressively involved with issues that traditionally concern fine art photographers, rather than being documents of ambient works. For example, This Way Up, a recent photograph of a cardboard box next to a graffitoed wall, plays on photographic verisimilitude and the notion that images passively reflect a coherent world by making a pun concerning photographic transparencies. Your diptych photographs explore the old device of juxtaposition. You find some fantastically dumb dichotomies drawn from everyday life, such as a graveyard vs. a rollercoaster. You've even been making collages of horses and cats, animals that seem to live in their own independent, self-contained photographic systems. Some of this work reminds me of the more playful photography produced by conceptual photographers such as Keith Arnatt (I'm thinking of his Self-Burial Piece) in the late 1970s. You use similarly outdated techniques (glue and scissors), and comparable devices (juxtaposition, image-text and collage). What you produce has none of the anodyne hectoring self-consciousness that photographers always seem to bring to these techniques and devices. Is this something that you've been actively seeking?

DS: As with my other work, I probably haven't really ever set out to do anything in particular with my photographs, the point that I'm at right now has just sort of happened. As you noted, my earlier photographs were just documents of things that needed to be documented, it was only comparatively recently that I started to think about my photographs as having the possibility to be something other than that. I take a lot of photographs without having anything in mind. Sometimes I draw on them, sometimes they appear interesting on their own or when juxtaposed with another image. It's interesting you should mention Keith Arnatt because I find all that conceptual stuff (particularly by British artists) really amusing. I'd like to think they took themselves really seriously at the time (probably most of them did but I'm not sure about Keith Arnatt) but now it all seems brilliantly daft. There was a big survey show of British Conceptual Art at the Whitechapel in London a couple of years ago which was great. I got the impression that most of the artists felt they were doing something really groundbreaking, almost like they had made a scientific discovery. Someone should write a gentle comedy about it starring seasoned British comic actors (in the same vein as Dad's Army).