In many ways, Corbin Shaw is a walking contradiction. His work embodies the culture of the lager-drinking, football-watching emotionally repressed lad. But that’s the very archetype that it’s trying to deconstruct. He’s proud of his working-class Yorkshire roots, which is why he’s ran off to pompous bourgeois North London. This may sound like a scathing attack, but it’s actually what makes his work so beautiful. There are contradictions within all of us and acknowledging them enables us to break down the performative ideas of identity which have been so deeply entrenched in our society.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 47. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Being proud of your hometown doesn’t mean you can never leave. Being able to vocalise your emotions doesn’t make you a ‘soft lad’, as Corbin’s dad use to put it. Corbin’s work, in a way that’s often amusing or heart- breaking, deconstructs these rigid definitions of class, masculinity, and geographical divides, and places value on the complexity of identity. This championing of the ordinary can be seen in the photo series he’s produced for METAL, King Midas for the Day, which places high fashion couture alongside seemingly everyday items from his life, which have had their status elevated via a gold paint job.
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Corbin, to kick off with, could you tell me about the concept behind your new photo series King Midas for the Day?
I’ve been quite obsessed with gold for a while, I actually made gold casts of a ball and the first pair of football boots I was ever given. But this was about questioning which objects need to be elevated and which need to be deflated. What needs a platform and what doesn’t? Essentially, I want to take everyday items and turn them into artworks. Then I have this golden signature, a golden wand for the readymade. I really wanted to just take a series of objects from my life and turn them into sculptures. Oliver Truelove and I went around with a big bag of gold spray paint and found objects in the street, we had a gold tie, a gold breakfast, and all sorts. It references Duchamp’s theory of the readymade with one of those four-way urinals. I like assigning objects a new status. I do the same with gold as I do with the Burberry nova check – it’s very valuable but very tacky. It’s view differently on both sides of the coin, in a class way. With Burberry there’s this cycle of reappropriation and give and take with the working classes.
We also interviewed Maurizio Cattelan for this issue, who famously sold a banana taped to a wall as an art piece. In a sense your work feels like the positive incarnation of this idea, whereas his was more of a ‘fuck you’ to the art world.
Yeah well, I feel like the readymade is quite a cocky thing to do. You’ve really got to back yourself if you’re going to just present an unaltered object as is and decide that it’s art. I don’t know how I feel about the banana. I mean, can I get away with spray painting something gold and calling it art? Cause I quite like the idea that with the photo series, the objects could be catalogued. Part of the idea was inspired by this magazine from the 90s called Sleazenation. Scott King, the creative director, presented all these photos of football hooligans fighting as if it was a fashion editorial. Actual photos taken by the police and the newspapers but catalogued like a shoot; hooligan to the left wears Umbro jacket, Levi’s 501s and adidas Hamburgs. I wanted mine to follow that same sort of narrative, with my objects sitting alongside these high fashion items of clothing. Basically, I love tat and bootlegging.
Thematically, it reminds me of the old saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle”. Do you think the glorification of the seemingly mundane aspects of one’s culture is a uniquely British phenomenon?
The way I’m thinking about England at the minute is that as we’re living through the fading embers of the empire, people feel like it’s their duty to live out this sort of trickle-down lifestyle set by the royal family, who set the precedent of what class and elegance are. It’s a bit like the Burberry thing, with people on different levels of the class system parodying each other. One thing that’s interesting about England is that there’s this idea that the here and now has to live harmoniously with history. Photographer Martin Parr does a great job of showing just how hilarious England is, how it has its own idea of itself as this great empire that did all these brilliant things. But when you actually investigate it, it’s quite pathetic in a way. This is something I now have to look at when making works with the St. George’s cross – it comes back to this idea of elevating things, if I put the English flag up on the wall it feels a bit too heroic. It’s giving it this platform that it doesn’t really need. I’m trying to dissolve and deflate the ego of England, if anything the flag needs to be on the floor, it needs to be flaccid. I guess a lot of my work is very phallic.
Going from a traditional working-class upbringing in Sheffield to the ultra-progressive bourgeois melting pot of arts and culture that is Central Saint Martins must have been quite the paradigm shift. Were there teething problems with adjustment? Or did you feel you’d found your spiritual home?
Yeah, there was a massive culture shift. I basically only realised who I was until I moved there and realised how different life was in London, especially in those crits and classrooms. At first, I was quite angry realising the massive difference between life experiences. These people talking about the way they’d been brought up and the experiences they’d had already seemed very geared up for the student environment and so initially I had a real sense of imposter syndrome and thought I’d made the wrong decision to be there. But I came to realise that not being institutionalised in the same way that they had was more of a superpower than an impediment, because I felt that my take on things was at least original. Obviously, sometimes I wouldn’t get it right and I had to learn a new language of art jargon which I still haven’t quite got down.
As a creative, if you can make something accessible and digestible, without it being too pretentious then you’ve done your job. If you can explain your idea to someone from outside of the art world and get them on board with it, then I think you’ve done your job. Often people get wrapped up in this pretentious jargon which they think embellishes ideas, but really it just confuses people. In fact, some of the most interesting comments on artworks that I’ve heard have come from my parents because they just shoot from the hip and say how they feel which is the most genuine thing really, which is lacking in London sometimes.
I was mute for my first year at CSM. I didn’t say a single word to anyone. I just daren’t. Everyone just had so much knowledge, they were like well oiled machines. People would present their work and immediately be fired back at with all these artists that they’d supposedly ripped off. Some people would leave the crits crying. That was a massive lesson I learnt actually that you have to detach yourself from the work, even if it is autobiographical, because criticism of the work is not criticism of you. I don’t know if I’d recommend it actually, Central Saint Martins (laughs).
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You recently said that “blokecore is just geezer cosplay”. Do you think class tourism is a problem in fashion? Or is the middle-class urge to wear some Stoney and be ‘one of the lads’ just an inevitable fact of life?
For me now when I think about wearing stuff, I think about the history of where the clothes have come from, and I don’t think a lot of people actually really consider that. I get funny now when I’m going to wear something that I would’ve happily worn when I was younger, like hand-me-down T90 tracksuits and things like that. If I wear it now, I feel like I’m going into that sector of people wearing stuff which isn’t true to the tribe that they’re from. When I look at ‘blokecore’ though, to me it just looks like an American getting it wrong, not understanding the look. Although in my head it’s all about this idea of inauthenticity, like that Stone Island jumper that I made with all the badges. Men are just so obsessed with logos. When football lads go to a game and they get their photo taken with the f lag, they’ll all show off their arm to get the Stone Island badge in, and that is this signifier of the fact that ‘I am a real lad’. My dad always used to talk about this idea of ‘being a top boy’ – i.e., the head of a group of men. I’ve never been that person, but I have quite pathetically attempted it at points. I nearly dropped out of sixth form to be a welder with my dad I bought a Vauxhall Corsa and tried to live this town lad lifestyle. I was just so confused about who I wanted to be. Every day we dress up as someone – fashion is a performance set by these cultural pacemakers. In the documentary Paris is Burning, these queer men dress in drag as straight men to question the idea of realness. I think to some extent this is what we all do every day. We dress up as idealised versions of ourselves. In Saturday Night Fever, one of my favourite films, there’s this amazing scene where John Travolta is getting ready in the morning and he’s looking at all of his posters of Al Pacino, Bruce Lee and other stars, and he is piecing his own identity together through all of these idols up on his walls. Men are always obsessed with other men, looking at them all of the time but it’s left unsaid, especially in the context of straight men. It’s this complex idea of identity that I’m trying to boil down.
When did you decide to make text-based art your trademark style? You previously mentioned an anecdote about a friend of your father.
The first flag I made was a parody of a flag that Sheffield United have, it’s a massive three-tiered banner that says, ‘We hate Wednesday’ (United’s rival team). I inverted this to have a flag as a message of love rather than hate, with one that said, ‘We should talk about our feelings’. At the time that I brought that out, the World Cup was going on and we were seeing this new form of patriotism, of a very multicultural England that I’d never really seen before. This very charged flag shifted to seemingly have more inclusive connotations. But as is often the case with football, it only takes one thing to go wrong for this whole spirit to be completely flipped.
The other origin to the flags is a story my dad told me about one of his best mates from his youth who took his own life. All the men in his mining village made these flags in ode to him. It really touched me how these rigid and stoic men were able to express themselves through that medium. I always feel like these kinds of men can only express their emotions very subtly, but when you notice it, it’s so beautiful. This is where my ‘Soften up hard lad’ flag came from; I was looking at the language that my dad used to police my behaviour, as well as what I did, what I wore, and what I said. Not that he’s a bad person, he’s just a product of his time, of how he’s grown up and been spoken to. This is a pattern that gets passed down, this competition with every other man to be a hardened ideal with all this bravado and swagger. I’ve realised now that I can’t just dress up as a lad, I can only be myself. But sixteen-year-old me didn’t know that – I’m not tough but I don’t want to be tough.
As for the slogans, I just love their directness. The font that I use is actually the one from the S*n newspaper. I’m really interested by these nonsense statements made by the tabloids, and how that font looks like part and parcel of English life. Not that I’m proud of it, but I used to pick up the S*n and the Star from the shop for my dad. When I was a teenager who was a bit more politically aware I’d ask why he was reading these papers and he said he just wanted something to read while he ate his breakfast. He didn’t believe in it he just wanted something to look at.
But I know that being exposed to these papers changes the way that you think, especially when you’re young, like a sponge absorbing everything.
Be it the St. George’s flag, the recurring Burberry Nova Check, or the Kintsugi Sports Direct mug – there’s no getting around the fact that football is at the very heart of the imagery of your work. However, you’ve previously alluded to a detachment from the culture which your work examines. Just how enamoured are you personally with the ‘beautiful game’?
I love it and I hate it. It’s so problematic and so beautiful simultaneously. I’ve actually learnt to love football more through making my work. Growing up with football I had no choice really, my dad took me to see Sheffield United from age 2 all the way until I left the city. I saw the highs and lows, a lot of shit really. The whole city’s very tribal really, it’s either United or Wednesday depending on who your dad supports. Football was the only time that my dad and I would actually sit together and talk. All the sort of ‘big conversations’ would either happen in the stands or on the way to a game or something. In fact, I remember telling my dad I lost my virginity the morning after it happened, sat in a Weatherspoon’s before a game.
For me, what I love about football is how it looks, how it sounds, how it smells, how it tastes. I’m not really into the technical details and all that shit, I like names, designs, songs. I love the personalities on the pitch, the villains, the pantomime, the drama. Football is so much more than just a game; I know that’s been said a thousand times in a million different advertising campaigns, but it really is. Like for me, it was a way to connect with my dad, and I’m sure it’s the same with thousands of other people worldwide. It brings people together, but it also tears people about. What I love about football is all the other bits, other than what’s going on on the pitch. I love it – it’s awful.
One of my personal favourites from your oeuvre is the He Cried for our Sins tapestry depicting a Jesus- ified Gazza. Would it be a stretch too far to say that football is the true religion of modern-day Britain?
Yeah, it is in a way. All these characters play out their stories on this theatre we call the pitch. I don’t think it happens quite so much anymore, that’s why I was so interested in Gazza as a character. He was this tragic Shakespearean protagonist that was doomed from day one. These days if players show any sort of personality they get absolutely crucified. What I was getting at with this piece is how these characters like Gazza who, for all the problematic things associated with them, are good people eat their core, get crucified by the press just for being entertaining. People forget that footballers are meant to be entertainers. The press really ruined Gazza; they killed his spirit. But people love to see this rise and fall of characters – people like seeing heroes fall because it seems real and they can connect it with the misery in their own lives. Celebrities seem like untouchable beings that are so unlike us, and I think it’s that which has ushered in this new era of celebrities: content creators on TikTok and the like are so popular with teenagers because they look like them, they sound like them, and they just do normal things.
What really intrigued me about Gazza is how he famously cried on the pitch on that night in Turin at Italia 90. The footage is so beautiful. In the height of lad culture, one man could show a whole nation that it was okay to cry. He was really mocked for it in the press and in adverts, but he really owned it. In that moment he felt like he’d failed England, but really England had failed him.
You produced an intriguing audio-sculptural installation in a which a pub setting was the venue for a conversation about how your parents met. How did you devise the idea for this piece? And how confident are you in experimenting with different media?
I don’t experiment as much as I should do these days, but that came about after I went to see Mark Leckey’s exhibition at Tate Modern and read about the Stone Tape Theory. This interesting but fake idea that spaces could absorb the events which had happened in them. I was interested in the battle between memory and truth, and whether it really mattered. I rang my parents up and spoke to them individually about this night they met in the pub, and I got two completely different accounts of the same night, and it’s interesting to hear what they were conscious of and what was important to them, like what they wore or what they spoke about, and it’s so different on each side. My mum’s was really descriptive and heartfelt, and my dad’s was so simple, just speaking about what was happening at the time. Then it ends with my dad being so drunk that he pulls my mum over the table, and she storms out of the room.
For me growing up somewhere like Sheffield, the past was always so present. There are monuments all over the city that hark back to this coal trade, I grew up right next to an old mine. Sheffield feels like it’s never moved on, as a lot of the North does. There’s this romantic idea of the legacy of the industry which is constantly being talked about. I just find it an interesting idea that after that one night their entire lives changed, I wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for that night. The pub where it happened has been demolished – I wanted their conversation to help create an imaginary idea in people’s heads of what that lost pub was actually like on that one evening all those years ago. The world’s a stage and we’re merely the players. The pub is this space where all of these things take place.
Being born, the christening is at the pub, then you’ll go as a kid growing up, you’ll have your wedding after party at the pub, then you’ll die and have your wake at the pub. So, when these spaces are demolished, all of these memories are being destroyed. I actually made a plaque commemorating my mum and dad meeting and left it at the site of where the pub once stood. Old England is slowly fading away.
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Back in 2020 you did a performance piece at Sheffield’s Stones Brewery, reflecting on the link between the repetitiveness rave music’s beats and the repetitiveness of the manual labour that took place in the very same warehouses. How does it feel for these cultural movements and industries to be such relics of the past in the modern age?
A lot of Sheffield now is empty, there are a lot of factories which aren’t in use. I feel conf licted about it – a lot of people have this romanticised idea that everything should just stay the same forever. I’d like this country to have its own industry again, but I don’t think it ever will. My dad is one of the last of his kind, being a welder in the steel city. He in his self is a relic of a different time. It feels special to say that my dad is a welder, and that my grandma was a cutler. These people are of a time when there were trades with their hands. That’s being lost a bit. It’s quite melancholic having these big empty spaces across the city. The space where I did that piece is like a battleground these days. What’s happening now is that on the site of these old industries, new model villages and old pubs are being demolished to be replaced with chains – and they’re made to serve factories for Amazon and Pretty Little Thing. In a way they’re like the modern equivalent of the mines, but they won’t be adopted as part of the city’s identity in the same way. I want to make a mining banner about Pretty Little Thing because to some people it almost feels disrespectful to have all this built on these sacred places where there was a real cultural struggle. The Battle of Orgreave (a violent clash between striking workers and the police in 1984) is now just commemorated with a wheel in a field surrounded by these new-build houses. It’s sad in a way. It’s romanticised through video, but it was actually a horrible time. Men having to be breadwinners down the mines didn’t have a nice lifestyle, so maybe things have changed for the better. My uncle’s from this time and we just don’t understand each other. He uses quite homophobic language and was taking the piss out of me for wearing rings – these hardy men were formed by those times. I don’t blame them for it, it’s the environment and lack of education in these areas that has created what we see today.
To bring the conversation into the digital age: let’s talk tech. As contrived as the social media question an be, it seems that developing your craft in the age of the internet has really benefited your status as a creative. How valuable do you think social media is as a tool for the modern artist? And how do you think it has changed the landscape of the creative sphere?
I think it’s benefited artists on the whole. You can be your own promoter on Instagram, and it means that you don’t have to move to London to achieve anything. You can have a studio at home and curate yourself through social media. Instagram is dying in a way now, the algorithms make it more difficult. I do think it is beneficial though and I’d tell young artists that you don’t have to leave home to make it as an artist. Using social media to connect with other artists is really valuable; I’ve been able to share interests and ideas with other like-minded artists. One thing that’s negative about social media is that you can get into a cycle of producing work one piece at a time just to post it on social media. It needs to be remembered that there should be an artist’s process. Nothing’s final.
This idea of having to please the algorithm does just seem so dystopian. Having to adapt your artistic output to make sure it gets the right interactions. Otherwise it will just get lost in the ether.
Well my work was successful because it had text on it. It’s not that deep or profound sometimes. You just read it and it might make you laugh or think about something, just like an advertisement.
Sheffield’s two most famous musical exports would probably have to be Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys. Both of these bands look at the nature of youth culture and masculinity through a similar outsider/insider lens to that through which your work comes from. Have they or any other Sheffield bands informed the tone of your work?
I really connect with the Arctic Monkeys as a band, because they made their first album as twenty-year-olds in Sheffield, with all the stories and the angst that they went through, and encapsulated it so well. But slowly they evolved, and they’ve become what they are today. People always talk about Alex Turner types leaving Sheffield and forgetting their roots, a lot of that just comes from a changing accent. But you can’t make the same work when you don’t live somewhere anymore. Someone in a shop the other day was saying how rubbish their new album was, and he wanted the old style back. But you can’t do that. You have to evolve through the years and the albums, becoming new versions of yourselves, like Bowie. If Alex Turner was writing songs in 2022 about what it felt like to be a nineteen-year- old it would be very strange.
Jarvis Cocker really influenced me. I have his book Good Pop, Bad Pop. It’s all about where ideas come from as he goes through old stuff in his loft. It’s so nice when someone’s talking about home and you can see yourself in those situations. When I was little, we’d rip the Monkey’s albums off of MySpace and have them in the car. It was amazing to hear someone singing about High Green and realising the music is us – it represents us. Being from Sheffield is like being born with this life sentence where you have to talk about and be proud about it. I always ask myself if I love it so much then why did I leave? Why do I slag it off all the time? I’m so proud to be from there and proud of what it’s achieved. But I find it really complicated being there. It’s a real love-hate relationship. Those are my people but when I’m there I feel like an alien.
This issue is looking at the concept of value and how it can be defined. What are British values? What are working-class values? Is the idea that these massive groups can be homogenous or have a uniform set of ‘values’ a fantasy?
I don’t think we’re really that united anymore. The only things that I’ve seen unite people recently are football and the death of the Queen. Which is bonkers really. People from up and down the class system mourned her death, and they do the same with football. It’s politics that takes that all apart. Without the collective workforces and trade unions of the past, people just aren’t so united.
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In previous interviews you’ve mentioned your childhood love of film. Are there any films in particular which have particularly resonated with your upbringing in South Yorkshire? Something by Shane Meadows perhaps?
Have you seen Kes? That’s a good one. It’s quite a big question to be honest. As I mentioned earlier, my favourite of all time is Saturday Night Fever. Nick Love’s The Firm is a good one about these 80s football groups. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s interesting to see how this boy infiltrates this group by imitating the way they talk and dress.
What do your parents think of your work?
They like it. We’ve learnt through the work together. Sometimes I find it difficult to express how I feel about certain things and through making the work I’ve been able to voice that because it’s brought these conversations to the forefront. They’re really honest about it; if they don’t like something, they’ll just tell me. I’ve made stuff and they’ve just told me that it’s rubbish. But that’s what's beautiful about it because it’s a vehicle to learn about each other. I grew up in a household where none of us really knew how to talk about ourselves, and I’m a very visual person so that’s what the work has enabled me to do. I have therapy now and I’ve been growing through how difficult I find it to come up with definitions of how I feel.
‘This time next year we’ll be millionaires’ is stitched upon one of your tea towel pieces, originally coming from a mug at your dad’s work. This sardonic attitude around the idea of money feels very British: what do you think this sarcasm-cum-nihilism says about the fabric of British society?
I think it’s bleak that there’s always help. It’s like having that carrot dangled in front of your face all the time. Maybe just one day... Things like the lottery are an enormous part of that, it goes against all the work ethic that we think about. The idea that hard work always pays, which isn’t always true. Everybody just wants that golden ticket. It’s a very British thing to just laugh through that misery. That’s what encapsulates my dad’s whole ethos. He wakes up at five in the morning and he won’t be home until five. In the winter the factory’s absolutely freezing and in the summer it’s absolutely boiling. I used to go in with him and see just how much he was grafting for me and my sisters. It’s something I find quite difficult now, because I feel like I owe my parents the world for everything they’ve done for me. My dad used to say, “Sometimes things are shit, son. But you’ve just got to do them. ” I try and take that ethos with a pinch of salt, but I have him and my mum with me through every single day and every decision that I make. I just want to make them proud. But I find it difficult to do something and just say that I’ve done that for me. But when things are shit I can just be like, its fine. It will end. Them saying things like that have been damaging and beneficial at the same time.
I’ve found that one of the saddest parts of the form of masculinity that your work scrutinises is the inability for men to sincerely praise their mates as actual people. In the spirit inverting that trope, which one of your mates most inspires you?
I’ve got some amazing mates. Hugo Hagger, Charlie Brewer and my girlfriend Flora, who’s my best mate just as much as she’s my partner. My pal Mitch Vowles is an amazing artist. And I guess, my dad. I’ll always say my dad. I’m not afraid to tell my friends that I love them when I need to, because we all need that don’t we. It means so much to get that sort of approval or praise from a peer. We need to do that more. Hug your mates. When you see videos from football fans you see these beautiful moments where these boys with these tribal mentalities, stood with pints in their hands, will see a goal go in and just embrace each other. In the moment, this rigid performance will just fizzle away and you get to see this loving. I’d love to see a world where that’s a bit more normal, and not just reserved for when a goal goes in.
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