The future is meant to be exciting. Yet these last few years have challenged that belief quite a bit, in ways we couldn’t expect. Meanwhile, pop culture has unexpectedly evolved to become stranger and absurd at times, especially in its aesthetics. Humour and absurdity are, arguably coping mechanisms. Whilst younger artists find themselves backed up against the wall, as older generations constantly remind them that everything has already been said, done, invented it becomes more and more difficult to create new references to explain the historical milestones of modern culture.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 47. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Certainly, we know that our biggest challenge right now is to save this planet and make it more liveable and more enjoyable for every one of us. And it’s a big statement because there are endless problems to be solved in order to slowly make our world a better place. And yet here we are under so many layers of cultural references, political ideas in disguise, so many tools to be closer to each other but we are still somehow stuck. The notion of value has so many readings, but we are facing a crisis in which we have lost the sense of respecting our value, and values, as a collective society.

Then, put art in the picture. Believing a conversation with an artist can change how you think, to see the world in a different way, and provide that tool the system is withholding for us is, to say the least, hopeful. Nonetheless, if the role of an artist is to play with ideas, we’re in luck speaking to Gavin Turk. The famous British artist and Doctor Honoris Causa in Art, Gavin Turk is living proof of the saying never settle. He is skilled in fresh artists starts. His work has dealt with themes of authorship, authenticity and identity, and has spanned many different artistic disciplines. His new show, In Search of Ariadne, opened at the beginning of October at the Heong Gallery (Cambridge) giving visitors the tools to unpack the form, context, and narratives wrapped up in a sculpture.

Is art really necessary? Can art change the world? Can culture stop this crisis? We have a lot to learn. One of the best things about hearing Gavin Turk address these topics is that he captures the imagination of the art world and public with his accessible ideas, and most importantly, hope.

 “We are never looking at one thing; we are always looking at the relationship between things and ourselves”, said John Berger in Ways of Seeing (1972). Maybe we need to go back and remember some things we have forgotten. Perhaps art is not only beautiful, but challenging, playful and fun, and in Turk’s case, it brings all these characteristics together to make it constructive and useful.
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Legend, 2018 - Acyrlic on canvas, 1105 x 1505 x 40mm.
Today you’re doing this interview and then the photoshoot later. I was wondering if this is a normal day in the life of Gavin Turk, or if not, what is a normal day in your life?
More recently I’ve become more structured. Since the pandemic, my days have become more similar. I go away at the weekends a bit but quite often I will come into the studio. I’ve definitely worked on myself in terms of trying to stay fit, eat well...
Yes, sleep! Exactly. I mean, doing the right amount of sleeping. I’ve just been quite careful with myself. There’s been a general trend towards that, and I don’t know how this kind of self-preoccupation really plays out. In the last couple of months, I’ve tried quite hard to put a little bit more space around screen time. I would say the screen seems to flatline your experience. It seems like everything’s available. It seems to give you this perfect availability, but at the same time it lays things out in a very specific order to kind of relate in a way to following lines of interest. The whole-time various algorithms are recreating a sort of version of you, which is then being fed back to reiterate that version of you. The notion of normal is quite an interesting concept because as an artist, I’m trying to understand what culture is, and as a process this false self is probably the opposite to that. Maybe it’s not the opposite, but the opposite to that could be what part of me is me, and what part of me is culture? So that notion of a typical day is almost the moment I would say it is typical, I’d start removing myself from that position and using that as a kind of test, an experiment. I try to live with the idea of always trying to see around the corners, trying to understand life through a set of possibilities and a set of options and alternatives. You find yourself realising that you’re living your life in various paradigms and a set of ideologies, a set of values. And we can look at it through the cultural filters where the whole ideas of morality and ethics and those sorts of dimensions come into question.
I was reading about your early work and found out a little bit about the story behind your famous piece that you did when you finished your studies at the Royal Art College. The piece is called Cave (1991) and I thought the memorial plaque was fantastic. I loved that you did that in a place like the RAC because I can almost imagine the faces of the principals and directors (laughs). But also, I think it’s such a good and specific way to show your value, in an empty space. Sometimes when we want to value things, we do it by showing the absence of it. I wanted to know how was that experience for you? Was value something that you thought you needed to protest about within this academic context?
Yes, so the work that I made was quite consistent with the work I had been making leading up to that. And I was looking at ideas of memory, and nostalgia as well because this ceramic disk in many ways comes out of a whole kind of cultural system of arts and crafts, and sort of nostalgia. So, there’s a kickback to making progress and to a system of remembering highlights from the past. This plaque contained all these culturally specific elements to it and then also we applied that to where I showed the plaque, which was in Kensington, and this is an area of London where they have all these kinds of grand memories of important people that have lived in a grand area. I suppose there was the idea of the blue plaque and then the white building. There was also the idea of inside and outside that I was very interested in, in terms of socially inside and physically inside. So, by placing the work inside, we were suggesting that inside the space, inside the gallery somehow that was outside. But one of the things about blue plaques is that quite often you don’t actually know who’s being remembered. So, there’s the sense of like the plaque itself is information about something which you didn’t know about before you came across the plaque. And sometimes, it gives you a little bit of history, of sociology where it tells you what the person did. Then it gives you a bit of location. So, all these questions of the reality status of the objects were all being played out in the work and I was also thinking about “the death of the author”, the idea that somehow by stating something, something disappears. Obviously, in the case of the heritage plaques, it suggests that the author isn’t there, that the author is dead.
It definitely challenged people, and it’s very interesting to talk about after you’ve explained your experience with screens during the pandemic because I think they reinforce a certain cultural reference, or at least cultural ways of thinking. It’s very impressive that you did that so early in your career. I read that they didn’t give you the degree because of this. And this is such a contemporary issue because sometimes we get valued by having a degree or having studied at a certain university. Do you think a university degree is that important?
I mean, it certainly is in terms of fine art. I think a qualification to teach art is the ability to communicate on lots of different levels. As much as anything I think it’s about being able to be sympathetic or sensitive enough to understand, or go somewhere, or listen to what someone else is doing if you want to teach art. But in lots of ways teaching art is giving other people the space for them to be creative. For them get to an idea or understand what it is that they are doing or maybe how their work is being perceived. I’m preoccupied by the idea that I’m always trying to dispel preconceptions or trying to play with people’s preconceptions. People come to artworks with such a strong idea of what it is and how the art they’re looking at is, that they can’t actually see it. They can’t really see the many ways it can operate.
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Purgatory, 2017 - Small fruit crate and netting in douglas fir plywood, 400 x 800 x 400mm.
I think that in almost all areas we are questioning what is normal, what has been considered normal for centuries, and now we are trying to see it is not just one thing, as not so important. The brief for this issue says, “You have never seen it all”, and I really liked that sentence because it makes me feel hopeful or optimistic. I think it’s very difficult for younger artists nowadays to do something that hasn’t been done before, you know, and I think that also sets people to challenge that is very, very difficult. And thinking about that, this may sound absurd, but do you think you’ve seen it all in the art world? And if not, is there something that you would like to see?
Um, no, of course not. When you say “See things” as well, there are levels of seeing something, you know, like, seeing something in your head. I think very much at the moment we are in this model of art where it has become formatted as this scenario of continual origin. So creativity is a series of new originals. It’s like your intellectual property. That’s my idea. I own that idea. And then if someone else comes along, they have to slightly change it. There are probably degrees with which they could change it. It’s almost like the legal terms of how they can change it, and I think everything’s become much more systematized and legalese in this particular way. But working collaboratively, understanding biases, into indigenous old, referencing deep human values, is really the most original thing. That’s the thing I want to see.
Obviously, there needs to be changed in many ways we live. We are lucky to be living in supposedly the first world, but how do we collectively improve it? Researching you and your work, I found you’ve been involved with Extinction Rebellion, who are fantastic, what’s that like?
It’s like there are two sides to my work. One is an artist, Gavin Turk, who’s a kind of normal person with a family (laughs). Working or spending time with Extinction Rebellion was something that has nothing really to do with art. But I think that being a pressure group that tries on a governmental level to affect change, and they start from very underprivileged people in places of the world where they’ve ended up having their climate affected so much by our activities. It’s very difficult. It’s about trying to come to terms with our white western privilege, and male as well and taking responsibility. I certainly feel it necessary to try as much as I can to understand it. Then, if I can, reflect some of that understanding in my art. So, there is a crossover between my political being and my artistic being, but that’s not to say I think art is very good at changing politics. It’s not a very clever political tool. It’s a poetic tool, it has the power to change the way that people think or to expose new ways of thinking. And it certainly could be in conflict with this idea of value. In terms of the marketplace, in terms of commercialism, you know, it’s not strictly speaking commercial. I mean to be commercial you really need to, or want to identify with the trends, or the right way of doing things. And quite often the highly commercial is actually the wrong way of doing things.
Yes, we must understand this, and we must use our privilege the best way we can. To be humble and accept we are part of this problem because we have been born in this part of the world, and we have been given this role. But I have this romantic view of art having the power to create change, at least, the way we think. An artist’s role seems very difficult, because it is culturally valuable, but to pay rent at the end of the month is so difficult for f ledgling artists. I imagine some struggle to choose to do the right thing. Artists have a lot of responsibility.
Yes, you said a lot there. I did find myself thinking, you know about the position of art as something that politically gets put together with sport. You have the Ministry for art and sport which gives the sense that art is a recreational activity, as if it’s good for you, but at the same time, it’s not entirely necessary. We’re in a massive panic now, obviously there’s a situation and we’re moving towards needing some dramatic changes to behaviour on a societal level. Interestingly, the pandemic was an impactful way for people to see if they all work together [it’s best and], they are all suddenly in the same boat. It’s all over the world, because the world is all connected. People are all interconnected. The pandemic really reinforced the idea of connectivity. But that comes back to art; we could find ourselves thinking this isn’t necessary. I do find that difficult about the current moment because there’s less movement but people are exposing themselves on Instagram or whatever it is. Instagram is nice, with its lots of little pictures, but it’s fairly flattening. Everything becomes subject to a set of parameters in which some things work better than others.
Instagram, I think, is a tool that is making us more prone to objectifying ourselves as the subject. It treats identity, like your own work. After seeing the band Texas, live, play an Elvis cover, Suspicious Mind, then the new film Elvis, that was excessive but alright, I wanted to ask about your installation Diamond Pink Elvis (2005). How much of a role do idols and references play in the development of the identity of an artist?
The question or the word idol is quite interesting. Because it’s all semi religious, like a pagan symbol. And so, it’s the symbolic thing that you can believe in, it’s superstitious. For me the notion of celebrity is useful as an idea, it’s easy for people to see it. It enables me to insert myself into some situation and for you to know what it should be and what it’s not. So, for me, if I take a picture of myself with a fright wig, make a screen print with camouflage on it, more people might recognise it as Warhol, and then recognise that it’s not Warhol. I’m hoping that the symbols are so known, or somehow readable, that we can read that they’ve been changed and they’re not what they were. One of the problems I suppose comes when people see it and either: don’t identify with it at all, missing the symbol - or they think that my work is simply a reprint of the original symbol. Sometimes people say they don’t understand my work because you have to understand our history. Or you have to understand all these historical references to understand it. But it doesn’t really matter whether you get all the references. In a way, it’s just a scaffolding with a load of things on it. If you just see the scaffolding, or just the things on it, both are great interpretations. I load the pictures up as if a labyrinth with many routes to investigate. I expose or find meaning in the process of looking at the thing. And there’re lots of different ways to look. It doesn’t matter how, but it’s hard sometimes to get people to feel that. It’s as if artists need to be identified to have a voice within the cultural offer. Then you need this identity, but at the same time, personally speaking, I think any identity is wrong.
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The Point, 2018 - Felt tip on recycled paper, 255 x 340mm.
I sometimes speculate the future is the end of identities, in the sense that it shouldn’t really matter, but I think that’s very difficult. I don’t believe I’ll see it because it’s so complex. We’ve talked about cultural references, and I have been reading about your most recent work, it’s called Ariadne Wrapped (2022).
It’s interesting. You say it’s my most recent work, because in actual fact, I very recently unveiled it, it’s the first time it’s been in public. The process of getting the work where it is started in 2012. Simply, it is a sculpture on a plinth.
I love the location of it and how people reacted to that. You were inspired by this Italian painter, right?
Yes, Giorgio de Chirico.
You play with invisibility, attention and shape.
As artworks, public sculptures are in a really strange category. This work is being exhibited all the time. It’s never not exhibited. And yet because it’s exhibited so much quite quickly public sculptures disappear. And they’re only really available for someone that hasn’t been to the station before or someone who comes across this place for the first time. And so, it is very interesting this idea of the invisibility of a very physical thing that’s always being exhibited. I was quite interested in the concept of the public sculpture, being an archetype, being a cultural provision. With any planning, development or redevelopment, they have a section of budget that is set aside for return to offer the public something. This sculpture is part of the public offer. Yet quite quickly we know that it’s going to disappear. For me it was about developing the sculpture almost backwards, through the circumstance of what it is and how it is, in terms of what it’s going to represent and how it works as a public offer, as a public sculpture. In the process of doing that, it seems to reveal various biases, various different ways of thinking and looking at art from history, it’s a kind of chrysalis. It’s a sculpture of transition, of transportation, of something changing into something else, of something in a process. It’s a sculpture of other people’s sculptures.
I like the idea because it could be also a sculpture that for some reason, got broken and it has to be fixed and they’re protecting it.
Yes, when I was at the sculpture recently, someone came up to me and said, “What’s it going to be?” I said, “Well, this is it”, but I felt I was spoiling it by saying so. I let that “What’s it going to be?” just echo in my head. The sculpture is a wrapped sculpture, all made in bronze and painted to look like a wrap sculpture. For the unveiling, I put another layer of material on it.
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Pile, 2004 - Painrted bronze 700 x 110 x 1630 mm.
(Laughs) This is fantastic!
When I opened the string and pulled it off, underneath was this wrap sculpture. Again, it’s about this idea of the reveal, at what point something starts or stops, the sense of past, and the frame within a frame within a frame within a frame. In many ways it’s a picture of a frame.
The fact that you uncovered this statue, and it is still uncovered, I can imagine that must have been funny, for you and the public. It’s a surprise, you can expect anything, but not that. You have a wonderful sense of humour in the way you approach pop culture, and this is very intelligent because I think we should never take pop culture too seriously. I wanted to ask, what is the funniest thing or moment you remember that has happened to you professionally?
Well, I remember an opening I had in the 90s. It in the South London Gallery, in Peckham, which is one of the hot places to live. But at that time, the gallery seemed to be far away from everyone. It was one of my first exhibitions, and at a time when exhibitions used to be sponsored by Beck’s beer. They were very much these sorts of social occasions where you get a free beer, you’d meet friends, and the place would be very busy. It’s very social, but I thought, it’s not very good for seeing the art and the trouble with the Southland galleries are they are so far away, people will go there, have their beer, see their friends and not really look at the art. And won’t go back because they’ve already been and seen it. And so, right from the beginning, I said to the David Thorp, who was running the gallery, “For the opening, I want to wrap everything up with fabric and tie it up”. So, I installed the exhibition and I tied it all up with string. Then we had the opening, and everything was all tied up. And I didn’t open it. I didn’t unveil it. I just left it wrapped up, and I opened it the next day. People went absolutely mad. They got so upset about it, but at the same time relatively recently I had someone who came up to me who said that they were there, at this opening.
 And did they go back to see?
No! (laughs) I know for a fact that they didn’t go.
Yes, because they would remember (laughs).
And some of those who weren’t there, told me that they were. That’s quite good, because the image of it, and the idea of it, was so powerful that people pretended that they were actually there at that special occasion, which was just a one-off performance, which was a performance of disappointment.
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Cor, 2013 - Painted bronze, 70 x 30 x 30mm.
And Gavin, what are your future projects?
I’m working now putting up another show in Cambridge, which is very close. It’s at the Heong Gallery. And the exhibition is called In Search of Ariadne. It tries to contextualise the work that’s outside the station. It’s very close to the station and in a way it’s an extension, it’s a gallery exhibition which goes some way to unpack that work or repack that work. And maybe go somewhere into thinking where do we go from here? What’s next? And I’m also going to do an exhibition, I’m making a book of drawings and I’m doing an exhibition of the drawing journey. Not that the drawings are very interesting because I actively tried for them to have almost no subject.
I’d like to talk about the value of authenticity. For example, Banksy has become more popular, mainstream and more of a product. Some say he, she or they have sold out their career. But popstars like Lily Allen or Cardi B are quite relatable. They feel closer to us. Do you think our concept of authenticity has changed? Are things becoming more likeable and therefore less countercultural?
It’s interesting when you tie it together with music as well, I think because music is so subjective. It probably lends itself much better to authenticity. For a singer to use their voice, to write a song or deliver a song in an authentic way, or be an authentic person, to respond in a normal, natural way to conversations and situations, that notion of authenticity is believable. It’s quite gettable. I think with artists, it’s more difficult because the question of authenticity is inherent to the artwork itself. In every artwork we don’t know exactly how much or what of this thing we’re seeing is directly the responsibility of the artists, so already there’s a challenge. There’s more of a self-awareness of that at the moment. And we’re also moving into a more marketed and what seems to be a less authentic place. It’s very interesting that you talk about the category of Banksy as an artist who, in effect, we were led to believe is a specific person or it comes from a specific place. That is a wonderful mystery. They can’t let their identity be known. What a brilliant identity is the identity of someone that can’t have an identity. And then, you look at the authorship. Well, in terms of Banksy, its provocations, it is almost a sort of genre like advertising or something. There’s almost a kind of template. A way that it works. There are certain associations with pictures and text. I don’t think we can quite take out of this and say that it’s disappearing. I think that art is always going to be under tension.
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Artist’s Piss, 2021 – Urine in Alluminium can, 115 x 66mm.
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Tout Fait (Teleporter), 2018 - Galvanised Steel, 2220 x 1410 x 1200mm.
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Butter Box, 2017 - Painted bronze, 370 x 580 x 430mm.
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Red Beuys (Wrapped Waste), 2015 - Painted bronze, 340 x 395 x 420mm.
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This is Not a Pipe, 2013 - Blown Glass on steel table, 180 x 1280 x820 mm.
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Ariadne Wrapped, 2014 - Painted bronze on portland stone, 1170 x 2430 x 1230 mm.