The newly installed sculpture, ‘MEMORIAL’ by British artist David Shrigley replicates an average grocery list onto a 17-foot slab of granite. The monumental sculpture stands at the entrance to Central Park in New York City, on 60th street, across from the famed Plaza hotel. The accompanying explanation on the Public Art Fund’s signage reads “ While Shrigley’s shopping list might appear to posture as a counter-monument, through its celebration of a common activity, it’s anonymity, and absurdity, the sculpture becomes a memorial both to no one and to everyone- serving as an ode to humanity”. When I posted the Shrigley image of the shopping list on my Instagram, I put the hashtag #commondenominator.
Shrigley’s ‘Memorial ‘is directly across from the large, gold-leafed bronze, ‘Sherman Monument’ made in 1902 as a memorial for (I guess heroic) US General William Sherman. The Sherman memorial is the kind of boring generic snooze of an equestrian public sculpture, which you see in every town, in every roundabout, here or abroad. Who even bothers to look at those larger than life neighing horses astride with triumphant figures from history? The Sherman monument also has within it, a gold-leafed bronze clinging woman standing beside the horse. I tried to find out who she may have been but could not find her name or meaning. So much for memorials actually memorializing!
I am sure Shrigley made note of the adjacent Sherman Memorial sculpture when he was considering how to interject his British sense of irony into this iconic NYC setting. The contrast between the two ‘Memorials” is fierce! Don’t we make a grocery “list” so we don’t have to remember or hold the items in our mind? Grocery lists are also rendered useless after they have served their function. Could the same be true for those bronzed generals as time marches on?
Shrigley taps into, dare I say ‘lasting’, universality with his grocery list. As I stood with other invited guests at the Public Art Fund’s launch party, a lively conversation ensued amongst the guests. “What!!! No ice cream!” The items on the list were assembled from the shopping lists of Shrigley’s American friends. He sought commonality and removed Whole Foods elitist items such as Rice Wine vinegar. He also used American spelling for items such as Yogurt, which is written here without the H in UK’s spelling of Yoghurt. One person at the event proudly told me that Shrigley’s inclusion of Diapers came from her list. We compared notes about the items we too regularly purchase or as his New York dealer, Anton Kern said: “Oh I stay away from the Nutella”. We collectively noted that coffee was not on the list. Hmmm, does that mean we all have specialty coffee pods specially delivered? (Mea Culpa). Or, are we to deduce that New Yorker’s do not make coffee at home anymore, because we hurry and drink our coffees on the takeaway? A banal grocery list can read as a real time haiku of a New Yorker’s life. Interesting to note, when Shrigley made a ( much smaller ) grocery list memorial piece previously, for his gallery in London, the British staples were : Baked beans, Aspirin and Biscuits.
Shrigley’s ‘Memorial’ list got me thinking about other artists who used lists- to form art. There are actually many examples. Baldasari made list works such as “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell” or more famously, Baldasari’s “Terms Most Useful in Describing Creative Works of Art”. I’ve seen reproductions of that one hanging, in artist studios! Christopher Wool used lists but he deconstructs the spacing and fluidity of words to turn the letters into graphic objects. Glenn Ligon poetically painted lists of highly charged racial words to describe the unconscious hymns of his identity. Among other noteworthy list works is the one by Tracey Emin, made in 1995, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995’. There were 102 names on the list. You do the math, but note some names were family members she had shared a bed with which further sets the mind a spin.
While the list pieces mentioned here are seeming of a strong conceptual nature, Shrigley’s grocery list seems, by contrast, frivolously full of wit and whimsy. This is where I must mention the poignant actual aspect of “Memorial”s chiseled granite. Yes, it does resemble a gravestone marker. The fabrication, FYI, was actually done by a renowned memorial maker in Georgia. The delicate push/pull between the impermanence of the grocery list items and the solid permanence of ‘Memorial’s granite stone make you stop and ponder. As we ponder, Shrigley accomplishes what all great art aspires to do. He hits the intersection of temporary and timeless straight on! In ‘Memorial’ we glimpse the ephemeral through the ordinary. What are the daily provisions listed upon the head stone meant to suggest about the measure of our lives? We are what we ate? Or does Shrigley imply that in the end, are we merely the summation of our small daily karmas? Game on.
PS: On a lighter note, David Shrigley will have a 32-foot tall bronze rendition of a “thumbs up” mounted on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square later this month! Enjoy.
Words: Lizanne Merrill Photo: Liz Ligon, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY.