Thomas Keane gets an exclusive insight into Gavin Turk’s new exhibition
2012 kicked off with a controversy between two of the biggest names in contemporary art, with David Hockney seemingly lashing out at Damien Hirst’s detached use of assistants to produce his work: ‘it’s a little insulting to craftsmen’ he was quoted as saying, while pointedly exclaiming of his own exhibition at the Royal Academy that ‘All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally’. Although he would later deny any such criticism, Hockney’s comments set the tone for the media coverage of Damien Hirst’s worldwide exhibition of Spot Paintings, with general tabloid outrage at the so-called ‘army of assistants’.
So what better timing could there be for Gavin Turk’s new exhibition ‘Gavin & Turk’ – a twofold assault on ‘the cult of the artist’s hand’, with the artist declining not only to make his own artwork, but also (ostensibly) to even come up with his own ideas, by enlisting prisoners to recreate selected artworks by Alighiero Boetti rebranded as Turk’s own. Thus the letters on Boetti’s iconic chequered crossword embroideries are adapted to various permutations of the words ‘Gavin Turk’, and his life-size bronze sculpture of the artist dousing himself in boiling water sees Turk ‘supplant his head with my head’.
Speaking to ArtLyst, Turk tells of how this new work points to ‘the difficulty of saying at what point exactly the artist can claim to have “made” the things that they’ve made’. ‘Art is always a process of collaboration in some respect – even if it’s just a mutual language, going to a shop to buy canvas, or incorporating electricity in your work.’ Take Hockney, for example: despite pride in ‘personally’ making his works, his whole-hearted adoption of the iPad-as-sketchbook has seen his practice ‘incorporate a whole colour palette and type of mark-making designed by some computer programmer’.
In light of this, Turk hopes ‘to question the idea of the value of the artist’s signature, or the value of the artist’s name’, with Boetti being the obvious choice for such commandeering as one ‘famous for breaking with the sacrosanct use of the artist’s hand’. Even the title ‘Gavin & Turk’ is lifted from Boetti, who designated himself ‘Alighiero e Boetti’, turning his name into ‘a kind of brand, or logo’. For Turk, this radical degree of appropriation – ‘incorporating and using his aesthetic’ – is a response to the ‘inevitability’ of an artist’s work being ‘seen through the discourse of what already exists within art’: ‘but by taking on and appropriating other artists’ work, I almost free myself from this fact – that my work is going to be looked at using other artist’s work as a filter anyway’.
This desire to confront head-on the manner in which meaning in art is generated via the surrounding historic and contemporary discourse can be seen most clearly in Turk’s recreation of Boetti’s bronze self-portrait. Crucially, the original sculpture by Boetti was in fact created partially in reference and response to Bruce Nauman’s 1966 ‘Self-Portrait as a Fountain’, in which the artist spouts a stream of water from his mouth; and Nauman’s work in turn referred back to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made urinal ‘Fountain’ of 1917 – perhaps the major landmark of 20th Century Art.
Turk’s addition to this discursive lineage highlights the fundamental and unavoidable intertextuality of art practice. It is an intervention further nuanced by inadvertent formal similarities between Boetti’s sculpture and Turk’s now-iconic waxworks, with the Boetti’s streaming hose-pipe, for example, paralleling with the pistol wielded by Turk-as-Sid-Vicious.
A preoccupation with cultural discourse has always been at the forefront of Turk’s work in the form of ‘stereotypes’ – ‘whether they’re to do with touristic frames, or whether they’re to do with revolutionary characters like Che Guevara, or Marat’. And it is this interest in ‘type’ that led him to the use of inmates to stitch his Boetti-inspired embroideries. ‘I liked the idea of working with people who came from a slightly different cultural perspective’; and, having already worked with ‘homeless rough sleepers’, ‘it didn’t seem like a million miles away to start think about the idea of using people who had been excluded from society – those who were spending time at her majesty’s pleasure in the prisons’.
An interest in ‘social framing’, it seems, will continue to feature strongly in Turk’s practice, with the artist revealing his next subject matter to ‘the white van man’: ‘Wikipedia it – it exists as a kind of thing…, as a kind of cultural stereotype, of a very English person or type’.
Gavin & Turk is a vital albeit coincidental addition to the newly flared-up debate surrounding ‘the cult of the artist’s hand’. Walking around the newly-hung show, Turk admits ‘a strange out-of-body experience’: ‘I was looking at my work – new work, current work – but it had this kind of historical surface’, striking him as being almost like a ‘blue-chip, secondary market exhibition of a 60s artist’. Surely then, momentarily alien even to its signatured creator, the work is a great success – eking out the way in which artwork cannot but operate beyond the control and authority of the artist, with authorship being a social function rather transcendent actuality.
Words/Photo: Thomas Keane © 2012 ArtLyst
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