Gavin Turk, “Who What When Where How & Why”

Harald Szeemann once said, “Art historical writing continues to assess art by its mastery and/or freedom of expression, rather than by the degree to which this mastery or this freedom is sacrificed to achieve a new freedom – one that knows no fear of tradition because it is absorbed and transmuted, by its own presence in the here-and-now, into a new tradition which becomes a new present.” and Gavin Turk is the new present.

Camouflage Fright Wig Red and Silver on Pink, 2007

In many ways, his art seems to be marginal to the subject as a whole, like as if what he produces and calls his art, was considered as a secondary importance. Gavin Turk works as a multidisciplinary artist and so plays with paintings, photographs, sculptures and video installations. In all his work he explores the meaning of value, how to achieve the cult status and how a certain object if you reposition it to a gallery, with just a shift of context changes the nature of that object. Gavin Turk, is for me, the anthropologist among the artists. He is raising questions & showing answers all at the same time. He is one of Britain’s finest artist, and with three exhibitions currently on view in London, now was the perfect time to discuss his art, authorship and originality.

Let start with the question you have been asking – “Do you have to be an artist to make art?”

This question is a bit like ‘which came first the chicken or the egg’. Seriously, the audience makes art: more precisely, art is a combination of artist and audience. The context is the condition that makes art art.

What makes someone an artist, anyway?

The idea of defining what makes an artist is problematic: it limits the possibilities. Perhaps an artist is someone who is looking for the possibilities. Being an artist is a state of mind.

When did you begin to think of yourself as an artist?

Would you like a specific date? On Wednesday the 20th January 1992, I had my first exhibition outside college. Or how about when I publically sold a scraper board artwork to my headmaster in a school assembly for five pounds when I was 12 years old. I think he was trying to teach the students something about art and something about money. But of course, selling is not the point nor is having an exhibition.

Has there ever been a time when making art felt more like a job than a pleasure?

The business side of art feels like a job, and sometimes the making of art is indeed a laborious process. The people I employ in my studio as assistants – are they making art or doing a job?

What was the first piece of art you’ve done?

With a friend, I remember making a scroll a bit like the Bayeux Tapestry that went all around the art room in my junior school. It was a very long battle scene with porcupines as soldiers – it didn’t seem that dark at the time – quite joyous in fact.

What makes artwork valuable, in terms of money? To take Pollock for example, as you play with that idea yourself and you did cast yourself as him to create drip paintings with your own signature – What makes a Jackson Pollock painting worth millions?

The Pollock painting has come to represent a cultural idea of Modernism and freedom in 1950’s America. This narrative was encouraged by politics and curators around the world. His painting technique itself became an iconic signature. Of course, it helps that he died young so there is a limited number of works.

Cave, 1991

You question authorship and originality in one of your interviews. And in Flight Wig, Triple Pop, Red Marat, Jackie Blue Elvis with Diamonds… you do mimic Warhol. Let’s talk more about that. Do you mimic someone out of respect or out of mockery?

Neither. I am sampling styles and iconic images like a musician samples music. I’m asking questions about truth and reality by creating scenarios of known and unknown references: playing them off against each other.

How much of your work do you do by yourself and how much of your work your assistants do? To go back to authorship and originality at this point – is the work they do theirs or yours?

Obviously when the assistants are working for me, they are making my work as technicians to my instructions. Most of them are artists with their own studio practice so they bring a sensibility to the work, which I like. I am always involved in the making of the work on some level and am influenced by the making process particularly when I am making something for the first time.

How do you decide which idea is worth making a reality?

Sometimes I make ideas that are not worth making a reality so they might end up in the bin. But some ideas are just more prescient than others, and these are the ones I try and make.

Whose work has affected your art practice the most?

Depends on my frame of mind or the work I am making at the time. At the moment, inadvertently it has to be Damien Hirst.

You once said, “We know from history that if you simply take something from the outside world and you reposition that thing in a gallery, just a shift of context changes the nature of that object from something that is ‘real’ to something that is a picture of something that it was before.” That said, do you think people in the art world take themselves too seriously?

If I understand you correctly, yes many people in the art world do take themselves much too seriously and would do well to engage more with the rest of the world. But with regard to ‘readymades’ or the found object – artists still need to be good editors.

Are you easy to work with?

It depends on who I am working with and what they are asking of me.


Portrait of Something That I'll Never Really See, 1997

Hitchcock once stated that the execution of an idea is boring, saying the only real exciting part is the idea. Would you agree?

That is a bit disingenuous of Hitchcock, because ‘The Idea’ (and other exciting ideas) are continually arriving within the execution of ‘The Idea.’

What is the best decision you’ve ever made?

In my art practice? Just showing a blue plaque in an empty gallery for my MA show caused me trouble, at the time, but on reflection gave me an important insight, as well as recognition.

Did you figure out life to the point you now know what works best for you or are you still searching for yourself?

Of course, I am still searching, that is part of the human condition.

Do you like it when people talk or write about your work?

It obviously depends on what they say!

What do you watch on TV?

I don’t watch streamed TV as much as I watch iPlayer or other digital sites. I am currently watching a lot of very varied documentaries from politics and social history to science. The internet can be a bit like an open university course.

How extreme are you?

On a scale of 1 to 10 – I would say 5…!

If you could only have one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Are you putting me on death row? I don’t know, but my dietary requirements are vegan.

“I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper” a group exhibition examining the “importance of appropriation” on view at The Griffin Gallery until 24th of February.

“Gavin Turk: Who What When Where How & Why” on view at Newport Street Gallery until 19th of March.

“Gavin Turk: Give In” on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts London until 12th of April.

Text: Katja Horvat

Photo: Courtesy of the artist, Stephen White, Andy Keate, Hugo Gvitrinelendinning