'Just try your best and ignore the truth'
David Shrigley is an artist who's been illustrating the world's problems for an awfully long time, in fact, the better part of thirty years. He's perfected the art of observing society from the comfort of a blank page.
His new work Fully Coherent Plan is exemplary of this. It’s his manifesto without any set rules or ideas.
Quite literally the book is mostly made up of scattered words mixed amongst 2-dimensional stick drawings, a series of confused, conceited, inflated and generally incoherent people. It’s laugh out loud satire and might just be one of the finest instruction manuals to today’s modern world there is.
Even though David Shrigley says the book has no meaning or symbolic undertow, you can’t help but make immediate assumptions between today’s overtly political systems and the strength we muster up to make sense of it all.
Shrigley has a knack for uncomplicating the annoyingly obtuse, nailing down societies problems in just a few words with a simple illustration. That takes real talent and no matter what platforms he finds himself working on whether it’s with music videos, spoken word albums and as a London Tube map designer, it all comes from the same grimly mocking voice and the world is surely better off for it.
It seems like you’re the artist we need right now in a mad world. Just looking at your book Fully Coherent Plan you make a lot more sense than most people I’ve been listening to over the last couple of years.
Good. I’m glad. That bodes well.
What was your aim behind the book?
Well, I suppose inevitably the title is ironic because anyone that would lay claim to having a fully coherent plan for a new and better society would be skeptical of that claim. So I guess it has to be ironic.
I wanted to make something that political and satirical, but then again it’s pretty oblique at the same time. It’s a strange book I suppose. I have a history of making books that lay claim to do something but do nothing of the sort, for example, I wrote a self-help book in 2012 called How Are You Feeling? That laid claim to being a guide for good general emotional health but was nothing of the sort. So similarly this doesn’t offer any insight at all into society. I just make a series of oblique comments and strange drawings. That’s usually what my work is.
As a reader, I respectfully disagree with you. I think this has a lot more to say about the world than maybe you lay claim. It touches on a time in the world where everyone is overtly political but also hypersensitive and also the idea that it’s an extremely anxious moment.
I just feel like you touch on a sentiment that everyone knows everything but no one knows anything. Did I just make any sense?
Well, yes that does make sense, but I think when you engage in an activity like making a book, the kind of books I make, I don’t really know what they’re about. Sometimes you figure it out after the fact. Part of the way that I make artwork is that I make statements and then try and figure out what I meant by them afterward.
“I do feel quite frustrated and unhappy about the current situation we find ourselves in here in the UK and abroad. It’s kind of perplexing to know what to do about it.”
– David Shrigley on modern politics
I think you know what they mean though.
Yeah, I know what the words mean but I think time and circumstance gives a different context to work. A week is a long time in politics as they say. Things change. For me, it’s something cathartic in that if I do this then I’ll be less frustrated, less unhappy. I do feel quite frustrated and unhappy about the current situation we find ourselves in here in the UK and abroad. It’s kind of perplexing to know what to do about it.
Sometimes I think it’s the artist’s role to unpack all of that. For instance one of the small descriptions here it says, “disco, seance, slave auction, general election.” That just sums up everything right now. I feel like the general population are slaves in a seance at a disco party.
Yeah, they probably are, you’re right. I guess I’m resistant to context because the work is made in a very intuitive way. I’m not really a political cartoonist. I have been a political cartoonist at one time in my life where they give you a brief and you have to come up with an idea to illustrate that brief.
For me, it’s just an intense working process of thinking about things and trying to pull them all together after a year of making drawings and writing things, and trying to make it all make sense. I’d be lying if I said I had very specific points to make. Somehow points present themselves and they seem relevant once they’re presented as drawings.
“I do genuinely feel that you have to be so consolatory in your language at times when you’re talking about things as an adult. Whereas deep in your heart you just want to say, “you’re a fucking moron. Just shut up.”
– David Shrigley on speaking the truth
What do you think about the feeling of boredom? I get the feeling that there’s a real sense of boredom in your work. I don’t mean that you’re saying you’re bored but just things that seem tedious, and the world is so bland at times. Is there some kind of truth behind that?
I do genuinely feel that you have to be so consolatory in your language at times when you’re talking about things as an adult. Whereas deep in your heart you just want to say, “you’re a fucking moron. Just shut up.” You’re not really supposed to say that. So in a way, on that cathartic level, maybe this work is an opportunity to vent that kind of frustration. I went to see Stuart Lee, a political comedian. He did a show last year in Brighton where he said, “not everyone who voted for Brexit is a racist. Some of them are just cunts.” Obviously, it was a very sympathetic audience for the most part.
Comedy is about anarchy and making people laugh, and saying what you’re not supposed to say.
It’s a political safe space in a way. Do you ever worry that you’re going to do one cartoon that offends half the world and your career will be over?
I don’t really worry about it because I’ve been in that situation before. I don’t think my work is risque, I’m not like Frankie Boyle or anything. My worldview is one where people should be kind and compassionate to each other and that is the way forward broadly speaking.
People take offense to some things I do but you’re not in control of the context in which your work is seen. Sometimes the context is specific for one person and if you touch upon something that will offend them or trouble them there’s not a lot you can do about it.
So the best thing I suppose is not to worry about it, and just to get on with it. I do think when you show your work you have a social responsibility, but at the time you’re making it you don’t have any social responsibility. So there are those two considerations. I don’t believe I have any social responsibility when I’m in my studio.
The last time I can recall that somebody said I should change something in my work was when I made these ceramic pepper shakers that said ‘cocaine’ and ‘heroin’ on them. I made them a long time ago, and they’ve been around for the best part of 20 years made by different producers.
Anyway, they’re being made in Australia at the moment by the people I work with there and they said, oh it’s making light of drug use. I said, “it’s a fucking joke alright? If you don’t know that then you’re a fucking moron.” If you’re fucking offended by it then what else are you offended by? Are you not offended by the fact that people are drowning in the ocean trying to flee civil wars? Does this actually offend you to the extent where you have to take issue with it and write a verbose email to that effect? My attitude is, just fuck off, leave me alone and get a life.
“My own work does amuse me.”
– David Shrigley
One of the funniest things I found while doing research for this interview was a comment that someone made on an interview with you. It said, “crap on par with Koons.” It was the only comment on the video. When you see something that blunt and up close, what are you thinking?
Well for me it’s kind of flattering to be put on par with Jeff Koons. Obviously, the internet is a conduit for all kinds of nonsense as is often discussed. There are certain people who in real life demand your attention. They say, “I don’t like your work.” And I’m like, “do you think I think everyone likes my work?” I’ve been a professional artist for a quarter of a century. I understand that a lot of people think my work is shit. A lot of people who are very high up in the art world think my work is shit. Maybe even some members of my own family think my work is shit. My friends, my neighbours, you know, I’m used to it and these people are telling me as if it’s the first time anyone has ever said it to me. They’re not empathising with the position I’m in. They don’t understand.
Another picture that I really loved about this book was the two donkeys ‘hee-hawing’ back and forth to each other. Sometimes when I’m watching TV and hearing two politicians talk, pundits, commentators, or even friends, sometimes if you zone out it just sounds like that.
Yeah, a lot of political debate on television feels like you’re witnessing two people have an argument in a pub. It’s really not very illuminating in any way. But I think that’s a lot about politics. I think that party politics is to blame for a lot of things. It’s a very counterproductive way of democracy.
Are you a fan of Jeremy Corbyn? Is he someone who you think is interesting and poses a good prospect for the government?
Yeah, I agree with a lot of what he says, but I disagree with some things as well. I think he’s the best option for me at the moment, but I think the whole Brexit thing makes it difficult to fully support his message. I just think we’re being lied to about. . . well everyone is being lied to and nobody is being honest about it, and we’re sleepwalking into some very difficult situations. Jeremy Corbyn I guess has calculated that he has no chance of becoming the next prime minister if he does speak his mind. But who knows exactly what that is.
What was the last thing that you found really silly or full of humour, looking back? You offer a lot of humour to people but what have you found funny personally?
You mean things that were supposed to be funny?
Anything you found funny I guess. I’m interested in how you see the world and what you see humour in.
I don’t know. It’s like when someone asks you to tell them a joke, your mind goes blank. I don’t know. I’d probably give you a very banal answer. My own work does amuse me.
What do you think of other illustrators and animators?
I’m very much from a fine art background so I’m not really that familiar with the world of illustration, or cartoons, or animation. The illustration and cartoon context is just for fun really. For me it’s not that serious and because I don’t rely on it to make an income I don’t really care. Also, I studied fine art so my heroes are Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, they’re not graphic artists or illustrators.
I bought a book by Anna Haifisch. She did a book called The Artist which is a surreal slacker artist thing. She lives in Berlin but obviously spent some time in the states because it’s like the ultimate slacker art school graduate story. But very surreal and drawn with semi-human characters. It’s really brilliantly done and I love it. I’ve never looked at her stuff before but I just happened to be in some little shop in Brighton that sells my work. I bought her book and I loved it so now I keep buying it and giving it to friends.
It seems like there’s a thread in your work of despair and social commentary in a humorous way, as you said ‘gallows humour.’ I’m interested in what you’re like as a person. When you’re having dinner with your family or you’re out with friends, how do you think they would describe you?
It really depends who you ask. I guess I have my funny moments for sure.
Are you a misanthrope?
No, I’m not a misanthrope. I’m quite quiet I guess. Not very gregarious. Quite shy. But I enjoy company, I enjoy conversation. I don’t tend to go to big parties where it’s noisy. I like dinner parties where I can chat with people. It’s an impossible question to answer I guess. Or it’s an undesirable question to find an answer to in the sense that you don’t really want to be looking in that mirror too much. Just try your best and ignore the truth.
It’s interesting that you say you’re a quiet person because you have an enormous voice. There’s a lot you have to say so I find that paradox quite interesting.
Yeah, I guess I have a lot to say but I’ve said it, you don’t need to listen to this. Maybe it’s a facet of being an artist or the kind of artist that I am. You use your artistic output to satisfy your need to vent your spleen on the world so that you don’t feel the need to go off on one. Then again give me a pint of beer and a conversation about Jeremy Corbyn or whatever, and I’m sure I can bore you with my political opinions.
David Shrigley is guest director of Brighton Festival (5-27 May). His new book
Fully Coherent Plan: For a New and Better Society (Canongate) is published on 3 May.