Sarah J. Edwards visits Gavin Turk at his London studio for to interview and photograph him.
The legendary YBA (Young Britist Artist) Gavin Turk was generous enough to really open up about the art world.
The feature first appeared in the printed edition of BLAG Vol.3 Nø 2 in 2011, this is an edited version.
Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art by Gavin Turk
Gavin Turk is standing at the front of his studio-cum-workshop. One hand rests high on the garage door, the other grips a phone to his ear. His raised eyebrow could say it all - ‘Hi. You’re here. To interview me. And shoot. Here we go again.’
Moments later Gavin is – perhaps obligatorily – guiding us through his inspiring space, sometimes minimal, other times stacked with curiosities. Soon it becomes apparent that the raised eyebrow was justified, as the conversation turns to shoots. I’ve just pulled open my first instant film. “Oh no, no, no, no. I’m sorry,” I apologise. “It’s just too Sunday Supplement.” I pause to think and am stumped. “What else can we do?” Gavin’s guards seem to drop, he’s now quite eager to think of alternative ideas for the pictures. He tells us how oftentimes photographers pop in as if a shoot is a delivery. ‘Here you go, you stand there. Got it, mate.’ and leave still having no clue or interest who they were shooting.
Gavin Turk is famous for many things, notoriously for the fact he was refused his final degree by the Royal College of Art – he presented ‘Cave’, a whitewashed studio space with a ‘blue heritage plaque’ paying hommage to his own work as a sculptor. He’s a YBA and more prominently acknowledged for his creations and how he has presented himself in them. In his work, Gavin stars as some of the world's most iconic men - Gavin Turk as Che Guevara, Gavin Turk as Sid Vicious, Gavin Turk as Elvis Presley and recreating the likes of Robert Indiana's 'Love' replaced with 'Turk'. You'd be forgiven for thinking he's all ego.
Now in a small plain room lit by striplights, right in the centre of the studio, we decide on a simple mugshot. Gavin holds up a newly completed screen print in front of his chest. Soon after, we settle down for a sometimes surprising and enlightening interview.
So, we're not talking about the Royal College of Art at all, are we?
"No, I mean if not , it's good. You can put that in if you want."
Looking back, do you think there are any standout clues in your childhood that predicted your career in art?
“Well, just in terms of thinking about odd moments, when I had friends in my house and it started raining and I’d say ‘Lets go up to my room and draw, let’s make some pictures’ and they all go, ‘No, no, that’s really boring.’ So, I’d go off to my room and do some pictures anyway. So there was something there, with that. [laughs] My daughter, when she was eight-years-old, turned to me once in the car and said, ‘Was there a moment when you knew you were going to be an artist?’ And my response was ‘Not really’. I went and took the courses in art earlier on thinking I was mildly interested, but I’d do some courses and find out exactly what I was interested in, what I liked and what I didn’t like about art. I still don’t really know what I like and don’t like about art. I just have a more sophisticated view of not being able to understand what I like and don’t like about art. And probably, I haven’t really found anything better to do. I like to think that it’s the best thing I’ve found to do, because I haven’t found anything better.”
Can we talk about acceptance? We were talking earlier about if you want to be a musician you’ve got to be accepted into...well I suppose it is a scene too.
“Well, I think there’s the question of visibility and how you place yourself in the relationship to visibility, certainly in terms of art with it being a visual practice. I don’t think necessarily the artist himself has to be involved, it could just simply be the work. Some artists exist very much within their work and then themselves, their personalities and characters are not so important. In terms of qualified artworks, an art work has to make it to an audience. It has to have an audience in mind and somehow get to that audience, it may not necessarily be the audience in mind and it can do that because it fits in with a register that’s within art. I think that if it doesn’t fit in that register then either it’s too difficult to see it as art, it’s too complicated and you couldn’t possibly see it as art or it’s so much art, that it’s actually boring. So it has to kind of fit into the economy. I think there is this point where things can be more accessible and readily seeable than other things. I mean, for me personally, I like to be able to make things that are relatively immediate to see, but will also reveal themselves to be impossibilities. So, first off you might see it as something and as you look or think, it might turn into something else and then as it becomes something else, you realise the space between what you thought it was originally and what you now believe it to be. It means that you’re forever in a state of questioning.”
BEING AN UNDERDOG
I read a quote that you’re a ‘Firm believer in the underdog,’ and I wanted you to explain that.
“I think that’s actually cultural behaviour, believing in the underdog. It seems much more satisfying if someone comes from a lesser position. In a way, I suppose it fits in with some sort of deep instructional idea – you would take a system where one thing seems so much more valuable than another thing and by looking at what seems to be the lesser thing and giving the lesser thing some credibility, you realise the lesser thing defines and can deconstruct the greater thing. I spend a lot of time looking at sweet wrappers and bits of junk that people don’t want, things that people have dropped in the streets. I’m quite interested in the idea that these things still contain cultural power, they still contain information and they contain the trappings of desire and of consumerism. In a way, what seem to be noble desires, but the thing that somebody’s thrown away, can reflect or give you a sense of where you are and how you are. So, I suppose the underdog in a way – starts to define the frame, they start to talk about acceptance or not acceptance. They talk about value, what’s valued and what’s not valued.”
How do you pace yourself with ideas, say you get on a massive roll with lots of ideas?
“I try to...it’s very difficult to know when good ideas or good healthy thoughts are going to come. Unfortunately, I can’t really predict when I’m going to go through periods of creativity.”
No, of course not.
“Quite often, when there’s a high demand, [laughs] there’s not a high amount of creative ideas that come to mind. Sometimes, when there’s a little bit of a break, you can come up with more. I think I’ve learnt to slightly slow down the thought process, I used to create and make things on a daily basis and now I think it’s become impossible to get everything made in those sorts of time frames.
“The way that I pace things and work things out is, I work on many different things at the same time. If we could just start out on a project, we just put a stake in the ground, we get a bit of wood off the shelf, that then starts to become the beginning of that process. Some projects will run quite quickly and could be done in a day or could be done in the next few weeks and some projects will run on for several years. Some ideas won’t be quite fully formed, so some ideas might end up simply in a mental state for five years. It happens in many different ways, many different forms. Some ideas, which I think are quite good get lost, other ideas which probably aren’t that good we spend a lot of time working on. I think you’re always sort of learning. There’s always a process of experimentation.”
AN ACTING ROLE
Do you feel you work almost like an actor – how much do you look into the characters of the people you choose? [Ref. a waxwork of Sid Vicious, images of Elvis and Che Guevara in Warhol style.]
“Maybe the acting role that I take up, is the acting role of being an artist and I suppose I kind of looked at the way contemporary or modern art – and we’re looking at Velázquez onwards – takes on the ideas that the artist has its role to play. That the artist sees himself as a philosophical subject, that the artist themselves are kind of in control of what the audience is looking at, that the artwork becomes that signature. The world that the artist occupies. I think that once you’ve kind of entered into that engagement, then it seemed important to me to kind of create this character of me, the artist me. So, that’s really the acting roll. Then, that artist taking on a certain kind of persona, if you like. It’s almost like compositional devices to allow certain kinds of conversations to take place. To allow certain kinds of thought processes. I mean, I...shall we talk about the waxwork thing - the Sid Vicious thing?”
“I think the first kind of persona that I took on was this character of Sid Vicious, the first step out on that route was, I decided I wanted to make a waxwork sculpture of myself. Then I somehow realised that it needed this sense of recognition and in a way, that was part of the contract of a waxwork sculpture; you need to recognise the person you are looking at. Although, when you go around a waxwork museum, you don’t necessarily recognise everyone. You recognise them as people you should be recognising, similar to the way the Blue Plaque system gives you names of people that existed in history, not all of whom you know, but all the plaques seem to suggest that you may know all of them.
“So, already there’s an element of slippage, it could be something different. So, I think to myself, I will take on the persona of some other character and I’m very interested in tourism. How tourism starts to put this backlight onto culture or the way it’s understood. Madame Tussaud’s is probably one of the most important tourist attractions in London and what other things are major tourist issues? And I thought, punk, at that point, this was the beginning of the ‘90’s and punk was being bought up massively by Japanese tourists, it was still on postcards. It was still something that had this strange, specific cultural energy. So, once I decided that I was going to be a punk, I tried to diagnose what punk would be and I found myself thinking, well probably it’s the Sex Pistols or probably it’s Sid Vicious. Sid Vicious also dying at that moment in time, sealed perfectly within that cultural space. So, how was Sid Vicious? Suddenly Sid Vicious was walking onto a stage singing ‘My Way’ doing it his way, getting a gun out pointing it at people, wearing Nancy’s garter, wearing these biker boots, having his collar turned up, his hair gelled up, he had a sneer. Suddenly, he had all these attributes of his rock ‘n’ roll hero Elvis Presley and suddenly I had in my head this Warhol portrait that he repeated again and again and again, on itself and it had kind of masked and restamped the same image. It kind of disintegrated but made [this image] more permanent. So, I then used all these things as compositional devices to create this.”
“The piece was called Pop as well, because in 1993, I’d just become a father. Pop was also the sound of a gun going off, pop was also kind of an art movement. It wasn’t a bang, it was a pop, so there was a sense that there was a mild tragedy.”
THE FORTUNE TELLER
Who would you choose from more recent times?
“Most recently I’ve gone into much more generic types. At the moment I’m working on a project, I’m making a fortune telling machine, which is based on an old early 19th Century fortune telling machine.”
Did you decide to do that after the chess piece?
That’s what it reminded me of. It reminded me of Zoltar.
“Yes, so basically, I’m making a fortune teller and she’s called Rosie Lee as in cup of tea and Rrose Sélavy. Which is Duchamp’s female alter-ego as well.”
“She will sit in a box and when you put coins in, she’ll tell your fortune, that’s the next piece I’m making. An antiquated automata. I guess the idea of some strange form of entertainment and I almost like the way Tussaud’s itself has had to become much more animated.
“I think that all the new sculptures are animated in some way, that people blush or they breath or they do strange things. I suppose it’s an immediate reaction to computer technology, to go back into the old school automata and in a way somehow to find something that’s almost more of a human attachment to some analogue, weird old fashioned nostalgic machine. Something that’s almost clockwork, that you make by hand that isn’t getting smaller and smaller and smaller and becoming impossible to understand.”
IDOLS, ICONS & HEROES
Exactly. I like the idea of it being...
“I’m getting to your DIY...”
[laughing] Yes. Working alone. Wait! There’s five questions yet. No, I was saying, I like the idea that it can be for younger people who may have never seen or heard of anything like it and it’s about the future. What do you think are the elements of being iconic or a hero?
“What do you mean, the elements?”
Well, what do you think was ‘the thing’ that Elvis Presley had?
“Oh right. I think, when I came across this image of Che Guevara and found it to be the Alberto Korda cropped image that was used by the Italian communists in the ‘60’s, which was kind of the flag of the student revolution all around Europe. One of the things about the image was, if you look at the eyes, the eyes are up and to the right and they’re actually the same as in the Elvis Presley image. When I looked into it, classically in Roman or Greek orders, for men, when they split everything down into a... everything goes into doubles, everything goes into one or the other and you end up with this strange hierarchy. You’ve got up verses down, cold verses hot, wet verses dry. You’ve got plus verses negative, you’ve also got right verses left. You’ve got men verses women. You can see where these things are going, right verses left, so you’ve got men, up, hot, they’re right and for women it’s down, left and all those other things. Cold...wet. So there were all these kinds, this bit of text comes out? How did they make the reverse text? What was the stamp that they used to make the reverse text? I like to think about these things, I think they’re interesting. I think I’m using the word interesting a few too many times though, it could be amazing.”
[laughing] I only said don’t say the word ‘like’ on the phone last night!
“Now, I’m just using the word interesting.”
What do you think it takes to strike a balance between acquired knowledge and the ability to produce fresh works? You know, maybe in some areas you know too much. It’s like, what we were saying about photographers who’ll come in with their set up in mind before seeing the place. They’ve almost housed in their creativity too much.
“It’s a difficult question really, like, the idea of how much you’re aware of your own creativity and process. How much you can control your own creative process. It’s almost like – and I’m slightly going back to the answer for the question before – one of the things that I find myself doing is having to make an artwork that sort of soaks up other ideas and thoughts. So, I make something that stands in the place of doing a whole load of other things. Where I would want to make 20 artworks, but I end up making one. That one, then has to serve as an example for all the other ones. Getting back to this point where you can have an understanding of art history and you can have an understanding of previous artworks that have been made, but it may be that you come up with an artwork and someone quite quickly says, ‘Oh but so-and-so has already done that,’ or ‘I’ve already made that artwork.’ Sometimes that can make you go, ‘Right, I won’t do it then,’ or ‘Let me look at what they’ve done,’ and sometimes, it doesn’t even really matter, you just kind of go, ‘Well, I’m going to do it like this and for me, it seems to make sense, I need to have this thing and I need to have it in my world.’
And you just go ahead and make it anyway. I’m not sure whether that’s quite the answer for this question, but it’s quite interesting, the idea of originality and how it relates to the idea that people might assess the idea of a work of art on the basis of ‘I’ve seen that before,’ or ‘I haven’t seen that before.’ Again, it comes back to that idea of what’s totally original or what’s not. Whether it’s a prior idea or whether it’s a kind of purely new experience.”
THE LONG & THE SHORT OF IT
I think we kind of touched on this earlier about Pop Culture and that people are getting given lots of bite sized chunks of information, but there isn’t so much longform. What are your thoughts on how quickly everything is changing? I’m interested in whether that’s a bubble or whether certain things are just done.
“I think it goes round in little mini circles, in terms of pop music, there certainly was a point that during the ‘90’s they started to create the ‘ties’ everything became the ‘60’s, the ‘70’s, the ‘50’s. That was a sort of ‘90’s construction and it’s about parcelisation, it’s about packages. It’s some sort of commercialisation. Again, if you look at music, suddenly music from previous generations was being re-sampled, rebuilt, suddenly it wasn’t so important to write your own material. You could use other people’s material. Similarly with art, I think the moment the Pop Artist arrived they started kind of recycling more commercial imagery. I think the whole kind of notion of originality, in a way, it’s about substance or timeliness, or timelessness.
“Maybe it’s not so important, it just has to appear or feel timeless, but as long as it feels like that in the moment, then we can feel a sense of satisfaction of some sort. I think that’s probably the best we can do, just ‘in the moment’ and feel that there’s a sense of timelessness.”
I wanted to chat with you about how brands have been sort of buying into creativity, so music, art and even the Film Council had wanted brands to fund films, as they were running out of budgets. But really they’re into creating their own content...
“They say, we don’t sponsor anything. We make our own magazine now, we don’t need you and the thing is, certain brands have got into incredibly powerful situations and are given creative tools and in a way, I think they probably shouldn’t have those tools, they should be taken away. That’s not to say that there aren’t some incredibly creative brands. There are some strong and incredibly productive brands and there are some that you or one would want to be seen supporting. It’s just that ideally or the core value of the brand is to sell someone some product or some object, I mean, possibly I’m creating a brand which is Gavin Turk. Maybe I’m liable to the same kind of criticism as I’m putting upon these other brands, but I think suddenly certain brands – trainers or electronic equipment, they seem to have a very important role within the creative industry and I think when you look at what really their criteria is, it’s mainly for selling the product and making the product become something that’s indispensable. Like, if you don’t have that product, you almost don’t qualify to be a properly functioning human being and I think it’s quite destructive. I think it’s quite negative. At the same time, brand awareness and the way that certain PR exercises work, is the same that any kind of message spreading function would have to be. So, I think it’s important for people that have relevant interesting messages to look at the way brands are getting their message spread around and to try to perhaps incorporate some of those things. Maybe also use the brands, as long as they can keep the brands in the right place.”
I wanted to talk about the fine line in selling out.
“Well, if you look at the art model, it’s always really difficult to say whether selling out isn’t actually a really positive thing. There’s obviously certain artists who are able to commercially make a lot of money from their work. There are artists who are generally taking their vision and their art to a wider audience. I think that there’s got to be something good in that they’re able to do that. Selling out has an awkward association, with the idea that you’re simply interested in the financial rewards, where it’s simply about selling and I think that if it is simply about selling or the finances or the money, then, I think that it’s not interesting. I think sometimes people use the phrase ‘selling out’, it maybe means that your making something communicate better. If we use it as a generic term, ‘selling out’ in terms of being commercially savvy or commercially adept then I think that can be useful, that can be good for artists. I think a lot of artists who are just coming out of college at the moment or are still in college, they probably need to learn how to make their work accessible... but I think they shouldn’t miss out on the bit before. They shouldn’t miss out on the making it awkward and extending it into different places before they get commercially savvy.”