David Shrigley’s Absurd World

David Shrigley answers his phone on a cold Tuesday evening in Glasgow and immediately says in a very warm Scottish brogue, “I’m afraid that I have to call you back in a minute because I’m working on something and my hands are just very gooey and covered in wax and I don’t think I can hold the phone for more than a few seconds.”


The artist has a well-known tendency to gravitate towards the absurd moments of everyday situations, so it is natural and very rational for one to wonder what exactly he might have gotten his hands into this time. Over the past decade, Shrigley’s recognizably offbeat scribbles, graphic designs and photographs have been displayed in countless fine art shows, turned into songs by David Byrne, Liars and Grizzly Bear, and published in numerous books and collections such as Ants Have Sex in Your Beer, Kill Your Pets and Blank Page and Other Pages. His latest, What The Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley (Canongate Books), is a unique celebration of modern day trials and tribulations, and Shrigley’s uncanny knack to confront these issues with an insightful and often hysterical mixture of unrefined doodles and sometimes bizarre and profound narratives.

It could be argued that Shrigley’s impulse to lean towards the absurd has been with him ever since he was a “bit of a weirdo” growing up in the ’80s and doing the “normal things” like listening to The Smiths, having unrequited relationships with girls, trying to smoke dope, and on occasion, explaining to his mother why one of his chests of drawers in his room was filled with dirt from her garden.  His affinity for graffiti, vandalism and defacing unsanctioned spaces led him (probably to the relief of his mom) to Glasgow School of Art where he majored in “environmental art,” in the hopes of making works outside the gallery space. He quickly realized that what he thought would be an education involving a punk rock ideology involved projects for the city council like making concrete cows in playgrounds and creating an open dialogue with the local city officials. Needless to say, he did not give the valedictorian speech the year he graduated.

However, this is not to say that a graduation speech by Shrigley would not be a sight to behold. Quite possibly one of his greatest attributes as an artist is his gift for leaving enough room in his work for individual viewers to create their own personal meaning with each piece. Stick figures contemplate the nature of death, livestock question their owners and two bunnies have conversations where one says, “There is a land not far away from here where rabbits live in harmony with all other creatures.” The response of the second bunny? “That’s a load of shit and you know it.” The illustrations are presented in the most economical way imaginable; however, they carry a depth and grace that rivals the most sophisticated brush stroke.

I’m thinking of this when the phone rings and he is back on the other line. When asked about his approach to his work as a storyteller, Shrigley (whose hands were covered in wax because he was making a sword to be cast in bronze) says, “I try to not say too much. I don’t think anyone ever says, ‘Don’t be succinct. Please, just be as verbose as humanly possible.’ I think it is a craft to have that economy. The story is told inside a viewer’s head.”

For the next 30 minutes the conversation meanders between seals that live by the bay in San Francisco, how in the art world “neurosis is cool, but we all know that neurotic people in the real world are a pain in the ass,” and his editing process.

A snippet of the discussion…

What are you obsessed with today?
I’ve got this new book coming out and my publicist has made me do lots of things like Twitter.

What do you tweet?
Well, I suppose that is the eternal question, ‘What does one tweet?’

To tweet or not to tweet?
Yeah, but I have no choice, because I have a product to sell. I upload pictures and talk about them. Tweets are very short missives. It’s kind of like a diary. Someone might ask me if I could do a cover for a magazine. And I might ask, ‘Can I do whatever I want?’ They say, ‘Yes,’ but obviously they would never print what I send.

Like a big penis talking to a trampoline?
Yeah, or like, ‘This magazine is crap.’ It troubles me slightly, because there is a real vanity element to it. But I’ve been instructed to do one tweet a day, and one interesting tweet a day is better than 25 less interesting tweets. No one wants to know what I’ve been eating unless I’ve been eating something interesting, like human flesh or something.

When asked what might keep him going for the next few decades, a wax-free Shrigley laughs and says, “You have to make it mysterious for yourself; otherwise there is really no point in doing it. My criterion is that I always do something that frightens me a bit. Part of the luxury and real privilege, is the fact that I can surprise myself. If I do repeat myself it is because I have a bad memory.”

– Patrick Knowles