David Shrigley’s deliberately rudimentary drawings of strange animals, misfits, freaks and the socially awkward, attempting to interact with the banalities of modern life drip with mordant humour from the pages of national newspapers, magazines and from greetings cards and tee shirts. But unlike the kinds of slackers he often depicts, Shrigley has a prodigious work rate. Though he doesn’t usually start work until late in the afternoon, sometimes he will create as many as 50 drawings in a single session.
He’s currently the subject of a retrospective Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery at London’s Southbank which runs until May 13 and includes drawings new and old as well as his lesser well known sculptural pieces. Shrigley completed an art and design foundation course at Leicester Polytechnic in 1987 and then studied Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art from 1988 to 1991. He works in various media including sculpture, music and the spoken word. He directed the video for Blur's Good Song and also for Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Agnes, Queen of Sorrow. The 2007 album Worried Noodles saw musicians including Hot Chip, David Byrne and Franz Ferdinand, interpret his writings as lyrics. Here, in his own words is what goes into a typical working day.
“When I left art school I got up every morning with a burning ambition to make a body of work. I never intended to be here in the Hayward by this point but I knew I had a lot to say. I knew I was creative and the best or only way to get that out was to do these drawings. I consider myself a fine artist. It wouldn’t matter to me if I never did another tee shirt or greetings card. Fine artist is what’s written on my tax return form.
Ideally I would get up at half–past nine everyday. That would be my natural waking time. But a natural waking time is dependent on what one has done the night before. Drinking large quantities of alcohol in my experience does not facilitate early rising. I go to a yoga class twice a week which necessitates getting up at half-past-eight which is quite a struggle. But the consequence of staying in bed is that I miss the lesson - bad because I’m a six feet five tall artist with a back problem. The yoga is Hatha Vinyasa so it’s quite physical, boot camp yoga.
After yoga, I try and do an hour of internet catching up, answering emails then I look at the news on the internet and listen to the radio. I don’t feel like I’m being a creative person at this point but then maybe I am. I listen to Radio Four if I’m feeling good about football I listen to Five Live. I used to play football and now go and watch Partick Thistle, my local team, in Glasgow. I went to see them away at Hamilton last Saturday, last kick of the ball Hamilton scored. ‘Fucking hell.’ Freezing cold, worst game you’ve ever seen in your life. On the train back everybody: ‘Fucking hell! Fucking hell man! Fucking fuck!’ It’s the hope that kills you.
If I’m fed up with football I listen to Radio Four. Woman’s Hour is ten ‘til eleven. My grandmother used to listen to it and I find it very comforting – when they’re not talking about some form of cancer. I subscribe to the New Statesman so that’s always on the kitchen table. I tend not to read the interviews with politicians cos I hate them. They can never speak their minds it’s just about winning a debate. It’s just boring, meaningless, vapid, banal soundbites.
Then I have a power nap. I don’t feel guilty about it, I think its eminently sensible – though I do feel sheepish about it if my wife is in the house. If she goes out I try to be back at my desk before she reappears. Then I get up and have some green tea. Come about half-past three I start to do something creative. That’s the start of my working day.
I find it much more effective to work at the back end of the day. There’s a certain time when my mind starts to work, a time when I can think around things and feel creative and it’s never before four in the afternoon, sometimes even seven. Then I’ll work ‘til midnight. Often the best things get done between nine and midnight.
I have a big fancy drawing board and I sit in front of that and draw. I start off working for the sake of working, almost randomly. I just draw and write things down just for the sake of it, and it’s not until several hours later that these things start to make sense. I make a large number of drawings and discard around 75 per cent. If I’m working hard I might do 30 or 40 drawings in a day. They’re all completely different. I only do anything once. That’s the rules. I always work on a standard paper size. The drawings I’ve done for the Hayward Gallery show are quite big, acrylic on paper. I could only do 15 of those in a day. I could make about 50 of the smaller ones if I’m working really hard and really late.
I usually write a list of things to draw – a big, long list. If I want to make 50 works there are 50 things to draw. I write a list sometimes weeks before. I just look through books, the internet and just write something down. The starting point is usually ‘man being mauled by a lion’ or something. Sometimes I won’t draw it literally or it’s a text thing but that’s it started. I can fill 50 sheets of paper and once they’re done I’ll go back and add some images to text or text to image. It’s quite a regimented way to work. Sometimes the lion becomes a dog or a horse. ‘Man being mauled by a horse!’ The simple thing I’ve learned over the years is just to have a starting point and once you have a starting point the work seems to make itself.
I find it difficult to empathise with people who say they really like my work. I don’t even know what they’re talking about. Obviously I appreciate the fact that people like it because it facilitates me carrying on doing it so that’s great, but I don’t think too hard about other people’s reactions to it cos it’s not very helpful. I guess the hard part is having to do it. In the sense that you have to work 8 hours a day, six days a week and you have to do that in order to meet the demands that are made of you and you only have one day off, and you can’t just roll a joint and do whatever you like. But that’s part of it. Anything worth doing is hard work at some point. It’s exhausting in that I’m using just one part of my brain. But as I get older I get more efficient at getting to the point where I know the good stuff is made. When I get ‘in the zone’, as it were, things start happening. It’s almost like being on drugs and it takes a while to snap out of it.
I’m a bit obsessive compulsive and I do weird things. Like, if I did 51 drawings that would be a big problem so it has to be 50 or 52. So I end up staying up ‘til half past one doing 62 drawings because another drawing worked and that made it 53.There’s a slight madness to it. Which probably isn’t that uncommon. It’s not like I’ve taken peyote and I’m communicating with the spirits. I’m sure there’s something very straightforward that’s going on in terms of brain activity. Sometimes you can over think things. The initial part of working is just getting rid of all the thinking, maybe. Once you’re completely relaxed you’re able to make tangential associations between things.
I’m not a clever person. I went to art school. It taught me what I was good at and not good at. Stained-glass windows wasn’t the way to go. I think when I was at art school I started to have a voice if I can put it as tritely as that. Somehow you gain a personality. I was 22 when I graduated having been in education since the age of five. If you’re just a middle class kid from the suburbs of nowhere in particular you don’t really have a lot of life experience. There were no significant events in my life, no challenge in my sexuality, nothing terrible befell me.
I teach on a fairly regular basis. You meet people who are making art about something. You meet a student who’s gay or has a different ethnicity and they’re making work about those experiences or they’ve been pregnant and had an abortion and I sort of think well, I can understand you making work about having an abusive parent or some other life experience, which I haven’t had. But I’m not interested in the subject matter, I’m interested in the art. You can’t just make art as a statement of something that’s happened to you because in my view that’s just autobiography - it’s not really art.
The people who know me well don’t say very much about my work, to be honest. Most of my friends are artists and it’s inappropriate to comment unless they need some criticism. You just tend to say, ‘That was a good show’ or ‘Well done on winning the Turner Prize!’ I have no idea really what my parents think about my work. I think they’re impressed that other people like it, and I can make a living and not have to have a job. They’re of a generation where you went to college, and studied, and passed your exams, and got a good job. I’m sure if I worked for the MOD ordering weapons they’d say, ‘Oh well, you know, it’s a good job. Someone’s got to do it. Clever lad.’ Even though they’re Christians, they do seem to have a morality bypass when it comes to the sharp end of capitalism! Which is perhaps being unfair. Likewise, my work is incredibly perverse and they seem happy to overlook that.
I’m close to my sister and she’s like, ‘You’re a strange one aren’t you? But well done anyway.’ My wife doesn’t pass comment that much apart from ‘Well done’. As a professional, mature adult you have to be your own critic, and you listen to all criticism that comes your way, but ultimately you have to pursue your own vision and be diligent and self-critical about it. It’s important to take on everybody else’s opinion, it’s a privilege, but ultimately at a certain point you have to have the motivation to do it.
After I’ve finished work I tend to go and watch crap telly. I go and have some camomile tea and toast, something that’ll make me sleepy. We have Sky+ so we have a conduit to all the crap TV anyone could ever want. There are all sorts of these series that are a bit like CSI but they’re not CSI. I can’t even remember them, they just wash over me. They’re some sort of balm. Your brain is like a computer and you just need to shut it down for a while and switch it back on again, otherwise it doesn’t function properly.
It takes a good hour-and-a-half to wind down properly. I was listening to that Raj Persaud guy, he said the best way to prepare for sleep is to go to bed and lie there preparing for sleep. Obviously I don’t like going to bed thinking I’m just going to lie there for an hour. But it’s good to think that you are preparing for sleep rather than trying to sleep. It stops me getting a bit frantic about it being two o’clock and that I’ve got yoga in the morning.”
Buy tickets for Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery. David Shrigley is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, the Yvon Lambert Gallery, and Anton Kern Gallery. You can buy Shrigley postcards at Polite.